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  • Movement Qualities: Improving the base 6

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    Roger Parks

    Movement Qualities: Improving The Base 6

    Movement can be complex. We can ignore that idea, keep exercising the way we have been, and hope for the best. Or, we can investigate, isolate details, and train for specific outcomes. Neither approach is wrong. I will assume because you’re reading this, that exercising isn’t working, and it’s time to focus.

    The difference between exercise, pattern, and quality

    Controversy in the fitness world is often semantic: two people with the same idea saying the same thing in different ways. However, underlying differences can be important, regardless of terminology. Sometimes, essential differences in context and application require clarification.

    Exercise is a category of movement describing the intention to move one’s body with the general goal of getting healthier. Some exercises target body systems or regions better than others. But unless you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing to meet specific, current needs, you’re guessing. There’s nothing wrong with exercise, but it’s non-specific.

    Exercises can be subdivided into movement patterns, a step toward specificity. A Squat and Deadlift are both lower body exercises. But which is better? Should you do one or the other, both or neither? The answer depends on intent. Because squatting requires more knee bend, it elicits more quadriceps activation, so that (knee-dominant) pattern better improves quadriceps strength. Breaking down exercises into patterns, however, may not give us the detail we require.

    A Deadlift and a Swing are both hip hinge patterns. But are they the same? No. They differ in many ways: loading, speed, timing, setup, position at lockout, breathing, etc. Though both hip-dominant patterns, they don’t train your body the same way. Movement qualities sharpen our focus; they are the parts required by a movement, the sum of which is not just an exercise, but a specific exercise done in a specific way. A movement quality is something that your brain or body needs to possess to complete a skill. Movement qualities are specific: if you want to improve your Swing, you want to improve your hinge. But a hinge is a movement pattern, not a quality. What’s wrong with your hinge? Are your hips too tight? Do you have trouble keeping your spine straight? Two movement qualities you might improve, then, are dynamic hip extension (the ability of the hip to move freely) or spinal stabilization.

    When training, I ask myself the question: “What do I need the targeted joints to experience?” First and obviously, I want to be sure that I’m targeting the correct joints, but I also want to consider useful things like speed, type of muscle contraction, and base of support. Exercises and movements will describe what you are doing; movement qualities describe how you are doing it.

    Adding it all up

    When deciding how to train for your skill, isolate some of the qualities it requires. Consider:

    • What is the pattern? Experts can’t agree on what, exactly, our basic movement patterns are, but these will serve to break down our Base 6 skills: Squat, Hinge, Pull, Push, Roll/Rotate. Patterns aren’t specific, but starting there makes it easier to find details.
    • What joints are moving? Below, you’ll find a basic breakdown of significant joint motions for each Base 6 skill. Knowing joint motion will help you isolate the part of the pattern giving you trouble — if you aren’t specific, you can’t troubleshoot effectively. Two other points: first, joint motion may mean a lack of motion. Identify the motion that you want to control: training anti-flexion and anti-rotation (or, the resistance of flexion and rotation, respectively) of the spine will require different forces. Second, understand neutral. As an industry, the fitness world has become so terrified of flexing the spine that most trainers can’t find neutral anymore. This matters. If you’re doing a hard-style plank to teach spine stiffness, understand that the average meathead lives in spinal extension, and will thus plank in an extended position. Extension is what you’re training to avoid, yet you’re tolerating it in your starting position: you’ve lost before the game even started. You can’t train muscles optimally from a non-optimal joint position. Whether training anti-flexion of the spine or extension of the hip, train from neutral.
    • What are the handprint and footprint? Are you using two hands or one? Are you standing on one leg or two? Or, more specific to unilateral ballistics, does the kettlebell’s backswing move closer to one leg than the other? Does the loaded arm move over the same-side leg for support (a Press) or toward the opposite leg for support (a Snatch)? Two terms will be useful: unilateral and bilateral (if a stance is split, or staggered, consider it unilateral). Unilateral means one-sided and bilateral means two-sided. A one-arm Swing is unilateral for the arms, bilateral for the legs. Symmetrical loading and base of support change the requirements of a skill.
    • What is the speed of your skill? Muscles contract differently when a movement is fast or slow. Stabilizers like to contract slowly, composed mainly of endurance muscle fibers. Your movers, bigger, external muscles, are good at contracting quickly. Are you training stability or velocity? Match the contraction speed in your training to that required by the skill you’re developing. Stability also works at different speeds. What kind do you require? Consider whether a segment is moving through space or should remain still. And if it is moving, how fast is the motion? During the Press, your torso requires static stability. The torso during a Squat is dynamic because your spine is stable but moving through space. Both torso and shoulder require reflexive stability in the Snatch because stability must happen quickly.
    • Finally, consider breath. Breathing can get tricky, so for now, consider two types of breathing, fast and slow. For both breath types, you’ll keep your abdominals engaged, the Strong First concept of “breathing behind the shield.” Whatever your breath type, maintain intra-abdominal pressure. During your ballistics, use short, sharp breaths (fast). These breaths support the explosive phase, e.g., the hip drive of the Swing. Squats require tension breathing (slow): keep the midsection tight and don’t exhale too much to sustain tension (intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure). Train the breath your skill requires.

    Isolating trainable qualities

    I’ll get you started. There are more details to find (it’s never hard to make movement more complicated), and more ways to affect your training (eye position, for example), but if simple works, there’s no need for complex. Below you’ll find some specifics for each Base 6 skill.

    For each skill, consider some of the following details to isolate, relevant to your particular issue. If you can’t get into the proper position, consider the required joints, and find a way to open up them up. If your kettlebell bounces around at the top of your Snatch, train reflexive shoulder stability. Thinking this way will help you choose a drill that’s right for you.


    • Pattern: Hinge
    • Joint motions: Hip flexion → Extension (getting to the top of the Swing requires hip extension; extension isn’t possible without flexing first. This goes for all joint actions). Knee flexion → extension │Reflexive trunk anti-flexion │Reflexive trunk anti-rotation (if unilateral) │Reflexive shoulder stability
    • Handprint: Bilateral or unilateral.
    • Footprint: Bilateral or unilateral. One-arm swings are usually done in a bilateral stance (though they can be done traveling or in a staggered stance). However, training to improve your one-arm Swing may require unilateral work. The degree to which unilateral work will be required depends on anthropometrics. Someone with wide shoulders needs to cover more lateral distance to center the downswing. The greater the lateral distance you must travel, the more force must be supported by the leg opposite the kettlebell arm. In the pictures below, the inverted triangles represent torsos, and the top points represent shoulders. The black circles represent the kettlebell in the top position and the bottom position. Notice the length of the red line: wider torsos must cover more distance.

    Because the kettlebell won’t just travel sideways, it’s force will move downward at an angle, and will create more force toward one leg than the other.

    • Speed: fast.
    • Breath: fast.
    • Qualities to consider for your Swing: Your Swing is a ballistic hinge, so it should be powerful. Train power, or anything that gets in the way of power. Then, train anything that improves transfer of power from your hips to the kettlebell, reflexive trunk stability, or shoulder stability, for example.


    • Movement pattern: Hinge + pull (or, Swing + dynamic pull = Clean)
    • Joint motions: the same listed for the Swing + Shoulder extension │ Elbow flexion
    • Handprint: Bilateral or unilateral.
    • Footprint: Bilateral or unilateral (see the discussion in the Swing section. Downward force in the clean will be less because it won’t travel the full length of your arm).
    • Speed: Fast
    • Breath: Fast
    • Qualities to consider for your clean: Focus on your Swing. If your Clean is bad, your Swing is likely bad. Once you possess all qualities in the Swing, learn to keep your arm tight to your body. A quick pull from the back is also key: don’t curl your clean.


    • Movement pattern(s): Hinge + pull + push (or, Swing + partial Clean + Press)
    • Joint motions: All joint motions from the Swing + Shoulder extension │ Shoulder flexion
    • Handprint: unilateral (bilateral as you get more advanced).
    • Footprint: see the discussion for the Swing. Also, because the bell is coming down from the overhead, its force will be greater than the Swing, and it will likely enhance the unilateral effect on stance.
    • Speed: Fast.
    • Breath: Fast
    • Qualities to consider for your Snatch: Train all qualities of the Swing and Clean. You’ll try to keep the bell close during the Snatch, but it won’t likely be as tight as your clean. Your arm will be shorter than your Swing, longer than your Clean. Smooth shoulder flexion, dynamic shoulder stability, and multi-planar trunk stiffness are a must.


    • Movement pattern: Squat
    • Joint motions: *Hip Flexion → Extension │Knee Flexion → Extension │Ankle Dorsiflexion → Plantar Flexion │Dynamic Trunk Anti-Flexion │Dynamic Trunk Anti-Rotation (if unilateral pattern) │ Scapular Protraction/Retraction │Dynamic Shoulder Stability (especially in the rack position). *Don’t assume that joint motions listed first are passive, e.g., active hip flexion should pull you down into the Squat.
    • Handprint: Bilateral for goblet Squats, unilateral for Rack squats. Unless your hands are joined at the top of a double rack Squat, your shoulders will experience unilateral loading, even if it’s to a lesser degree than with a single rack squat.
    • Footprint: Bilateral or Unilateral (split or staggered patterns).
    • Speed: Slow
    • Breath: Slow/High-tension
    • Qualities to consider for your squat: Torso stiffness is key for the Squat and transfers to other skills. Active hip flexion (pulling yourself down into the Squat) also opens the hips.


    • Movement pattern: Vertical Push (the Clean gets you into position to Press. Train it.)
    • Joint motions: Shoulder Flexion │ Static Trunk Anti-Lateral Flexion │Static Trunk Anti-Rotation (unilateral patterns) │Static Trunk Anti-Extension
    • Handprint: Unilateral or bilateral.
    • Footprint: Bilateral, predominantly. Unilateral, Tall-Kneeling, Half-Kneeling, seated variations, or other base positions may be used to train the Press.
    • Speed: Slow
    • Breath: Slow/High-tension
    • Qualities to consider for your Press: Dynamic shoulder stability and static trunk stability for anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion (unilateral), and anti-rotation (unilateral) are my favorite qualities to train in the Press.


    • Movement patterns: all of them. Some argue the pull is in the Getup, others disagree. A hinge is in the half-kneeling position. Your lunge to standing is a dynamic split Squat.
    • Joint motions: see all patterns above + Static Axial Rotation │ Shoulder Horizontal Adduction │ Shoulder Horizontal Abduction │Static Scapular Depression
    • Handprint: Unilateral
    • Footprint: Bilateral, unilateral, half-kneeling, supine
    • Speed: Slow
    • Breath: Slow
    • Qualities to consider for your Getup: The Getup is great for training joint opening and joint control. Ensure dynamic stability of all involved joints.



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