When we look for indicators of athleticism, we generally use tests such as the Vertical Jump or the 40-Yard Dash. These are definitely good standards for evaluating athletes, but another good indicator of overall athleticism is an athlete's ability to move his or her limbs independently of one another, without excessive trunk movement. Those who can do this are often called "smooth" or "sneaky fast" runners. They are the athletes who pull away from their opponents while looking effortless in their movements. Some fortunate people are born with this ability, while most of us must focus on core stability exercises to improve our limb separation.
What is limb separation?
Limb separation is an athlete's ability to stabilize his or her trunk while simultaneously moving freely through the hips and shoulders. When an athlete does not stabilize his/her core properly, the prime movers of the hip and shoulder become overactive. This combination creates tightness of the hips and shoulder, and decreases power while moving.
Why is limb separation important?
Power = Force x Distance / time
To simplify things, an athlete who can move a limb through a greater range of motion with the same amount of force in the same amount of time will generate more power (imagine throwing a punch with only a 6-inch backswing, compared to big haymaker.)
Athletes who move more freely through their limbs also "leak" less kinetic energy. An athlete who cannot move freely through the hips and shoulders must compensate by oscillating his/her pelvis and spine. These small, almost unnoticeable movements allow some kinetic energy to dissipate in the body instead of traveling down the kinetic chain into the ground.
Efficiency of movement is rarely discussed outside of the distance-running community, but it plays a huge role in virtually all sports. An athlete who uses less energy to move equally as fast or as far will be able to maintain speed longer and be fresher than his/her opponents in the final period.
Just as pelvic and spinal oscillations leak power intended to be 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 it to use free energy via the stretch-shortening cycle. When the trunk is stabilized, this energy is stored and used within the muscle, but when the trunk oscillates, more of this energy is transferred into the joint and dissipated as heat.
How to improve limb separation
Before we dive into 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 is enough to correct many problems with their gait.
If this is not enough, you 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.
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. This does stabilize the trunk, but at the expense of range of motion.
Below are a few of my favorite stability exercises to improve limb separation. Check out the video player above for a demonstration of each exercise. All of these exercises can be completed for 8-12 reps on a side—focusing on proper posture, with minimal trunk movement.
Single-Leg Glute Raise
Half-Kneeling Cable Pull and Press
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock