Incorporating Horizontal Force Vectors in Training
When people do a resistance workout, what kind of exercises do you think of? Bench presses, dead lifts, squats, bicep curls, shoulder presses, push ups, sit ups, lat pulldowns, etc, right? What all these exercises have in common is the direction of force; whether you are pushing down or lifting up, you are operating on a vertical force vector. There are common exercises in the gym, like seated rows or a seated bench press, which may seem like you are operating on a horizontal force vector (and you kind of are), but the fact you have your feet or back braced against something means that functionally it is as if you are lifting the weight off the ground, utilising a vertical force vector.
Now perform a little thought experiment and try to think of what a typical day for our ancestors would have looked like, and also think about how the vast majority of athletes - outside of weightlifting - apply force in their sports. Of course, there is some lifting, but running, walking, kicking, throwing, punching, swinging are all predominantly used to apply force horizontally so that we can catch a deer, throw a spear, hit a ball a long way or get past an opponent.
In my previous blog post, I talked about how specific training needs to be to get desired results and to prevent injury. So if most of our movements in every day life or in sport are to propel ourselves or an object forwards, backwards, or sideways, should we not be spending the majority of our training practicing applying force in these directions? Does a typical workout factor this into it's regimen?
I am not saying that there is no place for lifting weights, especially for ordinary people to whom traditional weight training gives enormous benefits. But how relevant is it to those who need to be functionally fit for an activity? The answer is that it depends on the activity, but even then it is my opinion that weight training workouts with vertical force vectors should form a much smaller part of most athletes training regimes, and it would be good for ordinary people to incorporate them also. Let's go through some considerations for different sports.
I am no expert on the world of rugby, but this is one sport where you probably need a higher proportion of weight training using vertical force vectors than most. Not because the average player in a game of rugby applies most of the force he uses in a game vertically, but because they need a lot of muscle mass, and lifting weights is the best way to gain this mass. This muscle mass protects rugby players from the impacts of the sport.
So what proportion of their training needs to be utilising horizontal and vertical force vectors? I'll admit it is hard to know the perfect mix, all I am doing is asking the question.
Football (I suppose I should also say 'soccer' for my Aussie and American audience)
It would seem to me that traditional weight training is not very necessary for football; perhaps jumping might require some, and although it is an important aspect of the game, it is one among many. Even then though, jumping and heavy lifting are two totally different things. As an experiment, try jumping as high as you can on the spot; notice what you do with your arms, how you hinge at the hips, how you bend at the knees, and how you finish by pointing your toes. Does it really resemble traditional weight training exercises, like squats and deadlifts? A jump is much more a full-body integrated movement, requiring coordination between different areas in ways most weight training exercises in the gym do not.
I have been thinking about this for a while as a big cricket fan, because I see a lot of posts on YouTube with cricketers flexing their muscles and lifting big weights in the gym and I just can't see how it helps them. The heaviest thing they need to pick up is a bat, which is usually 3 pounds or less. With the main aim to swing it - thus applying force horizontally, in the main - lord knows why they need to pick up heavy barbells over their heads, bench 100Kg, or do dead lifts, and this especially goes for the bowlers.
Racket Sports Like Tennis and Squash
These sports require leg strength and power - alongside swinging a pretty light racket depending on the sport - but again most of it needs to be applied horizontally. Plus bulky muscle is liable to slow players down and increase fatigue over a long match of carrying extra weight. Of course there are ways of training with weights that do not put much bulk on, however, I would strongly recommend not doing traditional weight training for improved performance in racket sports. Posture and gait training using largely light weights would be much more beneficial.
Runners and other Athletic Disciplines
While there is research that weight lifting, such as deadlifts and squats increase the speed of sprinters, the studies have only been compared against doing nothing; i.e. 10 runners lifted weights for 6 weeks, while 10 runners didn't and results compared. Not only are the results not especially significant, but they also don't account for runners doing something else instead, like applying horizontal vectors in the integrated way I would promote in their weight training regime. No such studies have ever been carried out it seems, would you believe.
An excellent summary of the current scientific literature on the relationship between weight training and sprinting and athletic performance more generally can be found in the link below. However, what you will see if you read it is still the focus on certain muscle groups and isolation exercises. It kind of proves what I have been saying in other posts, that an integrated biomechanical approach to exercise remains generally untouched in the science of sport and fitness. There is a section on horizontal force vectors in this summary of the scientific literature, so some thought has been given to it, but the optimal application of these exercises appears to be largely absent from the knowledge of most trainers, sports scientists, and coaches. https://www.aths.coach/resources/strength-for-sprinting-connecting-gym-gains-with-sprinting-performance
How Can We Use Horizontal Force Vectors in Our Training?
With all this in mind then, if we are not lifting weights in our training, what does utilising horizontal force vectors look like? Essentially, it can be broken down into pulling, pushing, pivoting, swinging, and throwing. Below is an example of a workout that incorporates predominantly horizontal force vectors, with just a few applied vertically or combined. You'll notice that most of these exercises have something in common, rotation.
Rotation is an aspect very rarely and poorly utilised in traditional training. Doctors and physios hardly ever prescribe rotational exercises because they worry (rightly) about performing these exercises safely. We should be rotating high in the upper body at the thoracic spine, not lower at the lumbar region, and most people will do the later because of poor postural integration. The problem is though that we have to rotate in fully integrated, full body exercises to enable us to move the way we have evolved to and the optimises performance and health. The process of perfecting these movements (which takes dedication and attention to detail) will improve performance, but more importantly help avoid the aches and pains with age that are rife in modern societies.
If you look at the video above, you might begin to notice the big problem with utilising horizontal force vectors in training; it is very technical. These aren't simple exercises you can do right away. You need to make sure you are aware of the principles of good posture and how to apply it in sometimes complex coordinated movements with resistance. If you practice the above exercises without this knowledge, you'll likely get injured. And here lies the problem of testing; how do you test for the efficacy of this training when so few people know how to do it properly? You just can't. The scientific establishment can't and won't test this, you have to rely on results of this practice in yourself and others. I personally have seen great benefits, especially in injury prevention, doing these kinds of exercises and I have seen it in others. However, getting to the stage where you can perform the exercises safely in the video requires a lot of practice and attention to detail, not to mention facing some home truths about the state of your body, and not many people are prepared to go down this rabbit hole in my experience.
We need a much more nuanced and intelligent professional and public discussion into optimal training specifically for the human body, but I don't hold out much hope for this coming any time soon I'm afraid, except in pockets of specialised, dedicated, and often ignored trainers dotted around the world. I hope that you'll see exercise evolve this way in the future, but I don't see it anytime soon.
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