Tornados are violently rotating columns of air capable of tossing cattle, destroying houses, and demolishing virtually anything in their paths. They're strong enough to obliterate large buildings, lift 20-ton railroad cars from their tracks, and drive blades of grass into telephone poles. They'll also muss up your hair big-time.
Where do tornados derive so much of their strength? Rotation! They spin, twirl, and twist their way through small towns wreaking havoc everywhere they go. If tornadoes only went up and down, left and right. or to-and-fro they wouldn't be nearly as daunting. In fact, if they didn't gyrate they wouldn't be anything more than a strong wind. It's their rotational power that makes them nature's most violent storms. Just think about kind of power you could achieve if your rotational ability were stronger. Do you think it would it affect how much weight you could lift in the gym? It most certainly would.
Anatomy of Rotation
Though there are many different muscles recruited for the job of trunk rotation. The top two heavy hitters are the oblique brothers – internal and external. Together they create the mean rotational ability of our trunk and lower torso. The internal oblique begins at the iliac crest and thoracolumbar fascia and inserts into the last four ribs (9-12) and the linea alba (Figure 1A).
This oblique has numerous functions one of which includes stabilization of the lumbar spine through its connection with the thoracolumbar fascia (for more on the role of thoracolumbar fascia and lumbar spine stability see Back Strong and Beltless. In addition to assisting with stability of the lumbar spine and pelvis, the internal obliques are considered ipsilateral rotators when our pelvis is anchored and contralateral rotators while our truck is anchored.
This is a difficult concept for many to grasp, so allow me to explain. When your upper body is free to move and your lower body is fixed (i.e. while standing or sitting), the direction you rotate uses that particular internal oblique (Figure 1B). For example, when you turn your body to the left, your left internal oblique would contract to pull you in that direction. Ipsilateral means "affecting the same side of the body," so if something is an ipsilateral rotator, it means whichever side you rotate to, a particular muscle contracts on that side. A contralateral rotator on the other hand means that whichever side you rotate to, a muscle on the opposite side will contract. Confused? Don't be. Read on and it should all come together.
Also helping with the job of rotation are the external obliques. Being the largest of the abdominal muscles per square inch, they have just as many roles as the internal obliques, if not more. Among their functions are, torso rotation, side flexion, pelvis stabilization and rib cage stabilization. The external obliques run from the external surfaces of the last 8 ribs to the anterior portion of the iliac crest and the aponeruosis of the anterior abdominal wall (Figure 2A). Whereas the fibers of the internal oblique go from our pelvis upward toward our rib cage, the fibers of the external obliques go from our sides downward toward our pelvis. In fact, when you put your hands into your front pants pockets, the direction of your hands and fingers run roughly the same direction the fibers of the external obliques. The internal obliques run almost perpendicular to them.
Because of the massive origin on the last 8 ribs, the external obliques serve to stabilize our ribcage during dynamic movement. How might this relate to you? If you participate in a combative sport such as boxing or martial arts, it's important to stabilize your rib cage when you take a punch or kick. For those of you that Olympic lift and perform the snatch, you too have a tremendous need to stabilize your rib cage. When you snatch a weight overhead, there's a tremendous load going through your arms into your shoulder girdle, which sits on your rib cage. If you can't adequately stabilize your ribs, the force being driven through your arms and shoulder girdle instead becomes dissipated into your spine! (Can you see the importance of having the rotational power of a tornado yet?)
Another function of the external obliques is to stabilize the pelvis, which will in turn help to stabilize the lumbar spine. In fact according to Kendall, because the external obliques can rotate the pelvis posteriorly, they act functionally as lower abdominal muscles. The inability to stabilize your pelvis may make you more susceptible to a lower extremity and/or back injury.
Last, but not least, both sets of obliques assist in side flexion.
Whereas the internal obliques are an ipsilateral rotator of the trunk while the pelvis is fixed, the external obliques act as a contralateral rotator of the trunk while the pelvis is fixed. Going back to the previous example: if you are sitting and rotate your upper body to the left, your right external oblique will contract (Figure 2B). Therefore rotation to the left while your pelvis is fixed is accomplished by the left internal oblique and right external oblique. Figure 3 may help you visualize this a bit more effectively.
Importance of Rotation
Both the internal and external obliques play an important role in stabilization of our pelvis and lumbar spine. Typically an unstable pelvis and lumbar spine are the weakest link in people and when we have a weak link in our body, we won't be able to lift as much weight as we're capable of lifting. As far as our body is concerned, when we're unstable, we're more likely to injure ourselves if we lift as much as we want. As an example, have you ever tried to set down a heavy object onto a weak table? Chances are that when you realized how unstable the table was, you removed the heavy object and put it elsewhere. Why? You decided the table might break and you didn't want it to hold the load. Our bodies are no different! If our brain realizes that we are unstable and that we might break if we go too far, it simply won't let us lift a certain load.
In fact, try this with a training buddy: Have him stick out his arm to the side and keep it there while you push it down. Now, have him draw his belly button inward toward his spine as far as possible and, while keeping the belly button inward, try to press his arm down again. If all went well, he was probably much stronger the second time. This is because the body senses a greater level of stability and allows you to use more muscle – you're able to use more of your strength because your body senses that you're stable and can handle it.
