Let's Twist Again: Why You Need Twists in Your Training
The body is built on an X pattern. To move we typically will use one leg and the opposing arm. The force generated off the ground is linked through the core and countered by the opposing action.
When people come to see me and say they want to improve their running, I often will work with them on crawling and rolling. My aim is always to go back to the easiest fix, and regressing back to single patterns is often the fastest. If you can’t roll well, you likely will not crawl well. That means you won’t be able to squat or stand, and that means you likely won’t walk well either. And if you can’t walk well, then what chance do you have of running well?
Sometimes, though, we find that people can’t roll well. That may sound silly when you initially think how simple the movement is, but many are so rigid, stiff, and immobile that they can’t reflexively roll. Take a look at this video and see how my buddy Tim Anderson, of Original Strength, rolls:
Note how when he rolls each segment of his spine twists to allow him to fall like a wave towards his goal. Watching many distance runners try to perform this is like watching logs roll down the hill - everything is locked into a single piece. The problem with that is if you are using a ton of energy to brace your core into a single piece, then how long until you tire and your back starts to ache? You need a hard and soft strategy to brace, and rolling is the way to develop that always-present protective layer around your midsection.
Consider what Gray Cook wrote in Movement:
It is inappropriate to perform rolling patterns when mobility problems interfere with the relaxed prone and supine starting and ending positions. Unrestricted prone and supine positions are necessary to even consider rolling as a test or as a corrective strategy. Furthermore, full or near-full open-chain shoulder and hip mobility is required for rolling tests to be considered reliable.
In the hierarchy of smart training, mobility comes before stability, and stability before strength or conditioning. So if you don’t have enough mobility to roll to begin with, then we’re going to need to stretch.
Because the roll is such a strange move, and one that involves both hips and shoulders, to get the body prepared for it we need a stretch, or family of stretches, that facilitates that. One of the things I notice most as I get older is that I am far less bendy than I used to be. A good friend of mine, Angelo Gala (RKC Team Leader and yoga guru), told me a trick - twist your spine daily.
This is where stretches like the Brettzel come into play. If you look at what goes on in a Brettzel 1.0 and 2.0, you’ll see two different stretches that twist the body in opposing ways and open up shoulders, hips, and loosen the X:
But if you dig a little deeper into twist stretches you’ll see they’ve been around for a long time. Paul Wade wrote about them in Convict Conditioning 2 and showed a series of twist progressions that will unlock the hips, shoulders, and spine, too. With suppleness being a big part of the allure of calisthenics, it’s easy to see why he devoted an entire chapter to them. In fact, he said, “When I set down the Big 6 of Convict Conditioning - push ups, squats, pull ups, leg raises, bridges, and HSPUs - I came damn close to adding twists to that list. That’s how much I believe in the power of twisting.”
The basic way I work is to gain mobility, then add stability, and then cement it in place with load. A simple progression for this method, using our twisting/rolling pattern as an example, would be:
- Brettzel x 5 contract/relax efforts, when cannot gain any more movement from the legs then do the same for the upper body. Make sure to perform both sides.
- Roll x 5 reps each way using both arms and legs.
- Get Up x 1 each side.
Perform the entire tri-set three to five times through; rest once you have completed all three exercises, before repeating. You should notice that the more times you do this sequence, the better your performance becomes, and the more fluid and easy the rolling and get up happen.
One of the things to realize about twisting patterns is that any exercise that is done unilaterally is also a twist pattern, in that you are opposing the rotation. So suitcase deadlifts, single leg deadlifts, any single kettlebell exercise, and all punching, kicking, and throwing in martial arts are all rotational activities. If you spend a lot of time doing these, then you need to be sure you spend an equal time undoing all that tension to oppose rotation. You need to spend some time twisting.
Ian King told me that for every hour we spend on performance we should spend an equal amount of time on restoration, like flexibility work and massage. For my kettlebell friends, think about how many thousands of one hand swings and single snatches you’ve done since you started using kettlebells, and ask yourself if you have done anywhere near that amount of twisting to counter it. Any wonder why you might be so stiff? And if the basis of the performance pyramid is built out of mobility, then perhaps you’d better add some twists back into your training, both as warm ups in the fashion shown above, as well as in the cool down to unwind the body.
1. Gray Cook, Movement: Functional Movement Systems (California: On Target Publications, 2010), 270.
2. Paul Wade, Convict Conditioning 2 (Minnesota: Dragon Door Publications, 2011).
Photo courtesy of Dragon Door.