The Base of the Pyramid

by | January 23, 2014, 7:00am 0

Are there physical issues that are specific to ultimate? If so, what are they, and how do we understand and ultimately overcome them in order to reduce injury and improve performance? These are questions I’ve sought to answer in the past year of working with high-level teams (Seattle Rainmakers, Sockeye and Riot). And I’m here to tell you, there are no easy answers. There’s not a one-size-fits-all exercise prescription with reps/sets that will make you a better player. There’s no magic bullet for dealing with nagging injuries. But there are things that you can learn and understand about ultimate and your own body that mix that cocktail of correction, activation, and explosion, helping you in your quest to be the best ultimate athlete you can be.

What are some common ultimate-specific issues that I’ve identified? See if there’s anything you recognize…

  • Inflexible/overused hamstrings and hamstring pulls
  • Overactive/tight hip flexors and groin
  • Lower back tightness/strain
  • Shoulder tightness/injury (especially the right shoulder)
  • Ankle sprains and Achilles tendon pain
  • ACL tears, patellar tendon pain, general knee pain

These problems litter the intake forms of the players I train. My first step in addressing these issues is to perform a movement evaluation, seeing if there are mobility/stability/weaknesses that are contributing to or causing these issues. I worked with a movement evaluation of my own creation last year – I’ve since replaced that evaluation with the FMS, a world-recognized tool for evaluating movement patterns and prescribing measurable and actionable corrections. But why start with a movement evaluation? Why not test for vertical leap, speed, strength at the beginning instead? The performance pyramid below illustrates the most balanced type of athlete, the one who is the most efficient/powerful and the most resistant to injury.

performancepyramidNotice that “functional movement” is not only the base of the pyramid, but also the largest of the layers. This is not a coincidence. Poor movement patterns and poor mobility/stability keep your body from functioning optimally – you overuse the wrong muscles and underutilize the right ones, cause stress on joints and connective tissue, and create energy leaks that make you underpowered. These movement dysfunctions come up with the majority of the ultimate players I’ve screened:

  • Poor hip and ankle mobility
  • Poor mid-back mobility
  • Core strength imbalance
  • Poor shoulder mobility and left/right asymmetry
  • Poor knee stability

When you perform a squat or catch a disc, something has to move. But all the joints in our body are not built for mobility – in fact, they alternate from toe to head between mobility and stability in terms of what they’re supposed to do. The best athletes (and the ones with the longest careers) have a functional breakdown that looks like this:

  • Mobile joints: ankles, hips, mid-back, shoulders
  • Stable joints: knees, pelvis/low back, scapula (shoulder blades)

See the problem? Way too many flatballers are under-mobile in most of the key areas – that means that when they move, joints that aren’t designed for mobility are forced to move. Thus, injury, pain and tightness develop in those areas. The tricky part is that most athletes don’t know they’re compensating for under-mobile areas until they get hurt. I’ve seen athletes come back from knee surgery and rehab to be better movers than they were before, and even star in one of my videos demo-ing the perfect squat. This is because the injury has forced them to look at the underlying cause and fix the problem, rather than just treating the symptom. Pulling your hamstring rarely means that you need stronger hamstrings – it probably means your hips are too tight, making it impossible for your glutes to activate and move you around. The hamstrings takes up the slack!

Okay, so, moving well is important. What are things you can do to start working on the base of the pyramid?

  1. Get a movement evaluation. There are several systems out there, but I would most readily recommend the FMS. It’s specific, actionable and it’s a common language that people of all physical disciplines (doctors, massage therapists, PT’s, trainers) can speak if they’re in the network. Qualified people are all over the world, and you can find one not far from you. If you want to get an evaluation from a strength coach, pick someone with good credentials (NSCA CSCS or ACSM advanced certs) or someone who comes recommended by the ultimate community.
  2. Don’t neglect soft tissue restrictions. Breaking up knots in the fascia is super important, and should be done before any mobility work (and definitely before playing or running). If you put a knot into a rope and then pull on either end, what happens to the knot? Get the knots in your muscles and fascia out of the way before you try to move. If you don’t foam roll and use a lacrosse ball, start. If you already do but feel like you don’t know enough about how to do it, try this: find a pressure point either with the ball or the roller and hang out there, moving the joint below (for example, if you’re on your IT band, bend and straighten your knee). Here are a couple moves for knee pain and your mid-back.
  3. Improve your mobility. Focus on the areas that cause you the most problems and then look at the joints above and below. If you have knee problems, look at your hips and your ankles – are they mobile enough? Try the Frog Stretch, or this FMS correction, or any other mobility move on my YouTube channel. Also, check my resources page for other people’s awesome training info and ideas.
    • Know that mobility and good movement are not enough. As important as movement is, it is still only the base of the pyramid. Within any given workout, you need to progress exercises through this chain: soft tissue, mobility, activation, motor control, strength. In other words, break up the knots, move and stretch the body, turn on the right muscles, stabilize the right areas, and get stronger. Test and re-test your progress in this most important of layers, and avoid exercises that reinforce bad patterns.

As Melissa said in her awesome article last week, the strength and conditioning field is fairly new, and there’s not enough research out there. That’s why I put my trust in innovators like Michael Boyle and Gray Cook, and constantly re-evaluate my own approach. Never trust anyone who thinks they know it all already, ‘cuz they’re kidding themselves. My clients have been my greatest teachers, and I’m thrilled every day that I get to work with frisbee players. Excited for 2014, and fired up to be working with Skyd!


Feature photo by Tino Tran

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