How to Develop Rotational Strength

By on October 29, 2021

How do you tell apart a general strength training workout from a truly athletic program?

One of the key distinctions is, of course, rotational strength. Rotational strength is your strength in the transverse plane: your ability to twist and torque your body to develop power and force. This ability is crucial in a host of sports AND real world activities.

Rotational Med Ball Slams

For example, rotational strength comes in handy when:

  • Throwing a ball, javelin, or anything else
  • Throwing a punch or a kick
  • Wrestling or grappling
  • Pulling or pushing anything horizontally while standing up, especially one-handed
  • Moving furniture or other items when there isn’t space to drag them
  • Maintaining balance during a one handed push up
  • Dancing
  • Even just walking or running!

This is crucial for fighting then, and for being generally useful. In fact, it’s arguably more useful, more often, than being strong in the sagittal plane.

Clubbell Atlas Swing

And yet, if you’re following a normal bodybuilding or powerlifting routine, there’s a good chance you’re doing nothing to train your rotational strength. The big three lifts do approximately nothing for this kind of strength.

So, what can you do about that? Let’s take a look at some useful moves and tips.

One Armed Push Up – For Anti-Rotational Strength

The one-armed push up is one of my favourite “anti-rotation” movements. While this is a great way to put more resistance onto a single pec using just bodyweight, it’s fighting the force of gravity as it tries to twist your unsupported shoulder to the ground that provides the real challenge.

See also: The Key to Bruce Lee’s Athleticism: Core Stability

This works just the same as resisting someone who is trying to push you or twist you to the ground. And it’s the same stability you need to push anything with one hand. OR to transfer power from the waist into the arms – remember: proximal stiffness creates distal athleticism.

One Arm Push Up

To perform the movement…

Bring your legs closer together to significantly raise the challenge.

Alternatives

There are a bunch of alternatives to this move for anti rotational strength, such as the palloff press, or the renegade row. You can also perform one-armed bodyweight rows. In all three examples, you are keeping the torso rigid while combating rotational force.

But this is not enough on its own to develop rotational power. Firstly, there is no explosiveness or dynamic movement here. Secondly, anti-rotation is generally isometric by its very nature. That is to say that you are keeping the body entirely static.

Pallof Press

This is fine if you only ever intend on rotating within a 30 degree range of motion. But that’s kind of leaving a lot of power and mobility on the table! We need something that moves us through a bigger range of motion.

See also: Ten Amazing Benefits of Resistance Band Training (Cables Work, Too)

This is the issue a lot of people face with rotational strength training. They might feel that they “have it covered” because they perform one or two movements in this plane. But that’s like saying you’ve “covered” sagittal plane movement because you squat. There are many ways to train rotation, and we need a selection of exercises to cover them all.

Russian Twists/Twisting Sit Ups Ups

There are a wide variety of twisting sit-up/crunch variations. Then there’s the Russian Twist, which removes the pretense of sitting up at all and instead has you rotating left and right while balancing on your buttocks. You can also perform variations, like punches, or passing a medicine ball to a partner sitting back-to-back.

This certainly gives you more range of motion and incorporates some core flexion as an added bonus. It isn’t particularly explosive, but can be good for strength endurance and toning.

What’s more interesting about these movements, is that they isolate core rotation. That is to say that you are turning at the core and at the spine, rather than at the hips whatsoever. This is both an advantage and disadvantage of the movement. Rotational strength doesn’t just apply to the core!

Med Ball Pass Drill
A fun drill that emphasizes core rotation, specifically

When throwing a ball or a punch, and when swinging a bat or club, you will almost always need to drive yourself into the ground and rotate from the hip. This rotation then travels up the body, making these types of movements full body expressions of power on the transverse plane.

That means we also need to practice some movements that utilize this kind of coordination. BUT it’s likewise useful to have core-only rotation as this can help to teach the necessary proprioception. We spend so much time sitting and not moving that it’s common to lose sight of how to control the hips and the waist independently. Issues like tight quadratus lumborum muscles can lead to this.

Crab Reach for Rotational Mobility

And some movement patterns require separation here: in a punch, you throw the hip before the core rotates. In a Tornado kick, the upper body rotates first to generate torque that allows the legs to powerfully follow through.

Thus, it is also a good idea to get some mobility drills in for thoracic mobility – such as the crab reach, which also incorporates a little lateral flexion and extension in the spine to really stretch out those muscles.

More Examples for Isolated Rotational Strength

Another movement that challenges the core to rotate while keeping the hips still is the twisting lunge. This can be practiced to great effect with a sandbag, kettlebell, or Bulgarian bag. Similar, is the rotating one-armed kettlebell row. This movement also has a more even strength curve than some of the others on this list and can be loaded with a heavier weight – it is effective at building more strength in this plane rather than explosiveness (as is the case with many of these exercises).

Windshield Wipers

If you’re looking for something that will challenge hip rotation and the tendons on the outsides of the knees, you could try the twisting squat. This is a squat that involves twisting down to the ground in a cross legged position and then reversing the movement. This is a little extra though and won’t be necessary for most people.

The hanging windshield wiper is another good one that takes you off your feet and combines both types of rotational strength. Here, you hang from a bar, raise your back to be parallel to the ground, and then rotate your legs back and forth. Here, the hips will rotate first, followed by the core.

This is also why that one armed push up is so much more challenging when you bring the legs together: as now you’re also training anti-rotation in the hips rather than stabilizing them with a wide stance.

Putting it Together

There are a wide number of movements that challenge you to transfer power from the ground to the hips and through the core. A great example, and one of the best moves for is the Atlas swing. This has you swinging the kettlebell across your body and into the air on either side, rather than forward and back. To accomplish this, you need to transfer weight from one leg to another and rotate through the hips. In fact, if you are using a heavy enough weight, you will struggle to perform the movement without starting from the hips. You’re working to create momentum and then decelerate that momentum, which requires a lot of strength and ballistic power. This looks even more awesome with a clubbell.

Med Ball Rotational Slam

The “high rotation” is another variation that looks pretty dope. Shout out to Vahva Fitness for that one!

Another great one is the rotational med ball slam. Here, you’ll be slamming a medicine ball against a wall by torquing the body. The shotput throw works similarly and really engages that “serape” effect that you may remember me discussing in previous videos (essentially a network of muscles that form a sling around the body and get called into action during these diagonal, rotating movements). The rotational ground slam has a similar effect.

See also: Training the Serape Effect for Maximum Power Generation

Also great are sledgehammer slams with a rotation. These are brilliant for building explosive power throughout the entire body and also serve as ideal metcon (as do medicine ball slams).

Clubbell Power

(Don’t have a hammer? Try hitting a stick against a fallen tree!)

Then there’s martial arts. Simply practicing punches and kicks are perfect for building explosive rotational power and amazing proprioception. This is just another reason I think everyone should include shadow boxing and heavy bag work in their training, even if they have no interest in being good at martial arts or fighting.

For strength in this movement pattern, you can use bands or cables. The cable or band punch out is the perfect example and the band/cable row with rotation does the same thing with more of a rowing motion. This will build a stable base of strength from which to build your explosive form. It will also give you the rotational max strength – again this can be loaded heavy – that you need for grappling and moving heavy objects. The wood chopper can also be modified to include some hip rotation and a twist in the foot.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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