performance

Bowler Squat for First Step Speed?

The Bowler Squat is an exercise you generally see in a physical therapy setting and is used as a basic way to teach multi-planar single-leg stability.

We’ve used these at SAPT for quite awhile as a regression for athletes who are struggling with single leg balance to the point that they can’t execute a single-leg hop with a balanced landing. But who are more advanced than limiting exercises to side-lying clam level.

This is an athlete who has excellent lateral hip strength and can demonstrate a safe, controlled landing. For athletes who aren’t able to display control, we look to regress, often with the Bowler Squat.

Hip Drop Knee Cave.jpg
Abnormal_Gait.jpg

If you take a look at the pictures above you will see both a knee cave and a large hip drop in the example of the Bowler Squat illustration. Most importantly, you will see the same hip drop translate over to running stride - this is a giant red flag signifying weak lateral hip musculature on the support leg (the leg opposite of the dropped hip) and a VERY REAL risk of injury (groin, ankle, knee, hip, etc.).

The Standard Bowler Squat is a great way to work on multi-planar single-leg stability.

Beyond using the Bowler Squat as a way to teach stability and balance, I also like to use the Bowler Squat as a part of my dynamic warm-up with elite athletes as a way to prime/activate their core muscle function. We’ll do several variations of them: straight forward Bowlers with a lateral knee touch, eyes closed, or as part of a single leg balance sequence (again I use a few variations of these).

This is an advanced variation of the Standard Bowler Squat. It can be used as a challenging addition the warm-up for high level athletes.

The 1-Leg Balance Progression is a great warm-up sequence for runners that challenges balance.

Up until recently, that’s about as far as I had ever taken the Bowler Squat both in theory and practice. But, Tim DiFrancesco (formerly the head strength coach for the Los Angeles Lakers) posted about the Bowler Squat being a great exercise for first step speed development. I had never thought of the dutiful Bowler Squat in such grand terms! It gave me an opportunity to reframe the exercise as I watched some of the athletes I work with play their sport of basketball. To be clear, I am taking this post further than what Tim’s initial post suggested, so these are my own conclusions based off of a simple thought he posed.

I didn’t have to look long or hard to find the Bowler Squat in action and came up with an almost endless list of ways the Bowler Squat can be woven into performance exercises.

Over the past couple weeks I’ve started experimenting by using certain variants of this with athletes who are already and must continue to perform plyometric movements, but who struggle with stability, control, and tension.

With only a couple weeks to consider and experiment with a mental reframing of the Bowler Squat as possible driver for first step speed, I would hesitate to assign it too great of importance.

I really like the balance challenge and how it naturally forces an athlete to focus and tighten up with a few reps prior to a jump, but the real workhorses behind first step speed continue to be the Bulgarian Split Squat and all it’s variants as my number one choice - with all other lunge, squat, and deadlift variations following closely behind.

Ensuring an athlete has the ABILITY to execute a perfect Bowler should be a prerequisite to any single-leg plyometric activity. But, being as strong as possible is always the foundation for durable, resilient, and effective performance.

If you are a coach and have any experience utilizing these types of combos, I’d love to hear what you use and how you feel about the results.

Priority #1: Breathing

If you were to say to me in 2006, Hey Sarah! Guess what?!? In 10-years you will be laying the foundation for high performance by pounding the crap out of breathing drills. I would have believed you***. It's pretty obvious, when you think about it, but the evidence for it's true importance has only been surfacing over the past couple of years. 

This is an insanely complex topic that can literally have an effect on the obvious: your ability to recover effectively between bouts of intense exercise allllll the way to the obscure and surprising: regaining normal range of motion about joints that have been previously all kinds of locked up.

So, here ya go. My long-winded explanation of why you or your child may be doing do many drills to re-pattern their breathing. The concept of training breathing patterns now forms the foundation for all SAPT athletes.

Below I've organized a loose hierarchy of what proper breathing actually accomplishes for us humans:

Life Support

Like everything else in the body we adjust to sub-optimal patterns and just assume everything is A-OK (ex: somehow staying alive when only eating frankenfoods). In this case, I'm referring to our bodies amazing ability to be totally out-of-whack and yet not collapse in on itself, biomechanically speaking.

But, as professionals in the industry of human performance, we know that those common mal-alignments in the body ultimately stem from poor pelvic balance and that is in fact causing the postural asymmetries.

What causes the problem with the pelvis in the first place? Traditionally, we’ve chalked it up to an increasingly sedentary environment - too much sitting, not enough moving. Even for children. In fact this problem first develops in children, all children.

