Freelap Friday Five with Michelle Boland
Michelle Boland is a strength and conditioning coach at a Division I university in Boston, MA. She is the owner of Michelle Boland Training, and is an in-demand writer and speaker in the field of human performance. Michelle earned her Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from Springfield College. She is a leader in the integration of Postural Restoration Institute® based concepts into practical sports performance application.
Freelap USA: What are some factors that make rotational movement effective versus ineffective? In this vein, what are some common “core” exercises that have limited value for athletes?
Michelle Boland: Just like everything else, when quality is lost, the activity becomes ineffective. I think that rotational movements become effective with frontal plane control. Once frontal plane control is established, then you can gain rotational mechanics.
For example, during a front-to-back asymmetrical staggered (split) stance position medicine ball rotational throw, have the athlete sense that their weight is shifted over their front leg and hold the medicine ball to the outside of their front leg. Instruct them to exhale and bring their front leg hip to the ipsilateral shoulder and feel their ipsilateral ribs move down, back, and in. Ask what they feel. If they feel the front leg adductor, hamstring, abs—awesome! (If they don’t, you will need to reposition and coach them up). Once they have established competency in the frontal plane, they can create rotational power effectively.Once athletes establish competency in the front plane, they can create rotational power effectively. Click To Tweet
Rotational power comes from learning how to shift over a leg and to a side (pelvis rotation), and the ability to rotate on top of that without taking the pelvis with you. Rotational power effectiveness comes from being able to dissociate/separate a thorax from a pelvis, which allows you to transfer force during acceleration and change of direction.
Common “core” exercises that have limited value for athletes are crunches or sit-ups (whatever you want to call them), loaded side bending, and various rectus abdominis isolation activities. Honestly, bad coaching can turn anything into a low-value activity. Every coach needs to make sure that their concepts and approach in the activities that they select match their athlete’s goals.
In relation to rotational power, I would focus on being able to feel an ab wall with rotation. To me, “core” exercises involve athletes finding and feeling their hamstrings and abs in different positions. This coincides with being able to exhale. Why? The amount of air inside the thorax relates to the ability of your athlete to rotate their thorax.
Freelap USA: What is your take on usage and balance of unilateral versus bilateral sagittal plane strength movement for athletes?
Michelle Boland: I tend to use unilateral or asymmetrical movements within the health end of the health versus performance continuum. (Want to know more? Read this article on “7 Key Programming Variables.”) I may program assisted single-leg sagittal plane dominated exercises, but very rarely. I use asymmetrical movements more as sensory-based activities that require more awareness, learning, and coaching, and are low-load activities. I usually utilize asymmetrical movements (front to back or lateral staggered stance) for a frontal or transverse plane focused activity.
For example, a split squat exercisecan have a frontal plane focus at the pelvis by creating a seesaw action at the hip and putting the athlete in a position to feel their adductor working (on the front leg). You can also add a transverse plane focus by adding a contralateral arm reach, which is rotating a thorax over a pelvis. (See above answer: An example would be the Low-Cable Ipsilateral Row & Reach Split Squat.) Overall, I think I tend to have enough sagittal plane focused exercises that I really like to be creative with asymmetrical movements to add other planes of movement.
Asymmetrical movements are focused on teaching athletes to transition from leg to leg/side to side and the ability to shift their weight laterally over a leg. This is important for all athletes and the best way to teach this is to slow them down. Have athletes sense what muscles are working and create awareness relating to transitioning. This won’t be accomplished under high load and motor-based/strength-focused activities.Trainers tend to overdo max strength sagittal plane movements in the sports performance field. Click To Tweet
Bilateral sagittal plane strength movements are the typical squat, bench, and trap bar deadlift for me. The squat can be anything like a 1-kettlebell, 2-kettlebell, Keiser, front, or spider bar (combines cambered bar and safety bar) squat. I like to program the squat with options for people to choose from. These exercises are typically dominated by strength, but you can add a tempo (timed duration of movement) and reduce the load to allow for the athlete to find and feel sagittal plane muscles during the movement.
Trainers tend to overdo max strength sagittal plane movements in the sports performance field. If you are doing both unilateral and bilateral strength-based exercises, how are you adding in frontal or transverse plane movement competency? Is strength the only variable that matters?
Freelap USA: What is your approach to incorporating breathing modalities within a training session for athletes? Is it individualized, and what is the timing of the breathing work in respect to the session?
Michelle Boland: Breathing modalities are incorporated within various activities during a training session. The greatest factor is creating buy-in, which comes from the amount of time you spend with an athlete. I coach in a team setting, so if the higher classmen believe in what I do, so will the lower classmen. When you create respectful relationships with athletes by being able to explain what you are trying to do in relation to their goals, and they experience a change (performance or discomfort/pain), that will create buy-in.
