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Strength Training Programs: Integrating the Functional Back Line for Pelvic Stability and Performance Enhancement

Posted Oct 14 2011 9:24am

Today’s guest blog comes from former Cressey Performance intern Eric Oetter.  Eric was one of the best interns we’ve ever had, and writing like this is just one example of why.

In Thomas Myers’ groundbreaking work Anatomy Trains , several “lines” of fascially connected muscles are presented. Myers denoted these lines as “anatomy trains” (thus giving rise to the title of his now famous book). For those unfamiliar, fascia is a seemingly endless web of connective tissue, which envelops and unites the musculoskeletal, nervous, and circulatory systems of the body. Though manual therapists have treated the fascial system for centuries, Myers has played a pivotal role in introducing the concepts fascia and musculoskeletal tensegrity to the strength and conditioning community.

Tying the bottom of the foot to the scalp through fascial connections up the posterior surface of the body, the superficial back line remains the most referenced of Myers’ anatomy trains. While this line certainly has implications in extension (above the knee), propulsion, and full-body pronation, it’s far from being the only line yielding practical application and solutions for strength and conditioning coaches and movement therapists.

Patrick Ward wrote an excellent guest piece on Mike Robertson’s blog last year concerning the deep front line and its effect on diaphragm functionality. I’ll follow suit with some examples of how the functional back line can produce stability across the posterior lumbo-pelvic-femoral complex.

Functional Back Line Anatomy

Tying one humerus to the contralateral tibia, the two functional back lines take the following path across the dorsal surface of the body:

Shaft of humerus –> Latissimus dorsi –> Lumbodorsal fascia –> Sacral fascia –> Sacrum –> Gluteus maximus –> Shaft of femur –> Vastus lateralis –> Patella –> Subpatellar tendon –> Tuberosity of tibia

From behind, the lines look like a giant “X”, intersecting at the pelvis. The two key components in this discussion will be the latissimus dorsi and the glute max, as well as how their muscular actions can affect the sacro-illiac joint.

Sacro-Iliac Joint Stability: Form Closure vs. Force Closure

The sacro-illiac (SI) joint is comprised of the articulation between the illium and the sacrum and lies right in the middle of both functional back lines, deep to the lumbosacral fascia. Much like a crack in the sidewalk, the joint acts as a predetermined fracture to defer stress across the pelvis.

Viewed from the back, the SI joint resembles a key fitting into a lock– the grooves on either side of the posterior illium are congruous with the lateral sacrum. This “lock-and-key” structure can be described as an instance of form closure. Essentially, the innate stability of the joint is provided by bony approximation.

While form closure can create stability, it’s not truly authentic. For example, we can create stability in the lumbar spine by shearing it into extension and using bony approximation to prevent movement. I hope all reading agree that such a situation is less than ideal.

A superior option would be the force closure of a joint system. As opposed to form closure, where the morphology of the joint system creates stability, force closure entails the surrounding musculature dynamically stabilizing a joint by “pulling it tight”.

Relating to our previous example of the SI joint, imagine how much better it would be to stop relying solely on the ligaments that cross the joint andinstead employ the powerful glute max and lat, which cross superficially as part of the functional back line, as both become continuous with the lumbosacral fascia.

While using the functional back line to create force closure is useful in cases of general instability, it can be especially valuable in the instance of sacral torsion, where, as shown in the CT scan below, the sacrum rotates one way and creates strain on the contralateral tissues/ligaments as they are pulled taught.

Training this line in isolation can certainly provide benefit, but why not implement a big-bang strength exercise that integrates the entire line at once?

Here are two great examples of how to train the functional back line in a more dynamic fashion.

Split-Stance Low Cable Row

The split-stance low cable row provides an excellent presentation of shortening the functional line from both ends, thus force closing the SI joint. The latissimus dorsi aids in the horizontal pull while the contralateral glute max stabilizes the pelvis in the transverse plane to fight rotation. (Remember, any unilateral movement is inherently rotational.)

