Assessing foundational strength

Foundational strength is the essence of trainability. We need an appropriate level of coordination and strength through a maximum range of motion to set us up for athletic endeavors. Without it training becomes a game of Buckaroo – loading up and getting work done but waiting to get kicked in the mouth.

Unfortunately these capacities of foundational strength are inherently underdeveloped in our current society with waning physical work and physical education as children and adolescents. No need to write a “good old days” essay here but it’s important to mention. Without appropriate physical education, athletes are presenting for physical training in sports with a gap in their physical development. The purpose of this article is how to fill this gap – regardless of when these people present, whether it’s the first day of under-10 soccer, or a 28 year old to the physio room with chronic low back pain.

A framework for foundational strength

Piling training on top of a poor base of trainability or functional strength rarely ends well but it can proceed for years without issue. Never assume that someone can demonstrate great body awareness and movement mastery just because they can compete at a high level in the arena.

Foundational strength gives you options. Options to move in multiple planes in many ways; efficiently, quickly and gracefully. Better movement keeps bodies from getting banged up. Better movement allows greater (not faster) progression in strength and power training. Better movement costs the body less and therefore creates a more resilient athlete.

First thing to address is who is a candidate for it. The short answer is everyone and the long answer is everyone in different ways. Assessing an athlete’s needs is essential. It’s essential for any training intervention but in this case the testing has nothing to do with reps, kilos, wattage, or meters. It has everything to do with biomechanics, symmetry, range of motion and smoothness. This is more of a ‘coaching eye’ assessment and the need for an in depth understanding of anatomy, motor control and human movement is necessary.

Observing basic movement under different conditions will give you an insight into the deficiencies of an athlete. Kelvin Giles‘ Physical Competency Assessment provides a framework for these assessments but creating your own battery is perfectly suitable provided you have the ability to critique movement properly. For the purposes of foundational strength we are not ignoring the athlete’s chosen sport but we are looking at them as a general athlete first.

» Related content: University of Illinois Associate Athletic Director for Sports Medicine explains their process for assessing sports-specific trainability of incoming and continuing athletes.

Assessment in action

Let’s take four simple, common movements and apply the above rationale to them. How do you assess a squat, push up, and lunge for movement quality? Here are some factors to consider:

Bodyweight Squat Push Up
  • Can they maintain an upright trunk?
  • Can they keep their feet flat?
  • Are they shifting weight to one side?
  • Is there symmetry in how the joints are moving?
  • Are they in pain?
  • How low can they squat with good posture?
  • Can they hold the bottom position?
  • Can they maintain good technique when sped up and slowed down?
  • Can they assume a high plank position with good trunk engagement and a neutral pelvic position?
  • Can they maintain this posture as they lower down and press up?
  • Is it symmetrical?
  • Are they in pain?
  • Do their scapulae maintain solid contact with the chest wall throughout?
  • Can they maintain good technique when sped up and slowed down?
Side Lunge Forward Lunge
  • Can they step as wide as their leg is long?
  • Can they lunge into this step and keep an upright trunk?
  • Can they align their foot, ankle, knee, hip and shoulder at the bottom of this lunge?
  • Can they hold this bottom position?
  • Are they in pain?
  • Is it symmetrical?
  • Can they step forward as far as their leg is long?
  • Can they lunge into this step keeping the trail leg straight?
  • Can they align their foot, ankle, knee and hip at the bottom of this lunge?
  • Can they hold this bottom position?
  • Can they maintain an extended spine in this position with the chest over the knee?
  • Are they in pain?
  • Is it symmetrical?
  • Can they maintain good technique when sped up and slowed down?

Do a simple thought experiment and pick four other basic movements and list similar questions – pull up, single leg squat, bound, etc. These lists might be long, but with experience all of this can be done on the fly over 3-4 reps while you build a coaching picture of this athlete and decide where the entry point is for them.

Putting theory in practice

After assessment, the next question becomes how to develop foundational strength and where the athlete’s starting point is. One thing to keep an eye on during assessment is if the same movement deficiencies crop up in multiple movements. If so, that is probably the place to start.

Take for instance a 28 year old female rugby player (forward) who presents with some lower back stiffness mid season. On assessment all neural and joint findings are clear but there are certain hallmarks on a movement assessment. In both a squat and side lunge she is losing trunk extension. She weight shifts left on her squat and struggles to step wide to that side on a side lunge. Moving on to a forward lunge there’s a similar deficit on the left side with an inability to extend the hip fully. So immediately you see a foundational issue cropping up in multiple movements. Now we move on to how to address it.

My first approach was to use basic movements to address this, before progressing or regressing to variations. We began with some dynamic quad and glute mobility drills and hurdle walks. We retested the movements and while the forward lunge had improved, the squat and side lunge was still quite assymetrical.

So what did we do here to address a foundational strength need?

  • Hip mobility (couch stretches, glute stretches, floor stretches) to promote more joint freedom and less discomfort in flexed, extended and rotated positions (i.e. squat and lunge derivatives)
  • Hurdle walk overs to promote the rhythmic use of agonists and antagonists (cocontraction) around the hip to increase joint stability
  • Med ball squat to press allows for a more upright trunk and thus less extreme hip flexion. This is a regression from a loaded squat but allows us to work through comfortable hip ranges to rebuild coordination during the squat and cue a more open hip position. Holding different depths here allows for increased cocontraction and self organisation of muscle control and can improve the overall smoothness of the movement.
  • Progressive range side lunge gently exposes the tight or irritated tissue to the specific position. This provides a starting point for progression and should be experimented with once the hip stiffness and low back stiffness subsides.
  • Front foot elevated squat position holds helps get a feel for the hip position in an unloaded state and experiment with different hip depths and rotations. While this may not have had a direct effect on squat technique or movement it reassured the athlete that it was not a joint restriction issue, simply a dynamic range of motion issue.

Foundational principles for foundational strength

The above case shows how I might address a particular situation, but the solutions for me is more about the principles than the specific case. More and more, no matter the athlete or the sport or the problem, I come back the principles I’ve inherited from much more talented coaches and physios than I am such as Tracy Fober, Vern Gambetta, Kelvin Giles, Steve Myrland and many others. You can see signs of this in the treatment I outlined above. As a physio I often see athletes for one hour each week, so deviating from the basics would be an unwise direction to take when face to face coaching time is limited:

  • Develop basic movement patterns (squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, rotate) through appropriate progression (ROM, control, strength, power, speed, endurance) as relevant to the athlete (injury considerations, sport demands, time).
  • Understand the basic principles of healing, motor control and training, and apply them to individuals on a case by case basis.
  • Use sound pedagogical principles to teach and redevelop high level physical literacy.
  • Develop a robust, adaptable athlete capable of withstanding the physical, psychological and emotional rigors of training and competition in their chosen pursuit.

I believe that the ability to develop foundational strength comes first from understanding movement. Spend time learning your craft. Spend time studying the human body. Spend time getting to know those entrusting you with their care. Spend time progressing them appropriately. In this hack obsessed world sometimes people just don’t spend enough time.