I personally do not like to lay people on the ground for breathing modalities. I like to get athletes on their feet and still incorporate breathing into the activities I select. However, I currently have a group of six freshmen that need to learn the concepts I use within the activities I select. The first thing they need to learn is what they feel while they inhale and exhale.
When I have a group of new athletes, I have them lay on the floor in a supine, hook-lying (feet flat on ground, knees bent) position while reaching their arms to the ceiling. I ask them to take a light, silent inhale through their nose, then a soft, long exhale through their mouth, and then pause. My goal is to have the athlete feel their ribs move down, back, and in during the exhale while feeling their “side” abs, then keep that during the pause and soft inhale. I ask the athlete if they feel their ribs moving down and I ask them how their pelvis moved while they exhaled.
I want the athlete to tell me what they are feeling to create awareness and to be able to carry that feeling and experience over to another activity. The goal is for the athlete to feel their pelvis come underneath them, and feel their ribs move down, back, and in while their low back is flat on the ground. I then ask them what they feel while reaching their arms to the ceiling. Hopefully, they feel their chin move back (cervical lordosis).
I then use the term “cylinder” to explain their rib and pelvis position. I utilize this term and the cues from the supine reach activity to carry over concepts for activities such as squatting, benching, and deadlifting. I try to utilize the sensation of ribs moving and feeling abs during an exhale to set a position and inhale keeping that position while performing, say, a strength-based exercise.During a training session, it is usually one person and one experience at a time. Click To Tweet
I have also been exploring and taking an athlete’s infra-sternal angle into consideration when prescribing breathing techniques. (Want to know more? Read “Breathing Mechanics 101 Preview.”) Assessing an athlete’s infra-sternal angle has been a good tool to individualize breathing modalities and positions. The group of freshmen I currently have all have narrow infra-sternal angles into which I incorporate horizontal reaching (arms) positions as well.
During a training session, it is usually one person and one experience at a time. If I think an athlete needs to slow down or needs more attention, I will focus on their breathing technique more. I mostly incorporate breathing into sensory-based activities.
Freelap USA: How do you approach frontal plane training in a group setting where various athletes may have different levels of access to their frontal plane?
Michelle Boland: One person, one experience at a time. When a new activity is presented during a group session, I make sure not to give too many cues. I try to emphasize one to two cues for a new exercise. While athletes perform the exercise, I try to add more detail for a few of them. With more weeks and sessions performing an exercise, I add more cues and emphasize different cues for different athletes. It’s just about layering. Some athletes get things very quickly, while you just need to spend more time and find different cues for others.
If a few athletes are not successful in the exercise you programmed, maybe that is the wrong activity for them. In a group setting, you frequently have to make those decisions and changes during the session. For frontal plane activities, I would just slow people down and ask them what they are feeling, or possibly choose a different exercise or position for an individual athlete.Slow athletes down & have them sense their frontal plane muscles working during a position/activity. Click To Tweet
The best recommendation I would give is to slow athletes down and have them sense their frontal plane muscles working in a position or during an activity. They need to feel their frontal plane muscles in order to create connections to other activities and sense that they are using the muscles that are supposed to be utilized in a specific plane of movement.
Freelap USA: What are some ways you build proper athletic pronation of the foot, and why is it important?
Michelle Boland: I focus on pronation of the foot mostly during lateral, asymmetrical stance activities. For example, I frequently program a lateral, asymmetrical stance cable row and contralateral arm reach. The athlete stands in a lateral stance and shifts their weight over one leg to center themselves on that leg (it becomes the stance leg) and they hold the cable with the ipsilateral arm. Once the athlete can feel their stance leg adductor, hamstring, and ipsilateral abs, they row the cable and reach with the contralateral arm. An important cue I give during that activity is to push themselves over with the arch of the foot that is outside of their base of support.
Finding their arch drives pronation of that foot and the ability to push themselves to their other leg/side. This is an important concept for being able to transition from one leg to another during activities such as gait (running and walking), skating, throwing a ball, or changing direction.Pronation allows for efficient push mechanics both laterally and during gait (athletic performance). Click To Tweet
I utilize the same cue during other activities such as a lateral asymmetrical-stance medicine ball throws or the slideboard. During a slideboard activity, I usually have the athlete pause at an end of the board, center themselves over the outside leg, and then push through the arch of their foot to push themselves to the other side. Pronation allows you to have efficient push mechanics both laterally and during gait; aka during athletic performance.