We all know that folks don't tend to do well in terms of health, movement quality, or performance when they spend their entire lives in the sagittal plane. They aren't as well prepared for life's surprises (e.g., slipping on the ice) or life's challenges (beer league softball fly balls to the gap). They often lack adductor length and have poor hip rotation, and compensate with injurious movement compensation strategies at the knee and lower back. This knowledge gave rise to a central tenet of the functional training era: multi-planar training.
Unfortunately, it's just just as simple as telling folks to train in all three planes, as there is a progression one must go through to stay healthy while reaping the benefits of these new exercises. I thought I'd outline my start-to-finish progression strategy.
1. Single-leg Exercises
To the naked eye, lunges, split squats, and step-ups are sagittal plane exercises. However, what you have to appreciate is that while you're training in the sagittal plane, you're actually doing a lot of stabilization in the frontal and transverse planes. It's important that you master these drills in the sagittal plane before you start experimenting with strength work in the frontal and transverse planes.
Progressions from basic dumbbell-at-the-side movements would be to raise the center of mass by using barbells or holding weights overhead. You could also wrap a band around the lower thigh and pull the knee into adduction and internal rotation to increase the challenge in the frontal and transverse planes.
2. Alternating Lateral Lunge with Overhead Reach
At the most basic level, you can work unloaded lateral lunge variations into your warm-up. They might be in place, or alternating. As soon as folks can handle them, though, I like to progress to including an overhead reach in order to challenge anterior core stability and raise the center of mass up away from the base of support a bit. This also gives folks a chance to work on their shoulder mobility and scapulohumeral rhythm.
For more variety on the warm-up front, check out the Assess and Correct DVD set; there are over 75 drills in there to take your mobility to a new level.
3. Plate-Loaded Slideboard Lateral Lunge
I like this as a starter progression because the plate out in front serves as a great counterbalance to allow folks to work on their hip hinge. Plus, there isn't a big deceleration challenge on the leg that's going through the most abduction range of motion; rather, the load is predominantly on the fixed leg, which is resisting excessive adduction (knee in).
Worthy of note: I never load this beyond 10 pounds, as folks tend to become kyphotic if the counterbalance is too heavy. You're better off loading with #3...
3. Dumbbell or Kettlebell Goblet Slideboard Lateral Lunge
By keeping the weight closer to the axis of rotation (hips) and minimizing the load the arms have to take on, we can load this up a bit without unfavorable compensations.
4. 1-arm Kettlebell Slideboard Lateral Lunges
This exercise builds on our previous example by adding an element of rotary stability. You'd hold it in the rack position (or go bottoms-up, if you want variety and an increased stability challenge at the shoulder girdle). I've tried this with the KB held on both sides, and it's a trivial difference in terms of the challenge created - so you can just use rotate them for variety.
5. Dumbbell (or Kettlebell) Goblet Lateral Lunge
You can load this sucker up pretty well once you're good at it. Just be cognizant of not getting too rounded over at the upper back.
6. In-Place Lateral Lunge with Band Overload
This is variation that we've just started implementing. The band increases eccentric overload in the frontal (and, to a lesser degree, transverse) plane, effectively pulling you "into" the hip. You have to fight against excessive adduction and internal rotation, and then "get out" of the hip against resistance. This is something every athlete encounters, whether it's in rotational power development or basic change-of-direction work.
As an added bonus, using a band actually provides an accommodating resistance scenario. Assuming the partner stays in the same position throughout the drill, the tension on the band is lightest when you're the weakest, and it's more challenging where you're stronger.
7. Side Sled Drags
Side sled drags are a great option for integrating some work outside the sagittal plane for folks who either a) aren't coordinated enough for lateral lunge variations or b) have some knee or hip issues that don't handle deceleration stress well. As you can see, the exercise is pretty much purely concentric. We'll usually use it as a third exercise on a lower body strength training day - and as you can see, it can offer some metabolic conditioning benefits as well.
Keep in mind that these are just strength development progressions; we use a different collection of exercises for training power in comparable positions. In our more advanced athletes, these drills will take place toward the end of a lower body training session - after we've already trained for strength in the sagittal plane, where we can load folks up better. That said, if an individual is new to lateral lunge variations, you may want to introduce them early on in the strength training session when they're fresh.
Have some fun with these exercise variations; I think you'll find them to be challenging in ways you haven't previously experienced. And, the soreness you'll experience will be all the proof you need!
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