| | Attacking Limiting Factors: Trunk Rotation

Author / John

Lacrosse-Training-Power-Athlete-RotationOne concept of sports that is taken for granted is the amount of trunk rotation and movement that is a piece of nearly every position of every field sport.  No matter if it’s a lacrosse player generating power through trunk rotation on a big shot.  A beaming wide receiver turning their shoulders, laterally bending the spine to catch a pass, all while keeping their hips square and sprinting in a straight line, or countless of other examples!

The ability to rotate the trunk, laterally flex and extend the spine and the capacity for rotational power is built into the sport.  Failure to separate the shoulders and hips or move freely affects an athlete’s development and has a direct negative effect on performance, no doubt.  But this is included daily in practice and each athlete gains the rotation required for their position almost without realizing it.

An interesting thing happens when athletes train without including trunk rotation, and don’t practice or play sports with rotational demands.  Even though they may not be required to rotate their trunk, athletes who compete in Powerlifting, CrossFit or Olympic lifting are still negatively affected by this limiting factor.


We see this every weekend at the CrossFit Football Coach’s Seminar when an array of diagnostic tools are introduced.  The tools most often struggled with are those that require movement of the trunk through the transverse (horizontal) and frontal planes.  Many of the attendees coming from fitness and strength sport backgrounds tend to struggle with these the most.  There is limited range of motion, high tension, and sometimes frustration when asked to perform movements like the Spiderman Complex to Horizontal Rotation.

Power-Athlete-Trunk-Rotation-Cali-HinzmanTo take on trunk rotation, I connected with Antony “Physio Detective” Lo to help identify tools that athletes of all training backgrounds and goals can benefit from in attacking the limiting factor of trunk rotation and the problems associated with it.  Antony has much experience evaluating field sport and fitness athletes, and more of his articles and info can be found on his website: physiodectective.com

This article will present two different issues field sport and fitness/strength athletes face, but can both be attacked using the same dynamic movements and assessments.
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The Limiting Factors

A lack of trunk rotation presents two major issues that affect the performance for both the field sport athlete and the fitness/strength athletes:

1) Trunk Rotation Range of Motion
2) Respiration

These two limiting factors are connected in that many of the muscles involved in moving the spine insert onto the rib cage.  If a muscle is limited in a range of motion, then the expansion of the lunges will then be limited which affects oxygen consumption, lactic acid metabolism and thus, recovery.  Competitive lifting, exercise, and field sport athletes all face stress and fatigue which increases respiration.  This increased use of respiratory muscles can then heighten the tension in the trunk rotators, and possibly the ability to execute a given task in their sport.

The Breakdown

When assessing and working with athlete’s of different training backgrounds dealing with the same issues, it is a challenge to identify what exactly is causing them.  Antony helped walk me through his assessment process for trunk rotation limiting factors to help layout some different pieces a coach should acknowledge for each athlete dealing with this issue.

  1. Psycho-social: Respect many factors that affect respiration and tension for different athletes and their sport.  Nerves, stress, pressure and fatigue all play a role in respiration and rotation.
  2. Articular: Identify if there are any previous structural damage such as broken or bruised ribs, scar tissue or imbalance that affects the movement and function of the muscles.
  3. Myofascial: Identify if there is any soft tissue damage to the intercostal muscles or the primary movers of the spine.  Everything that connects to the rib cage affects breathing and rotation.
  4. Neural: How the brain interacts with the body, especially breathing for specific tasks like shooting or 1RM’s.
  5. Visceral: Identify if there are any medical conditions such as asthma or bronchitis that affect respiration or any organ issues that affect rotation.
  6. Performance: Assessing the athlete through a sport specific task or any of the following movements to see how any of the above assessments affect respiration or  trunk rotation.

Assessment Approach

The following dynamic movements will test an athlete’s ROM through the transverse and frontal planes of motion.  As the athlete’s move through these planes, a coach is looking for a catch or compensation in the rotation or lateral flexion/extension.

In other words, identify what isn’t moving that should be moving.

Catch or Compensation = Problem.

When faced with a catch or compensation, the athlete should maintain proper position and adjust their focus to their breath.  According to Antony, during respiration the chest should rise, ribs should open out in 3D (think of an umbrella opening), and the belly should go with the ribs.  Many of the athletes who lock down the ribs during training distend the stomach or breathe into only the upper chest losing posture, which is not correct.

A key component to improving the muscles affecting rotation is correct respiration under stress at the point of catch. Releasing tension in the caught muscles while maintaining posture and position will take these rotation assessments and turn them into effective corrective exercise for many of the problems found.


