Picture: as you look out onto the floor you see a group of athletes moving slowly forwards using a bouncy lunge stride in which the legs exchange positions. The bodies are upright and arms are held with elbows out for balance.
These are Leg Exchanges; a staple in the diet of MOVERS programming. There are dozens of variations in this even larger family of lunges and split squats. The skill and its rhythm don’t imitate moves from sports. They are fairly tough training from a mechanical and energy perspective and more than one athlete will ask ‘why are we doing these?’ Most athletes find that while Leg Exchanges become automatic in nature they never seem to get easier.
As a MOVERS Coach I’d like to share my experiences and perspectives on the value of including Exchanges in your programme. Start with the description of what they are and what they look like when done correctly...
WHAT and HOW?
Leg Exchanges are a bilateral move in that both legs contact the ground at the same time. They differ from typical bilateral moves in that the legs are split front to back with the front foot enjoying full contact and the rear a forefoot contact. So while there is a long base of support there isn’t a wide base. This narrowness challenges the body and brain to stabilise with each contact so that you don’t fall over to one side or the other. For novice or return-to-form athletes this is more difficult than straddled bilateral moves but less difficult than single leg stance options.
From a mechanical perspective I like exchanges because many of them work the stability and action musculature as they need to be worked in running, jumping and throwing. With the split stance the glutes are working in a stretched position and become stronger through a wider rang. The Vastus Medialis, and Glute Medius never get a rest in many sport or dance moves and so it is here: stability or action shifts with little evidence of a rest phase. And the soleus gets to work as a stabiliser along with the Posterior Tibialis so that you control the footplant.
The basic movement requires the athlete to exchange leg positions in the air (and perhaps move forwards at the same time). In the air a forwards leg move is controlled by the deep abs/ hip flexors and a backwards move is controlled by the glutes-hams. The torso muscles (front-back-sides) stabilise the position of the hips so that the legs can scissor underneath and prepare for the next landing. This air-time skill is important in that a leg scissor that originates from the hips is fundamental to all running actions and jump takeoffs. This is where the first imbalances will show up: usually the athlete will be unable to bring one leg forwards at the same rate as the other is moving back, resulting in a staggered landing.
WHAT AM I LOOKING AT?
Landings have a built in isometric phase between the eccentric load and concentric rebound. This is where a great deal of the strength benefit is found. If the hips are held in a high position there is less isometric and more ‘ping’ bouncing compared to lower level and longer split variations that have an obvious isometric ‘stop’. The most distracting influence from this rhythm comes from an inability to stabilise within a split second: ‘stick’ the landing. An athlete who is tired will lose the ability to stabilise and tend to wave their arms around more. The phases are muddled up as the athlete struggles to advance and the rhythm is lost.
Posture of the trunk and arms is a notable feature, with competency showing itself in a comfortable upright posture and arms that are ready to balance or are used as part of the landing and takeoff phases. If the stability muscles are imbalanced or if the hip flexors are tight posture is thrown off into lurching, leaning forwards or even leaning back. A common compensation is for the athlete to stiffen the body in an effort to make the hips work properly which results in a mechanical, non-rhythmical progression down the floor.
COACHING the WHO, WHEN and WHERE
The final technical consideration is that of bounce, or height achieved. Variations tend to fall into three areas: preferred, height emphasised or flattened. With the flattened exchange you pretend there is a ceiling above your head and you scissor the legs very quickly and stick the landing without sinking. With high exchanges you intentionally try to go for air time with obvious concentric leg extensions that result in a gravity enhanced landing that you need to control. Preferred variations let the athlete follow a pattern of some height and landings they are comfortable with.
Leg Exchanges blend well with Medball insertions: reaching up or out, scoops, swings and slings all challenge the basic movement patterns and add a particular training stimulus. Carrying a broom handle, ball or baton also restricts the arms so that they can’t aid in balance. Hands on hips, interlocked or hugging also removes their influence. And the benefits? The hips and lower torso work much harder to achieve and maintain balance. These variants don’t add much in the way of loads, but with dumbbells or kettles you can multiply the work required to stabilise and move with fluidity. Just be aware that if you are interested in fast takeoffs an overload variation changes the nature of timing and the shift from eccentric to concentric contractions.
What about programming? Well, like many of the MOVERS selections these variations thrive when you stick to 5-8 reps in a set. If the athlete can’t handle that many then they need to find a different variation so that compensations don’t become the norm. After 5-8 there is also a tendency for neuro-fatigue to interfere and again, compensatory moves rule the day… So, better to break the moves up into sets with rest rather than trying to advance down the length of a field…
As a final perspective I feel that the family of exchanges, lunges and split squats add a creative addition to the variations of landing and takeoff drills you can do. The benefits link to mechanical, neuromuscular and metabolic growth; my MNM’s. They are a key movement skill that may not seem to relate directly to the technique you want to improve, but you can guarantee that if there is an imbalance showing with Exchanges it will be an imbalance that shows itself within other skills. And the flip-side to this is that as you improve in Exchanges you will improve in performance.
J. Erik Little