Is 'Rotation Training' Hurting Your Performance? a.k.a. "Is Rotation Even A Good Idea"
Michael Boyle MA, ATC
Many athletes and trainers are using 'rotational flexibility' exercises in
their programs - but is it really helping performance or could it be the cause
of more injuries?
Over the past decade training has clearly moved from a sagittal plane
orientation to an emphasis on unilateral training and multi-planar training.
Part of this process, particularly for athletes, has been a push toward
developing flexibility in rotation. Any athlete competing in a sport that
required rotation, like baseball, hockey or golf, was blindly urged to develop
more flexibility in rotation. Like many performance coaches, I fell victim to
this same flawed concept. I was one of the lemmings that I dislike so much,
blindly following the recommendations of others and using exercises that I would
now consider questionable or dangerous. Interestingly enough, as a back pain
sufferer, I simply wrote off my discomfort as age-related and continued to
perform rotary stretches and dynamic warm-up exercises.
Reading the work of physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann made me reconsider my
position and eventually eliminate a whole group of stretches and dynamic warm-up
exercises that were once staples of our programs. Sahrmann in her book
Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, states "during
most daily activities, the primary role of the abdominal muscles is to provide
isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk…A large
percentage of low back problems occur because the abdominal muscles are not
maintaining tight control over the rotation between the pelvis and the spine at
the L5- S1 level. " (2002 p.71) The lumbar range of motion that many personal
trainers and coaches have attempted to create may not even be desirable and is
probably potentially injurious.
The ability to resist or to prevent rotation may in fact be more important
than the ability to create it. Clients or athletes must be able to prevent
rotation before we should allow them to produce it. Porterfield and DeRosa in
another excellent book, Mechanical Low Back Pain, come to the same
conclusion as Sahrmann. Porterfield and DeRosa state "Rather than considering
the abdominals as flexors and rotators of the trunk- for which they certainly
have the capacity- their function might be better viewed as antirotators and
antilateral flexors of the trunk." (Porterfield and Derosa, WB Saunders 1998,
p99) Sahrmann goes on to note a key fact that I believe has been overlooked in
the performance field. "The overall range of lumbar rotation is ...approx 13
degrees. The rotation between each segment from T10 to L5 is 2 degrees. The
greatest rotational range is between L5 and S1, which is 5 degrees…The thoracic
spine, not the lumbar spine should be the site of greatest amount of rotation of
the trunk… when an individual practices rotational exercises, he or she should
be instructed to "think about the motion occurring in the area of the chest" "
Sahrmann places the final icing on the cake with these statements; "Rotation
of the lumbar spine is more dangerous than beneficial and rotation of the pelvis
and lower extremities to one side while the trunk remains stable or is rotated
to the other side is particularly dangerous." (see figures 1+2) (Sahrmann p. 72)
Interestingly enough Sahrmann agrees with the conclusions of Barry Ross. Ross
recommended primarily isometric abdominal training for his sprinters. Sahrmann
concurs; "During most activities, the primary role of the abdominal muscles is
to provide isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk
which, as discussed, is limited in the lumbar spine." (Sahrmann p 70) Most
importantly, what does all this mean? For me it means that I have eliminated the
following stretches that attempt to increase lumbar range of motion. This
includes Seated Trunk Rotational Stretches (Fig 1) and Lying Trunk Rotational
Stretches (Fig 2).
I have also eliminated dynamic exercises designed to increase trunk range of
motion such as Dynamic Bent Leg Trunk Twists (Fig 3), Dynamic Straight Leg Truck
Twist (Fig 4), and Scorpion (Fig 5).
My conclusion. Most people don't need additional trunk range of motion. The
evidence from the experts seems to be clear that what we really need is to be
able to control the range that we have. Although this may seem extreme to some,
I have seen a significant decrease in the complaints of low back pain since
eliminating these exercises. In fact, a great deal of our emphasis is now placed
on developing hip range of motion in both internal and external rotation. I
think the future will see coaches working on core stability and hip mobility
instead of working against themselves by simultaneously trying to develop core
range of motion and core stability.
Porterfield and DeRosa- Mechanical Low Back Pain, WB Saunders 1998,
Sahrmann, Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, Mosby