rotational power

Building rotational power: all you need to know about getting in shape to perform zippy turns on the hoof

Such was the ferocity of Pete Sampras’ serves that they were in danger of singeing the net; Irish and British Lions rugby centre Brian O’Driscoll swerves around opponents flat out, like a Formula One racing car taking a bend; discus and hammer throwers, and some shot putters, spin with the grace of ballet dancers before releasing their implements with the power of a nuclear strike.

Developing these explosive rotational sports skills relies not just on innate ability and technique, but also on specialist conditioning drills and methods.

In this article, I will consider such skills as turning, turning to sprint, turning and throwing, and turning to hit/kick a ball or opponent, from both stationary and moving positions. Although all-over body power is needed to perform these activities, the core (abdominal and back muscles) is fundamental for their optimum performance. This area must be strong enough to maximise the transference of power through the limbs into a sports skill, such as a golf drive or a tennis forehand; it must be able to withstand – and reduce the risk of – injury in training and competition; finally (and crucially), it must be able to generate specific sports power itself. Agility is also fundamental to zippy turns and I will cover this in more detail in a subsequent article.

It is often assumed that athletes who are fast when travelling in a straight line will be fast in any direction. However, research suggests that this assumption may be erroneous. Young and associates researched the impact of straight-line speed training on rotational/change of direction speed, and vice versa(1). Thirty-six males were tested on a 30m straight sprint and were given six change of direction tests, the latter involving 2-5 tangent runs at various angles. These tests took place before and after a six-week training period, in which one group focused on 20-40m straight-line sprints and the other on 20-40m, 100° angle change of direction sprints.

What did the researchers discover about the impact of this training on performance? Not surprisingly, the straight-line sprinting training improved straight-line sprinting performance. However, this increased zip did not translate into speedier turns. In fact, the researchers discovered that the more complex the change of direction/turning task, the less transference there was from straight-line speed training.

Similarly, the turning/change of direction training gave a major boost to turning/change of direction performance, but had no impact on straight-line speed.

These findings have important implications for athletes and coaches in sports like football and tennis, where players have to constantly rotate in order to make up the ground to perform their various sport specific skills. It seems that the ability to rotate the body at speed is a highly specific skill requiring specialist conditioning, and that being fast in a straight line is just not enough. Some of the exercises at the end of this article can be used to condition such players’ ‘rotational muscles’. They will also benefit from specific agility training which, as mentioned above, I will describe in a subsequent article.

Rotational sport specific strength

Developing greater strength through resistance training is a fundamental aspect of all performers’ conditioning routines. Coaches and athletes alike hope that the strength developed thereby will translate into improved sports performance. However, this can be a very challenging conditioning requirement for those in search of rotational power and speed.

Let’s begin by considering weight training: most popular sports conditioning weights exercises, like the squat, power clean and snatch, are performed in a linear fashion and do not reflect the way power is generated in a rotational sports movement, like the discus throw. Although these exercises are relevant in terms of establishing a power base, athletes and coaches need to develop a repertoire of more specialist weights exercises, such as the Russian twist and the wood-chop (see below), which are better suited to channelling strength and power into rotational sports skills.

However, the direct relevance of even specialist weights moves to sports performance is open to question. Welch and associates looked at the forces generated in a baseball hit and found that the batter’s hip segment rotates to a maximum speed of 714° per second, followed by a shoulder segment rotation of up to 937° per second(2). The product of this kinetic link is a maximum linear bat velocity of 31m/sec. The golf swing, to give another example, can be completed in a mere 250 milliseconds.

Developing the ‘wind-up-and-rotate’ velocity for these sports through weight training alone would be virtually impossible. This poses fundamental conditioning questions, such as: how can weights (and other resistance training methods) be best employed to enhance specific sports performance skill? And how important is speed of performance? Cronin et al went in search of the answers(3) and reached the following conclusions:

  • Developing qualities such as strength, power and rate of force would appear of greater importance than training at the actual movement velocity of a task. It may be that (irrespective of load and limb velocity) the repeated intent to overcome a resistance as rapidly as possible is an important stimulus for functional high velocity adaptation;
  • Workouts should ideally combine sport specific training with a heavy or varied training load in order to develop the muscular and neuromuscular coordination that will improve functional performance;
  • The ability of the nervous system to activate and coordinate all the muscles involved in performing a movement is essential.

Former world javelin record holder Tom Petranoff advocates under-speed training when recommending medicine ball exercises – a great training tool for rotational power development. ‘The key to any training is to train smart, to train slow and get the technique correct before you add more weight or resistance,’ he advises (4).

