“The only things that are immortal in this world are government programs and cancer cells in petri dishes.”

Jim Babka, President, DownsizeDC.org, Inc.

It's all in the hips.  Photo courtesy of CrossFit
It's all in the hips. Photo courtesy of CrossFit

If I were asked to attribute a common theme, or overriding goal or purpose to my time spent in the weight room, it would have to be this: the acquisition of power; and more specifically, the acquisition of hip power. I’ll delve into this subject a little more in Part 3 of the BBS review series, but it is my belief that an individual’s fitness is most accurately measured via an expression of raw power output over a given period of time, and, to take this a step further, I’d lobby hard for that expression to be measured in the predominantly anaerobic energy system timeframe, i.e., something less than say, 9 seconds – and more towards an instantaneous expression, if at all possible.

But I digress. What is hip (or posterior chain) power, exactly, and why is it so important, not just for the competitive athlete, but for the average Jane and Joe?

Mike Young, of Elite Track, has written a good primer on the subject of hip power, and I encourage you to check out. Sadly, Elite Track will be closing its doors in the near future. I really hate that, because I truly loved the site; it was informative and well-written, albeit of interest maybe, to a very narrow audience. I do understand, though, that financial obligations and commitments have to take a front seat to affairs of the heart. Still, it’s unfortunate, and hopefully someone can step in and pick up the day-to-day operation of this fantastic resource from an overburdened Mike Young. I sincerely wish him the best with his HPC Sport venture.

At any rate, I’ve done my job properly over the course of many previous posts (such as this one, for instance), I’ve at least convinced you that improvements in hip (or posterior chain) power are desirable, both for athletes and for the everyday Jane/Joes of the world. How, though, to best go about acquiring enviable posterior chain power? Well, as you might expect from me by now, if there’s any magic or “secret” at all to developing killer hips it’s this: sensibly applied, hard-assed (pardon the pun) work. And in regard to “sensible”, what I mean is both sensibly choosing and applying the correct, most effective protocols. In other words, smart interpretation, manipulation and application of theory in as much as it can be incorporated into doable practice. I won’t get into explanations of various exercises here – there are plenty of references throughout the Web for that – what I will do, though is suggest you look at some of my past workout compilations (checkout the “Workout for the Week of” series of posts, under the “workouts” category) and take notice of how hip/posterior chain-centric they are. The large majority of my work is power-dominant, and the overwhelming majority of that can be defined as posterior chain dominant.

How about a little science you say?  Well, for starters, take a look at this study (again, hat tip to Elite Track for the head’s-up on this). Now, this is an oldie (1992-ish, I believe?), but a goodie. It’s a well-designed study of lengthy duration with easily controlled variables. The premise is simple, and the results are easy to properly interpret; to summarize: In order to increase power production out of the all-important posterior chain, you’ve got to work all angles of the speed-strength continuum of the hip extension movement. Broadly, this can be restated to say that both the strength and explosive aspects of the movement (hip extension) must be improved to better increase overall power production. Simply focusing on improving upon only one aspect – strength, for instance – at the exclusion of the other component(s) will yield only sub par results. Now, within the strength and explosive realms, what exercises are considered “best choice” in developing the posterior chain? Again you can probably guess what I’m going to say, but it bears repeating: the basic, multi-joint, hip extension (i.e., squat, deadlift) and triple extension (i.e., clean and snatch variations) exercises, coupled with sensible inclusion of plyometric exercises (depth drops, jumps, sprinting, and the multitudes of variations thereof).

That’s all fine and dandy, but what about those body composition effects you alluded to?

Well, here’s the deal: developing optimal power means increasing the concentration of, and maximizing the relative contributions from, fast twitch muscle fiber. Of course, other factors play into this equation (neural efficiency, mechanical advantages, etc.), however, from a body composition standpoint, it’s precisely the fast twitch muscle fiber concentration that we’re concerned with. Now, armed with this information, let’s connect the dots in a real-world kind of way. (1) As we endeavor to increase our instantaneous power production capability out of our hips (or posterior chain, if you prefer) we are, as a consequence, increasing both the concentration and efficiency of our fast twitch muscle fiber. (2) These types of movements (the hip extension and triple extension) either directly (via actual muscle activation) or indirectly (via hormonal cascade) affect the entire body’s musculature. (3) Fast twitch fiber is an inefficient fuel hog; biologically speaking, very expensive to keep around. (4) Ultimately, a fast twitch dominant phenotype is a 24/7/365 energy sink, and this, coupled with a Paleo lifestyle, means that that phenotype’s main source of energy for the bulk of the day is fat reserves. This is the reason that coupling a Paleo lifestyle to brief, high-intensity, power-dominant, anaerobic energy cycle workouts are such a lethal one-two punch against lackluster body composition. The body, quite simply, must make drastic, positive changes in order to survive the newly-perceived “onslaught”.

In health,

Keith

21 COMMENTS

    • And, as I am wont to tell my son (more than he cares to hear, I’m sure 🙂 the power from a baseball bat swing comes from guess where…….uh-huh.

  1. Hey Keith-
    Nice writeup and thanks for plugging my sites. I appreciate it and am glad they can be of help. Just wanted to drop by and say that we’re not closing up shop any time soon at http://www.elitetrack.com. It was an April Fool’s day joke that I think maybe I made a little to realistic. Take care and keep visiting!

