I admit it: I love this geeky science stuff. By understanding the “how’s” and “why’s” of what we do in the gym, exercises take on an entirely new meaning and an entirely new world of possibilities opens up before us.
One of the most basic, yet important areas to understand is biomechanics and kinesiology, which is the study of how we move. The first thing that we learn about in any biomechanics class is what we call the “Cardinal Planes of Movement.” These three primary planes, the sagittal (straight out in front or behind the body, like a front delt raise), frontal (out to the sides, like a dumbbell lat raise) and transverse plane (rotation around the center, like a Russian twist) make it possible for kinesiologists (people that study human movement) to break down all of the movements that we are capable of producing in sports and everyday activities alike. From an uppercut in boxing, the breast stroke in swimming, or the swing of a baseball bat, biomechanics is the language of our body and exercise.
Most movements, however, don’t actually occur in only one plane, but are usually a combination of two or even all three of these planes. So why is this important? Take a good look at almost any traditional exercise, and you’ll quickly realize that they only train in the sagittal plane. Squats? Sagittal. Deadlifts? Sagittal. Bench press? Sagittal. Rows? You get the picture! It becomes obvious that most of us have a major imbalance in the up/down, forward/back motions from most gym equipment and exercises in our routines. Even most cardio exercises, such as the bike, stair climber and treadmill use mainly the sagittal plane.
To take this one step further, because we rarely if ever exercise in the frontal or transverse planes against a resistance, we are not prepared for the sudden, lateral movements which are part of most recreational sports, nor are we conditioned for the rotational component of most sports, either. Skiing and racquet sports are excellent examples of how we require the ability to control lateral movements, and anything from the aforementioned swing of a baseball bat or boxing uppercut uses strong rotational forces to produce power. Even in less obvious activities such as jogging, we must stabilize the rotational component of our hips and pelvis as we cycle through our strides to move efficiently and properly. Without adding these aspects of movement into our workouts, we risk decreased performance and an increase in injuries.
So how do we correct this and become more balanced in our workouts? It’s actually a lot simpler than you might think: By moving out of the standard bilateral exercise “trap” (using both arms or both legs at the same time), we are forced to stabilize ourselves not only in one direction (front and back in the sagittal plane), but from side to side in the frontal plane, too. Adding a rotational component to many standard exercises, such as at the end of a lunge or standing overhead press, will force us to control our bodies dynamically in the transverse plane, too, and will also add a diagonal component to our movement as well. Throw in a standing Russian twist with a pulley, or a lateral medicine ball toss against a wall, and now you’ve got a complete and total workout.
This doesn’t mean that we should get rid of those squats, deadlifts and all the other tried-and-true gym exercises; rather, by being aware of our biomechanics and using these techniques as part of our total workouts, we can produce better, more complete results in the gym. Did I mention that love this geeky science stuff?