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The Lateral Chain – What is it, are you training it and how will it improve your athleticism?

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When it comes to strength training and rehabilitation, the posterior chain usually gets the most attention, followed by the anterior chain. But do you give much thought to your lateral chain and its role in performance, athleticism and injury reduction potential?

The lateral chain is most responsible for controlling frontal plane movements.

The lateral chain is comprised of the ipsilateral (same side) oblique abdominals, quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior, intercostals, and lateral fibers of the gluteal complex. These muscles connect the ipsilateral shoulder and hip complexes with trunk and spine. With this many muscles involved, it’s a wonder why the lateral chain doesn’t get as much love with regards to people’s training programs.

Being able to control the frontal plane is paramount to optimal force production and reduction in athletes. The ability to plant your foot in the ground, decelerate momentum, reduce ground reaction forces and then generate the force required to either change direction, propel the body forward or to strike a ball is the result of complete frontal plane control. Why then is frontal plane instability (beyond the gluteus medius) often overlooked as a cause of decreased speed and agility in athletes? More importantly why is it often not a pillar of any comprehensive training program?

A loss of frontal plane control usually results in a drop in the hips or a noticeable lateral weight shift. Another tell tale sign is to have your athlete stand on one leg and notice if they side bend over the stance leg.

When you start to piece together the observations and muscle recruitment needed from above, you should be able to see how a lack of frontal plane control could alter force production in the hip complex (resulting in slower speeds or reaction time), result in stress at the knee joint or in the ankle/foot complex as well as may present itself as low back pain/tightness.

How do we address strengthening the lateral chain?

The most common ways to address these imbalances is to incorporate side planks and various iterations of those, as well as some Pallof press variations. However, in time, we will need to find ways to progress these movements with variations such as the Copenhagen planks, side plank with abduction, loaded ISO holds, etc.

But what about ways to train the lateral chain in a more “athletic” way if you will? This is where single leg step downs (eccentric emphasis), split squat variations, carry variations to focus on resisting lateral flexion, as well as offset loaded squat and lunge variations are all ways to smartly achieve progressive overload in the lateral chain and create the stability and strength required to improve your athletic potential.

Conclusion

While there are definitely times when we need to isolate the gluteus medius, we need to focus on it as part of a group of muscles that when working together can produce a much more robust and well rounded athlete. As your athletes master the progressions of the exercises listed above, they should be able to control their lumbo-pelvic hip complex much more efficiently and you should see improvements in their sporting movements as a whole, such as change of direction, reaction time and power in and out of some of the positions they will be required to master on the field or court.

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