This echoes the principle – often enshrined in former eastern bloc coaching methodology – of ensuring that a technique is properly mastered before more power is bolted on. This is particularly important in sports involving rotational movements, where controlled, smooth application of power is crucial, as, indeed, is timing. A golfer could not swing his club speedily at the ball without these attributes, nor could a hammer thrower spin as fast as he was able: too much speed would result in loss of balance and control, with consequent underperformance.

Petranoff expands on this issue by emphasising the need for those performing rotational sports movements to develop an awareness of where their centre of gravity is – a requirement that could be compromised by constantly training at or beyond maximum performance velocities.

Throws athletes and their coaches are well aware of this requirement and spend hours performing various rotations, with or without resistance/throwing implements, in the pursuit of better spatial awareness, body positioning and footwork.

Below are some examples of dynamic conditioning drills in keeping with the theme of this article, some of them quite unusual. Although they are performed at various velocities, all develop the muscles used in rotational movements in a highly sport specific way.

Weights exercises

Russian twist
This exercise mimics the shoulder rotation movement employed in numerous hitting and throwing sports. Sit on the floor with your knees bent to about 90° and get a training partner to hold you down by the ankles. Holding a weights disc with both hands, lower your trunk to a 120° angle, then rotate left and right, stopping the weight at 10-15cm from the floor. If specialist equipment that supports the body off the ground is available to perform this exercise, you will be able to rotate even further.
Reverse trunk twist
Lie on a weights bench face down, having positioned a barbell across the back of your shoulders. Again you’ll need a training partner to hold your ankles down. Rotate your torso left and right, while keeping your hips in contact with the bench. Again, some gyms may have specialist equipment designed for this exercise.
Cable chop
This exercise uses a high pulley machine and a triangular attachment to develop rotational power in the shoulders and trunk. Stand facing forward with feet slightly more than shoulder width apart. Hold the attachment with both hands over your right shoulder. Pull the cable across your body to just beyond your left hip. Complete your designated number of repetitions and repeat on the left side. This exercise can also be performed from a kneeling position.

Resistance/plyometric drills

Plyometric drills are a crucial weapon in the rotational sports power-conditioning armoury. They lead to explosive power development, utilising the stretch/reflex mechanism in muscles to develop and release greater energy. A concentric (shortening) muscular contraction is much more powerful when it immediately follows an eccentric (lengthening) contraction of the same muscle, and this is the basis of plyometric training. During a plyometric drill, muscles operate a bit like elastic bands; if you stretch the band before releasing it, a great deal more energy is generated as it contracts, but when there is no pre-stretch the energy output is more ‘flop’ than ‘pop’.

There are a number of plyometric exercises that can be used to boost the power capacity of the trunk (and other parts), some of them requiring specialist items of kit.

Throwing and catching/passing a medicine ball will develop plyometric power in the torso, legs and arms. Paul Chek one of the world’s foremost authorities on sports conditioning, for golf in particular, recommends the following two exercises for developing rotational power (5):

The twister
Place a small medicine ball between your legs. Holding your arms out straight at shoulder height, take small hops and rotate your knees to each side so that you land at an angle, first to the right and then to the left. The greater the degree of rotation, the greater the amount of work the obliques (the muscles of the outer abdominal area) will have to perform. These muscles play a key role in dynamic rotational sports skill performance.
The medicine ball toss
This is a more familiar plyometric trunk move, in which the performer stands side-on to a training partner (or a wall). The move develops the plyometric stretch/reflex in the obliques when the performer catches the ball with two hands and rotates first away from and then towards the partner/wall before throwing the ball back.
Tornado ball wall chop
This piece of kit – a polyurethane ball on a length of sailing rope – was specifically developed for generating rotational power. The ‘wall chop’ can be performed kneeling, sitting or standing, and with varying angles of ‘chop’. For the standing version, position yourself about one metre away from a wall, with your back to it. Hold the tornado ball with two hands, then rotate and swing it, either to your left or right, so that it hits the wall. It will, of course, spring back towards you with great force. You need to be braced and ready to control this reaction so that you can swing back into another chop immediately. It is this rapid transference of power that evokes the plyometric response.

In a subsequent article, I will give more detailed consideration to developing agility, defined as:

  • fast feet;
  • body coordination during change of direction and sports skill performance;
  • reaction time/ability.

John Shepherd


  1. Sports Med 1997 Sep;24(3),147-56
  2. J Orthop Sports Phys Therapy 1995 Nov;22(5),193-201
  3. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 2002 Sep;42(8),267-273
  4. Petranoff – Everything Track and Field
  5. Chek – Tornado Training part II

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