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Essential Pillar Strength (Part 1)

Great pillar strength can make a good athlete great, or a great athlete good when it is lacking. This is also what can allow us to break through plateaus in our own training. Those at Athletes’ Performance have coined the term “pillar” to represent what many others refer to as the “core.” I prefer pillar, as it alludes to the true function of the trunk musculature.

Grey Cook may have come up with the best analogy when he stated “you cannot fire a cannon from a canoe.” A stable foundation or pillar is needed to move, function and perform as efficiently/effectively as possible. When the human foundation is unstable, much like a canoe, functional movement is made increasingly difficult.

Now before you go and begin performing thousands of crunches and sit ups, let’s discuss the pillar’s true function. As the foundation of movement, the trunk musculature must be able to control the forces generated by the extremities, as well as those that act upon the body. A sprinter can have the most powerful hip extension in the world, however if his/her spine cannot control these forces during acceleration an energy leak is created, and the incredible hip extension that this sprinter has worked so hard on is wasted.

In the case of this sprinter, an energy leak at the spine is created as the lordotic lumbar curve becomes excessive with a subsequent anterior pelvic tilt. With this athlete, the spinal flexors are not sufficiently functioning isometrically to counteract the hip extensor force. Therefore the energy produced by the lower extremities is not fully transferred throughout the body with acceleration.

The previous example is of sagittal plane movement however pillar stability/strength is equally important in the frontal, rotational and a combination of planes. Imagine a right handed baseball pitcher as he drives off the mound with his right leg onto his left foot. A great amount of rotational torque is created, which his pillar must control allowing the force generated from his right leg by pushing off the rubber to be translated into his throwing hand.

This athlete must rotate through his trunk to achieve maximum velocity with his pitch, and therefore must control eccentric, as well as generate concentric force. When this is not effectively and efficiently achieved, an energy leak is created that decreases performance, as well as increases injury potential. These athletes are those that seem to “arm” the ball as they throw.

Transverse plane trunk control illustrated despite high amounts of lower body hip seperation and thoracic rotation. Just to name a couple!

Frontal plane strength/stability also remains an essential part of performance and therefore must be addressed in training programs, however it has received a great deal of attention in the rehabilitation field. Much of this is due to the high prevalence of ACL injuries, specifically within the youth population. This illustrates the importance of factors such as; gluteal activation, appropriate femoral control and single leg stability, however frontal plane pillar strength is often ignored.

The trunk musculature in conjunction to previously mentioned factors must be able to maintain the pelvis in a neutral position, preventing dysfunctions such as a trendelenburg sign during gait or running (contralateral hip drop in single leg stance). A variety of musculature such as the rectus abdominus, obliques (both internal and external), transverse abdominus and quadratus lumborum attach proximally within the trunk and affect pelvis position via the muscles distal attachments. When these muscles do not possess sufficient strength or a motor control dysfunction is present affecting timing of activation, the pelvis is not held stable. Therefore, as an athlete with these issues cuts or lands on one leg, the pelvis drops, resulting in femoral and tibial internal rotation, increasing the torque at the tibio-femoral joint and thus increasing stress on the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

Now that I live outside DC I had to include this. What dysfunctions could he have corrected to prevent this?

For these reasons, much of the rehabilitation that I perform with my athletes post-ACL reconstruction or as part of a prevention program with training has an increased focus on pillar strength/stability in the frontal plane.

Part 2 of Essential Pillar Strength will be aimed at increasing your ability to implement what has been discussed in Part 1 into your rehabilitation and/or training programs.

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