Coaching Cues:

  • Place the cable stack with a D-handle attachment at its lowest height.
  • Set up facing the stack with feet about hip width apart. Imagine that you’re standing on railroad tracks – when you take the step back to set up, the only movement should be in the sagittal plane.
  • Pack the chin, brace the core, and then flex the hips to the point that the torso is angled at about 45°. Put most of your weight through the outside of your up-foot heel.
  • Perform a row, holding at the top for a one count.

Potential Corrections:

  • Look for lumbar extension in two places – the initial set-up and as a substitution for scapular retraction. Think “neutral spine” throughout.
  • Scapular elevation and shoulder hyperextension are common compensation patterns during horizontal pulling. Think of rowing “back-and-down” and only to the point that the scapula gets to the thoracic spine.
  • Make sure that you or your client feels the front-leg hip musculature kick on to stabilize – if not, play with the set-up a little until those external rotators are contracted.

The split-stance low cable row can be a great horizontal-pull variation for any client, but especially for those experiencing lumbosacral instability. I’d recommend placing it as an accessory exercise on upper body days – 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps.

1-arm Cable Rotational Row

Serving as a progression to the split-stance low cable row described above, the cable rotational row is a fantastic movement to dynamically integrate the functional back line into a more advanced pulling variation with much greater demand placed on the glute max. I view this movement much like the horizontal pull version of a push-press – the lower body drives the action with the upper body coming along for the ride.

Coaching Cues:

  • Set up a few feet away and perpendicular to a cable stack with feet about a step outside of hip width. The D-handle should be about waste height.
  • Offset the feet so that the toes of the inside foot (closest to the stack) line up with the middle of the arch on the back foot. This positioning is crucial to maximize external rotation/abduction of the front hip.
  • Grab the D-handle and allow the load to pull you toward the cable stack. Maintain an erect torso and packed chin throughout. You’re allowed to let the back foot toes come up, but keep the front planted in position.
  • Once you’re facing the cable stack with arm outstretched, drive hard through the front heelto extend the front hip/knee while simultaneously pulling the D-handle across your torso.
  • Hold the end position – hip extended/abducted, scapula retracted, and eyes straight ahead – for a count of one before reversing the movement.

Potential Corrections:

  • I find some clients tend to lead the row with cervical rotation, finishing the movement looking away from the cable stack. These biomechanics are sub-optimal, so make sure to cue a packed chin.
  • Rowing from this position can prove awkward, as there is a tendency to try and row around your torso. Fight this urge by keeping the cable close to your body – it should be in contact with your shirt as you finish the row.
  • Achieving full hip extension on the front leg is a must – make sure the movement is initiated by driving the lateral heel into the ground almost as if you were going to step away from the stack.

The benefits of the rotational cable row are numerous, but two stick out in my mind. First, it drives a powerful and dynamic contraction of the functional back line, which as we’ve seen can have ramifications for pelvic/SI stability. Secondly, this variation has huge carryover for some of our rotary sport athletes who rely on the connection between shoulder and contralateral hip to develop force.

As mentioned above, use this as a progression to the split-stance low cable row or with some of your athletic clientele – think in the range of 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps per side.

Conclusion

The functional back lines can be powerful players in creating stability across a region of the body that demands it. In cases of lumbo-pelvic-femoral instability, utilization of these lines can be as crucial for correction as they are for performance enhancement.

I hope the two exercises described above help give some practical application for the functional back lines in action – let me know in the comments!

About the Author

Eric is currently a senior at the University of Georgia majoring in Exercise and Sport Science, with plans to pursue a Doctorate of Physical Therapy. After concluding a Division-1 football career at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Eric has ardently pursued his passion for coaching, garnering experience with clients of all ages and ability levels through internships at both Indianapolis Fitness & Sports Training and Cressey Performance. He can be reached at ecoetter@gmail.com.

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