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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Drill-to-Skill: Wall Supported Side Leg Swings

Side legs swings are a common drill in the running world.  Many justify the drills as a superior dynamic warm up to static stretching, now that static stretching has been thoroughly vilified in recent years! (Though consider recent findings by Zourdos, 2012, showing that pre-run dynamic stretching did not improve performance as compared to quiet sitting)  While leg swings may indeed be useful to get the blood flowing before a primary workout, if we look deeper we can gain a better understanding of when to use this drill and most importantly, when not to use it.  Our focus here will be upon wall supported leg swings, but similar concepts may apply to unsupported leg swings.    

 

One way to examine any drill is to explore its ancestry in movement.  Understand not just what the drill looks like, but also what patterns it involves and how to integrate those patterns into execution.   Those patters are critical to transfer the drill into skill.  If the body is not adequately prepared to do the drill properly due to other physical limitations, the athlete can easily cheat to make the drill look mildly passable.  People often think if a drill looks or feels like a movement relevant to their sport it thereby will transfer into the sport specific movements.  This thinking can yield inconsistent results.  For optimal skill acquisition to occur, both the drill and its execution must be tailored to the desired skill outcomes.     

Let’s examine some key elements in the side leg swing:

*Foot stability in single leg stance.  As the leg swings across the body, the grounded foot must remain stable as the body rotates around that side.  An unstable foot will slide.  Some people perform this drill on the toe of the grounded foot, which is fine so long as angular integrity remains.  Another option is to perform the drill with a bent knee on the swinging leg.  Again, that is fine too.  I classify the foot-to-ground interaction as “stability” but it can also involve elements of balance and mobility as well, which leads to…

*Internal rotation of hip and ankle of grounded foot.  Although running is a straight ahead sport, we still need multiplanar rotation from the ankle and hip to adapt to ground perturbations.  Perturbations can be minor such as on a paved road, or can be significant such as on a rocky trail.  Hip and ankle rotation also prevent this drill from becoming a “standing scorpion” drill.  (See Exercises Runners Should Reconsider: Part II for a discussion on why scorpions are not a good idea)

*Wall supported = Less of a balance challenge than standing unsupported but more challenge than lying on the ground.   Additionally, exerting pressure into the wall with the hands can help trigger core activation (favorite cue: Push my wall over!).  The ancestry of wall support in the world of developmental kinesiology is the cruising pattern where a child uses the wall for support while in a bipedeal (two footed) gait.  Usually the child won’t cross center line with the moving leg at this point, but he or she does use the wall as a way to advance to higher forms of movement.

Cruising: the ancestry of every wall supported drill

*Ankle dorsiflexion.  Body’s forward lean requires ankle dorsiflexion.  If the runner lacks ankle dorsiflexion, they may need to compensate during gait by a variety of means such as flattening the foot or excessive pronation.  I’m mentioning these cues not because they automatically need correction, but instead because they deserve note as risk factors for injury.  However, they are not automatically predictive of injury. 

*Head position.  Packing the neck.  Temptation is to look upward with the head.  It’s ok to look upward with the eyes, but the head should remain neutral compared to the body’s orientation.  We don’t want our head to look upward while running…why should we practice sloppily in drills?  Same thing with looking down…unless you expect to find some dollar bills down there, I can’t think of any reason to look downward.

*Other primitive upbringings…As with many movements, the origins of the side leg swings come from primitive movements as infants (See, eg. Banaszek 2010) 

  • The legs must disassociate from each other.   Learning to use each leg independently of the other is a key milestone in the life of a young child. 
  • Secondly, the upper body and lower body must work independently of each other. 
  • Third, crossing center line.  Crossing center line occurs during earliest rolling patterns and forms the basis of cross over stepping in real life (thanks to Dr. Lee Burton for pointing out this simple pattern as ancestry of the cross over step!). 

Running coaches love to dispense the carioca drill because it looks cool and saw it passed down via generations, but rarely do they bother to check rotational stability required to perform the drill cleanly.  Rolling patterns are a quick way (but not the only way) to assess coordination and readiness in a less threatening posture before attempting side leg swings.  Ultimately, many of these drills like side leg swings just become exercises that work up a sweat before a main session, but feed poor motor learning information into the brain, which ultimately results in bad habits.

*Eye movements.  Body rotates around itself, but the eyes stay looking forward.  This is critical for the body’s orientation in space.  Watch a baby on its back and you’ll note the various strategies it uses to track moving objects while learning basic rotation skills to be used later in life (See, e.g. Assaiante 2005).  We take this skill for granted because most of us do it well enough to avoid falling down, but this is another detail worth noting to evaluate the quality of the entire drill.

*Level hips.  Think basic joint-by-joint.  Too many athletes seek to maximize height with the leg swing.  If the hips and ankles don’t move properly, the body must sacrifice stability in the feet, knees, and low back to generate rotation. 

Summary

Within each of these dimensions we can build appropriate progressions and regressions from this exercise, depending on where the underlying flaw lies.  We’ll cover progressions and regressions at a later time.  Side leg swings are more than just a way to warm up the hip muscles as they derive from an ancestry of fundamental patterns.  We can also use this drill as an impromptu screen to identify weaknesses in the athlete.  Rather than run through a battery of endless drills that the coach had inherited like an old family recipe, pay close attention to detail so you can better transfer these drills into meaningful skills. 

Resources

Zourdos MC, Wilson JM, Sommer BA, Lee SR, Park YM, Henning PC, Panton LB, Kim JS.  Effects of dynamic stretching on energy cost and running endurance performance in trained male runners.  J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Feb;26(2):335-41.

Banaszek G.  Vojta's method as the early neurodevelopmental diagnosis and therapy concept.  Przegl Lek. 2010;67(1):67-76.

Assaiante C, Mallau S, Viel S, Jover M, Schmitz C.  Development of postural control in healthy children: a functional approach.  Neural Plast. 2005;12(2-3):109-18; discussion 263-72. 

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