    • Great! I’m glad to hear that, Mike! Usually I sniff-out April Fools joke pretty well; this year, though, I fell for them left and right. I got suckered by Twitter as well. Maybe I’m getting a bit slow in my old age 🙂

  2. @Keith

    Here is a question that you would be the perfect person to ask. What are your thoughts on the hip’s function in a back squat? Especially in a Rippetoe’s low-bar back squat?

    Rippetoe advocates driving with the sacrum as opposed to opening the hip movement ala a clean or DL.

    In fact, at 3min and 30secs in the video, Rippetoe actually says “the forward shit ruins the hip drive”.

    I personally like Rippetoe’s method better — however, one of my CF compatriots feels that Rippetoe’s method isn’t really applicable to functional athleticism, and more useful for powerlifting. Thoughts?

    Video here:

    http://media.crossfit.com/cf-video/CrossFit_RipIntroLowbarSquat.wmv

    • Ah, great question! Let’s first look at an extreme example, with very little in the way of hip extension — the hack squat. Notice how quad-dominant this exercise is. This is certainly not to say that the hams and glutes are not involved in this exercise, but their input has been lessened due to the extreme torso angle (i.e., lack of hip extension). We know that the glutes and hams (the posterior chain, in general) is the strongest chain in the body. This is why we want to emphasize their involvement in movement like the squat, DL, snatch, etc. Rip is spot-on when he says to initiate the squat from the sacrum — but really, the same can be said of the DL, clean and snatch, until that point where the hips must fully open up. What’s better for athletic purposes? Well, speed is king in all athletic pursuits (save for powerlifting), so I have to side with the snatch and clean variations here. There are, though, lots of subtleties involved here. Let me know if I’ve adequately answered your question.

      • I should have said that the hip is already more fully in extension in the front squat. Also, take note of the prompt to “sit back” in the squat. This is an attempt to more fully engage the glute/ham complex in the movement, as is “pushing from the sacrum”. Also note that power is a function of strength and time (speed) and an expression of that in one’s chosen sport. Functional coordination counts as well. All aspects are important, but the real key to training is enhancing a proper balance between all aspects.

  3. @Keith

    Hhhhhhhhmmmmmmmmmmmm…..

    I think I am more confused than ever. For me, the Rippetoe leading with the sacrum method for the squat feels very “natural” and “strong”, both physically and mentally at the time of squat.

    Doing a back squat and trying to get that hip pop/forward motion out of the hole is tough if the weight is more than, say, 250 lbs. But I guess I buy the argument that this method is more athletic/functional/explosive.

    Can one cut through the Gordian Knot by simply taking a two phase approach on this? Lead with sacrum out of the hole and transition into forward hip motion? Maybe this is what Rippetoe is saying without saying it…..

    • Patrik,
      I believe that’s exactly what he’s trying to imply. The natural tendency for people, especially taller ones, is to lead out of the hole (just like the guy in the video) by thrusting the shoulders back. Now the torso is more upright, the center of gravity is further back, and more emphasis is being placed on the quads. — not necessarily a bad thing, if you’re a bodybuilder and you want to target quads, btw (think front squat motion, above parallel), but if you want to move some serious weight, you’ve got to (1) get the the posterior chain strong, and (2) keep the PC engaged as long as possible in the movement — thus Rip’s dictate to lead w/the sacrum out of the hole. The motion from a full, ATG, bottom-of-the-hole squat to a full hip extension jump launch is an interesting study of bio-mechanics. Any one subset of the quad/ham/glute complex is never not involved in any one aspect of the total movement, but there is some serious emphasis shifting going on at each aspect of the knee and hip extensions.

  4. Keith-

    What are your thoughts on the glute ham raise (with arm assist, as necessary) as a means of activating the glutes and hamstrings? Or do the other exercises you describe provide more bang for your buck?

    I’m no PT or any other acronym, but my own experience has shown me that my sprinting speed has dramatically improved from incorporating the GHR, while deadlifts have dramatically improved my leaping ability.

    In sprinting and jumping, it now feels like my glutes and hamstrings (and spinal erectors, for that matter) are doing the lion’s share of the work, and that feels like the way it should be.

    Anyways, thanks for your post.

    -Ian

    • Ian,
      Your observations are spot-on and coincide precisely with my own experience and with the experiences of those who I’ve trained to be power-oriented athletes. The GHR, in my opinion, is the “money exercise” when it comes to glute and hanstring development. I prefer a GHR bench, however, even the “poor man’s” version (i.e., done on the floor) works well.

  5. I’m a big fan of k’bell swings, and to supplement them–in the interests of the posterior-chain explosiveness & speed that Keith reminds us are worthy of training for–I have lately taken up doing over-the-head backward medicine ball throws.

    My favorite variation is to use a nonbouncing ball (currently I’m working with a 30-pounder), squatting way down to pick it up off the ground w/ both hands, keeping my head up and my weight on my heels. Then I try to explode upward as hard as I can, extending (i.e. straightening) my hips as forcefully as possible and throwing the ball as high and far as I can up and back over my head with my arms held as straight as possible throughout the move.

    For a metric of progress, I like to do my throws (the forward ones as well as this backward variation) in “sets” that consist of the length of a local soccer field, walking rather than running to the ball after each throw (the distance I can throw a 30lb ball is so short that running didn’t work well). My best time so far is 1:48 doing forward, chest-pass style throws.

    When I do it right, I raise up and hurl the ball in one continuous motion, leaving my feet slightly at the moment of releasing the ball. It’s a tremendous full-body workout.

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