Essential for weightlifters and long jumpers alike, power is also key to Batman's BOOM! and Wonder Woman's WHIP! But where does power come from? (The answer is not superpowers, unfortunately.) From pitching a baseball to lifting big weight, most powerful athletic movement starts with a fast hip extension, and it’s the glute and hamstring muscles that make it happen Joint-specific power production during submaximal and maximal cycling. Elmer, S.J., Barrat ,P.R., Korff, T., et al. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise; 2011 Oct;43(10):1940-7. Kinematic analysis of the snatch lift with elite female weightlifters during the 2010 world weightlifting championship. Akkus, H. Journal or Strength and Conditioning Research, National Strength and Conditioning Association; 2012 Apr;26(4):897-905.. So to become more powerful at the gym, on the track, or even hauling groceries, a strong backside is the first step.
It's All in the Hips — The Need-to-Know
Einstein would explain power this way: Power = Force x Distance / Time. In sport, force is the weight of the object in motion — be it a loaded barbell, baseball, or the body itself (in the case of runners, for example). Distance is how far the object moves, and time is how long it takes. Power can be expressed in an instant (like when a basketball player performs an outrageous dunk), or can be sustained over time (like a boxer using the hips to accelerate punches deep into the twelfth round).
Whether jumping, hitting, throwing, or sprinting, optimal power production is essential. And all these movements originate with an explosive extension of the hips. (Sounds like a dangerous dance move!) The posterior chain (aka the booty) is comprised primarily of the butt and hamstrings — the largest muscles on the back of the legs. These muscles are responsible for extending the hips, so gaining power is largely about strengthening these muscles Enhancing jump performance after combined vs. maximal power, heavy-resistance, and plyometric training alone. de Villarreal, E.S., Izquierdo, M., Gonzalez-Badillo, J.J. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, National Strength and Conditioning Association; 2011 Dec;25(12):3274-81. The immediate effect of unilateral lumbar Z-joint mobilisation on posterior chain neurodynamics: a randomised controlled study. Szlezak, A.M., Georgilopoulos, P., Bullock-Sacton, J.E., et al. Division of Physiotherapy, Faculty of Health Science & Medicine, Bond University. Manual Therapy. 2011 Dec;16(6):609-13. Epub 2011 Jul 13.. Unfortunately, since the posterior chain doesn’t include the flex-able "mirror muscles" we love to show off, it’s all too easy to forget their importance. But don't be fooled — they're essential to being a powerful athlete on the field (or even just powering up that last flight of office stairs).
Back That Thing Up — Your Action Plan
Looking to become more powerful? We talked with Greatist Experts Dr. Mike Reinold and trainer Joe Vennare about how to train for a stronger backside. Dr. Mike Reinold, Head Physical Therapist for the Boston Red Sox, says focusing on the hips is essential to training for power. “Training hip extension is an important component to any athlete’s workout program. If you have any strength or mobility issues with the hips, the low back will extend rather than the hips. This inevitably will lead to poor movement patterns and wear and tear in these areas.” Reinold recommends the following exercises to get the hips firing safely and effectively:
- Bird Dogs: Start on the floor with the hands and knees directly underneath the body. Slowly extend the right arm forward while extending the left leg straight back until both are parallel to the floor. Bring back down and repeat with the left arm and right leg, keeping the core engaged the whole time. “Many people want to jump aggressively right into advanced glute exercises,” says Reinold, “but that runs the risk of taking on too much of a challenge and feeding into their compensatory pattern.”
- Kneeling Hip Thrusts: Start in a kneeling position with a dowel rod in front of the hips and resistance bands anchored to the ends of the rod and a point several feet behind the body. Slowly let the hips bend backward, then explosively open the hips, extending the torso upright. “I often find that beginners need to start in a more basic pattern,” says Reinold. “I use the kneeling hip thrust position with some resistance tubing or cable resistance to really turn on my glutes and begin the strengthening process.”
Joe Vennare, Director of Programming at Hybrid Athlete LLC, advises concentrating on functional, compound movements that require the body to work as one unit (which he says improves biomechanics and power production). Vennare recommends incorporating explosive barbell and kettlebell exercises into a workout regimen:
- Kettlebell Swings: With feet shoulder-width apart and knees bent slightly, holding the kettlebell with both hands in front of the body, bring the bell down between the upper thighs, allowing it to swing slightly underneath the body. Allow the momentum to help you swing the bell up with straight arms to about shoulder or chin height. As you lift the kettlebell to the front, there should be a “popping” motion with the hips as you squeeze the glutes and engage the core, using the effort from the hip motion to swing the weight. “The large muscle groups of the lower body and an explosive hip drive are used to propel the kettlebell,” says Vennare.
- Squats: Squats of all forms can also be effective at strengthening the glutes and hamstrings. According to Vennare, “Compound barbell exercises like the deadlift, power clean, push press, or back squat recruit large muscle groups in a coordinated, full-body effort.”
Photo by Ben Draper