Increased strength via a more stable body is merely one reason we should train our obliques and rotational ability.
Next time you're walking, notice what your upper body does in relation to your lower body. To counteract the inertia of our leg during the swing phase of gait, your upper body rotates in the opposite direction so you can continue walking in a straight line. When our right leg comes forward, our upper body rotates left. Barring a injury or specific condition, if we're moving, chances are we're rotating!
If we rotate while walking, think about how the necessity to rotate increases when we're jogging or even sprinting. The importance of rotation is obvious for athletes. Some examples include people in combative sports (kicking, punching), golfers (swinging), baseball players (swinging, throwing), swimmers (constantly rotating during the crawl stroke), and the list goes on! Rotation is life, and if we can't rotate we're vastly deficient in a very important movement pattern.
Suffice it to say that functional training for our obliques isn't an option, it's a must! For injury prevention, low back stabilization, sports performance or increasing how much we can lift in the gym, we all would do well to develop that tornado-like rotational power that's so devastating in nature!
Just for a moment, think about the most feared and devastating Warner Bros. cartoon character during Bugs' era. I'll give you a hint, he was furry, drooled veraciously, grunted, had an insatiable appetite, and could rotate with blinding speed. Give up? Taz! That diminutive juggernaut, otherwise known as the Tazmanian Devil, wreaked havoc everywhere he went by destroying anything in his path. But take a good look at him. He has skinny arms and legs! Yet, when he starts spinning, everyone runs for cover. The moral of this story is, you can have the biggest arms or legs in the world but if you can't rotate, you'll be as weak as Porky Pig.
Exercises to Improve Rotational Strength
Most people don't incorporate rotational exercises into their training regimen. Therefore, I recommend starting slow to minimize your chance of injury. These first few exercises might seem mild by some people's standards, but again, if you're new to rotational exercises, it would be wise to start with these.
Gym and Swiss Ball Exercises
Swiss Ball Supine Russian Twist
Begin this exercise by lying supine on a Swiss Ball with your shoulders in the middle of the ball. Put your hands together out in front of your body and place your tongue on the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth. (If you're uncertain where to place your tongue, swallow and make note of where your tongue goes – that's the position.) Gently draw your belly button in and begin rotating you torso left to right, making sure you don't drop your hips.
Once performing 10-12 repetitions to each side becomes easy, you can make it more challenging by either speeding up the movement, placing a weight in your hands, or both.
Swiss Ball Prone Russian Twist
Whereas many oblique and rotational exercises are performed by rotating the upper torso, this variation on the Russian Twist rotates the lower torso. In doing so, the obliques will be used in a completely different recruitment pattern than upper torso rotation exercises.
Begin with your hands on the ground in a push up position and put your knees, with a 90° angle, on the apex of the ball. Draw your belly button in toward your spine while slowly dropping and rotating your knees to the left. When your legs become parallel to the ground, use your obliques to rotate your knees back to the starting position. Repeat this process on both sides for the desired number of reps or until your form begins to break down. While performing this exercise, make sure to maintain the same hip and knee angle you started the exercise with – do not straighten your legs out as you drop your knees to the side.
Once you have become adept at this exercise, you can make it more challenging by speeding up the tempo of movement.
Swiss Ball Oblique Crunch
Most of you have probably performed some type of oblique crunch from the floor, but until you have performed it on a Swiss Ball, you haven't been getting the most out of the exercise. In fact, Swiss Ball crunches are superior to most other types of crunches, but since this is a rotational article, I'll stick with the topic.
Roll back over a ball with your head touching the ball, but don't roll too far or you're liable to fall off. Put your tongue on the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth to stabilize your neck. Draw your belly button in and with your finger tips resting lightly on your ears, begin curling up from your head while simultaneous rotating to one side. Slowly reverse the curl until you've reached the starting position. You now have the option of curling to the same side or alternating sides until you've reached the desired number of reps.
Once this become easy, you can turbocharge the exercise by placing your arms above your head or by adding weight to the movement. If adding weight, be sure to anchor your feet with at least twice the weight you're using to prevent you from falling backward off the ball.
You can also perform this movement using a medicine ball and a partner – toss the ball to your partner as you crunch and rotate and have them toss it back to you as you're on the way back down to the starting position. The closer the ball is to the head, the less load there will be on the abdominals. Remember, start slow!
The wood chop is one of the most effective exercises for oblique conditioning that I know of! Begin standing next to a cable column apparatus with a single handle attachment. Reaching across your body, grab the handle with the hand furthest from the cable and then place your other hand over the first one. Keeping your arms straight with a slight bend in your elbows and knees, draw your belly button in and pull the cable diagonally across the body, finishing when the handle is just outside your opposite foot. Slowly return to the starting position and continue performing the movement for the desired number of repetitions.
While performing this exercise, be sure to keep good posture so your obliques are trained in a vertical axis. Lastly, try to keep the movement purely rotational with minimal flexion at the end of the movement. I also recommend shifting your weight from leg to leg while performing the exercise to integrate the upper and lower torso in a functional movement pattern. Once you have performed the desired number of repetitions on one side, perform the same number on the other side.
Try these exercises for a while and in Part II of this article, I'll show you more dynamic rotational exercises by incorporating the use of a medicine ball and my new Tornado Ball!