So, let’s take it deeper. There is actually something else going on besides our chair bound, screen driven environment. It just so happens that if you look very deep, like inside your body, you will discover that the muscle responsible for respiration, the diaphragm, is actually itself asymmetrical! In fact, the thorax is packed with asymmetrical situations: the heart sets on one side, the liver on the other to adjust the diaphragm is divided into two domes (on the right and left sides) one dome is smaller and weaker than the other. This sets off a precipitation of events. All of which ultimately influence our athletic performance, efficiency, injury patterns and more.

Posture

Okay, let’s break this down. It’s important, so try to stay with me… I’m also working hard to keep up with myself. All kinds of important parts of the body attach and interact with the diaphragm. Since, by our bodies’s design, one side of the diaphragm is stronger than the other that means that certain compensatory patterns always develop. Always. If you are a human you have this pattern. 

The diaphragm is stronger on the right side, this ultimately means that we favor (and overwork) the right side of the body. While the left side becomes weakened and inefficient. 

From here we can see the commonplace asymmetries develop: one shoulder higher than the other, the rib cage set at predictable angles from right to left and front to back, the pelvis rotated predictably.

Injury Potential

Alright, we’re getting back on solid footing. The by-design asymmetry of our diaphragm causes the postural asymmetries that cause, over time, injury. 

How many times has a well meaning coach had an athlete statically stretch chronically tight hamstrings? Do they ever regain the proper ROM? Nope. But, those tight hamstrings are actually indicative of a risk for injury that points to pelvic misalignment and, you guessed it, points then towards diaphragm and thorax corrections that MUST occur before high performance can ever be achieved.

How many times has a pitching coach focused their injury prevention program to address only the throwing side? Good gracious that’s just layering on the problems.

Sub-Optimal Performance: Layers of dysfunction

Let’s continue to talk about the pitching coach who runs a one sided arm care program. Hey, it kind of makes sense. You throw with one arm, why wouldn’t focus on strengthening the musculature on just that side? 

Because you frack up the entirety of the athlete, that’s why.

Never, ever layer strength on top of dysfunction. The potential for injury skyrockets (that’s my opinion) and it becomes very difficult to make the foundational corrections (to backtrack). 

The result? The athlete has now gotten “stronger” and tighter and more imbalanced in the pursuit of performance. 

What should the approach have been? Fix the imbalances first, prioritize this as essential to performance, then and only then, begin to strengthen.

Recovery during repeated efforts

When respiration isn’t occurring efficiently, an athlete’s ability to recover between bouts of training (or plays in a game) will be suboptimal. Potentially leading to injury, compromised decision making (think ability to read a developing play), lost points, or a Loss.

Gait

We’ve established that the diaphragm will cause poor pelvic balance. But what does that mean for gait? 

“Walking and breathing are the foundations of movement and prerequisites for efficient, forceful, non-compensatory squatting, lunging, running, sprinting, leaping, hopping, or jumping ONLY WHEN three influential inputs are engaged: proprioception, referencing, and grounding.” PRI 

Pulled muscles, ligament tears, rolled ankles can all be traced back to a pelvis, and thus, breathing problem.

That tilted and rotated pelvis can be a real problem!

How many great (or on their way to great) athletic careers have been stopped in their tracks by an injury?

How to fix: Zone of Apposition

Moving forward with the understanding that breathing really is the key to life, we have to ask: how do you fix this?

There is something called the Zone of Apposition (ZOA) and this is the area where the diaphragm and ribcage over lap each other. We want to maximize this overlap through proper ribcage positioning.

Here’s the good news: train the ribcage to be in the proper position and now those imbalances start to clear up:

  • Better ROM at all joints
  • Better recovery for bouts of work
  • Less compensatory patterns throughout the body

Now we can work on performance

How SAPT uses/integrates breathing drills to achieve performance improvements:

  1. Ground based - 90/90, etc
  2. Against gravity —> Static
  3. Against gravity —> dynamic & sub-max
  4. Against gravity —> dynamic & max

What the athlete gets in return:

  • Better movement patterns (without forcing it)
  • Fewer injuries
  • Better recovery (between intense bouts and sessions)
  • More bulletproof and awesome

With regards to training the ZOA, it's not a matter of if it needs to be trained, rather the important aspect is for the coach to assess and determine what level the athlete needs to be placed at to get started and progressed forward.

***I'm sorry, I lied - in 2006, I was 25 - knew virtually nothing - and it was hard to tell me anything unless it was about box squats, deadlifts, or the bench press.