Spiderman w/ Vertical Rotation

Prime Movers of the Trunk:
Contralateral External Oblique and Ipsilateral Internal Oblique

One of the best all around assessment/warm up tools, this Spiderman variation helps assess an athlete’s ability to separate their shoulders from their hips and identify the exact point an athlete is limited in their trunk ROM through the transverse plane. During the movement, look for any pause trunk rotation followed by loss of position in either the hips, the shoulder girdle or posture.


Leg Cradle Lunge to Lateral Flexion and Extension

Prime Movers of the Trunk
Flexion: Quadratus Lumborum
Extension: Erector Spinae (Iliocostalis, Longissimus, Spinalis), Latissimus Dorsi

This movement combines a step up into a lunge and then challenges the spine to move through the frontal plane with the hips locked.  Another test for the obliques to confirm any issues found in the Spiderman and assesses new muscle groups.  If the obliques allow, the deeper lateral flexors and extensors and higher up lower lats can be assessed.  Look for any pause in trunk flexion/extension immediately followed by a compensation through rotation.


IT Band Slow Twisting Kick

Prime Movers of the Trunk:
Rectus Abdominis, Contralateral External Oblique, Ipsilateral Internal Oblique

Test separating the hips from shoulders and identify if there is anything in the lower body that is affecting an athlete’s trunk rotation.  If an athlete shows an inability to rotate and get the under foot off the ground at full extension and dorsiflexion, then suspect the external and internal obliques or lats.  If an athlete can make it past this point, a coach can then test the hamstring, IT band and even the calves to see what may be preventing trunk rotation and respiration.


Side Pillar with Reach Under

Prime Movers of the Trunk:
Contralateral External Oblique, Ipsilateral Internal Oblique, Ipsilateral Latissimus Dorsi, Contralateral Psoas

Much of the trunk is activated and must rotate under tension much like in sport, and the limiting factor for trunk rotation in this movement becomes contralateral lat mobility.  Look for the catch in this movement as the athlete brings their arm down and underneath.  Challenge them to hold at the catching point and switch their focus to respiration to break through this catch and practice breathing with active trunk and rotation.  Also note how @Luke rotates neck and attempts to look behind him.  Coaches often forget that the neck is part of the spine and must rotate and bend laterally with the rest of the vertebrae during training!


Vertical Side Column Stretch w/ rotation

Prime Movers of the Trunk:
Rectus Abdominis, Contralateral External Oblique, Ipsilateral Internal Oblique, Quadratus Lumborum (Flexion) and Erector Spinae (Iliocostalis, Longissimus, Spinalis), Latissimus Dorsi (Extension)

The purpose of this movement is to provide a post training stretch to target all of the primary movers of the trunk that may limit trunk rotation.  This is also an opportunity for an athlete to practice their respiration and feeling the expansion of their lunges under low stress.  *Please note the active PULL out of the stretch at the conclusion.*  Raising up with the long arm overhead presents a potential awkward position for the shoulder girdle.


Trunk rotation is crucial for field sports and often overlooked in the training of fitness/strength athletes.  These athletes miss out on their opportunity to twist and bend instinctively day in and day out that the field sport athletes receive.  The goal for training both of these athletes is to ensure they have the ability and stability to rotate, and then aim to add the resistance, power and speed in training.  Similar to all of the movements provided in the Attacking Limiting Factors: Hips and Arch Development, these movements are not always easy and will take a level of patience during practice.

Consider many of the injuries that occur in CrossFitters, Powerlifting, and Olympic Lifting when athletes are stuck in the sagittal plane.  Many are extremely locked down in the obliques and lats, and issues arise with It Bands, psoas, rib cage and other muscles that you rarely hear about in field sport athletes.

We always encourage coaches to work backwards from either the common injuries of the sport or the past injuries of the individual to help build a strength and conditioning program base.  Even though their sport does not require them to move through the transverse or frontal plane, the limiting factor of trunk rotation must be addressed before an over compensation or training injury occurs.

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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. Mex on October 30, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Gold. Thanks Tex

  2. johnny beers on October 30, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    another awesome read

  3. Ingo B on October 30, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    I do a complex of Spider Man w/elbow drop > vertical twist and IT Band Slow Kick before every game, and most training days.

    The need for rotation in sport is money. I’m glad you brought this up.

  4. shredalert on November 4, 2014 at 5:01 am

    Well @mcquilkin thanks for another eye opener. I appreciate your breakdown of the movements you demo’d. Your article gave me better insight for myself and those that we hope to train. On some of the movements (like the SM elbow vert twist), its back to the drawing board….time for some vid and see where the problems exist.



  5. Steve (a.k.a. Booty) Platek on November 5, 2014 at 5:12 am

    @mcquilkin – tex will these things help me strengthen my intercostals?
    Good stuff.

  6. […] This approach dials in movement efficiency and motor control, while attack limiting factors like spatial awareness, footwork, and separation of shoulders and hips. […]

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