When we look for indicators of athleticism, we generally turn to tests such as a vertical jump or 40-yard dash time. These are definitely good standards to compare athletes against each other with, but another good indicator of overall athleticism is an athlete’s ability to move their limbs independently of one another, without excessive trunk movement. These are what many people call “smooth” or sneaky fast” runners – the athletes that pull away from their defenders even though they look effortless in their movement.
What is limb separation?
Limb separation is the ability of an athlete to stabilize their trunk, while simultaneously moving freely through their hips and shoulders. When an athlete does not stabilize their core properly, the prime movers of the hip and shoulder become overactive. The combination of this results in tightness of the hips and shoulders, and a decrease in power while moving.
Why is limb separation important?
There are two important benefits of improved limb separation:
- Increased power
- Increased efficiency
By now, we all know the equation for power (power = force x distance / time). To oversimplify things, if an athlete can move a limb through a greater range of motion with the same amount of force in the same amount of time, they will generate more power (imagine throwing a punch with only a six inch backswing, compared to big haymaker).
Athletes that move more freely through their limbs also “leak” less kinetic energy. When an athlete cannot move freely through their hips and shoulder, they must compensate by oscillating their pelvis and spine. These small, almost unnoticeable, oscillatings allows for some kinetic energy to dissipate in the body instead of traveling down the kinetic chain into the ground.
Efficiency of movement is often not discussed outside of the distance community, but plays a huge role in virtually all sports. An athlete that can use less energy to move equally as fast/far will be able to maintain their speed longer and be fresher than their competition in the final period.
Just as pelvic and spinal oscillatings “leak” power being put into the ground, they also “leak” free energy coming from the ground. During the flight phase of running, gravity accelerates the body down into the ground, allowing for free energy to be used by the body via the stretch shortening cycle. When the trunk is being stabilized, this energy is stored and used within the muscle, but when the trunk is oscillating, more of this energy is transferred into the joint and dissipated as heat.
How to improve limb separation
So, how do we improve limb separation? Before we dive into any training techniques, let’s first consider running mechanics. Most athletes have never been cued to run properly, and simply instructing them to drive their knees and arms, while stabilizing their trunk, will be enough to correct many problems with their gait.
If this is not enough, we can begin to consider mobility issues. Very few youth athletes lack the mobility to move through a full range of motion, but mobility may be an issue for older athletes.
Below are a few rolling exercises to relax overactive muscles:
A more likely cause of hip and shoulder tightness is poor stability of the trunk. As stated earlier, when the stabilizing muscles of the core do not function properly, the prime mover muscles of the hip and shoulder must kick in to help out. While this does stabilize the trunk, it is at the expensive of range of motion.
Below are a few of my favorite stability exercises to improve limb separation. All of these exercises can be completed for 8-12 reps on a side – focusing on proper posture, with minimal trunk movement: