Front Side vs. Back Side Loaders
The load and/or force the body imparts into the ground can be focused through the forefoot, the heel or the mid-foot when standing, running, accelerating and landing. In my experience women and elite strength/power athletes tend to slightly front side to mid foot load in many single leg exercises such as lunges and step-ups. Let’s examine some differences in loading the foot when training.
Acceleration– When starting from a standing or stance position, the load will seem to be more front side due to the lower the
center of gravity and the lean into the direction of movement. However, in elite athletes, the load will be on the fore foot with the backside chain tremendously engaged. Many true front side loaders and less elite athletes will tend to impart force through the forefoot with less than maximal/optimal backside chain involvement. Think of jumping rope for example. Many poor jump ropers will plantar flex and keep the heels off of the ground and just use the lower leg and foot to jump rope. Accomplished rope jumpers will flex at the hip, knee and ankle, using the entire lower body to absorb and produce force in order to jump rope. Many start drills and technical warm-up drills are front side mechanics emphasized in terms of coaching cues. For example, in A skips, the emphasis is in knee up/toe up front side action rather than force into the ground via the support leg. Another example; in wall drills the common coaching cues are knee up/toe up rather than back side chain emphasis via glute extension and force into the ground. Emphasizing backside chain involvement and focus via glute activation, recruitment and focus is a key to improving performance as greater force into the ground will improve acceleration. One way to do this is to emphasize backside recruitment and full/mid-foot loading over forefoot loading. This stands true and includes jumping, change of direction drills, sprints and plyometric training.
Running – This has come to the forefront in the popular media via the minimalist shoes and the book “Born to Run”. Forefoot/mid-foot running as opposed to heel force absorption jogging/running is a huge debate. For most runners, I feel the load of the fore foot strike over distance is much too great for many runners/joggers due to the fitness level, lower leg and foot strength as well as the size of the athlete combined with the lack of force absorption properties of the minimalist shoe. If you have spent much of your life running on the forefoot/midfoot as many barefoot runners in the warmer climates and poorer parts of the world, your ability to forefoot run has not been compromised with hundred dollar running shoes, too much sedentary time and too much food. For most of the people that we as fitness professionals come into contact with, minimalist shoes are great for walking around, warm – up and maybe even short interval training. But, most of the population that wants to run distance in minimalist shoes will find the foot unprepared and unable to handle the trauma of force absorption without an extended transition period of weeks and even months in order to prevent injury.
Strength Training– In strength training the load is full footed in many/most cases. The load is distributed fairly evenly,
50/50 from the heel to the forefoot. Full footed is much different than flat footed as flat footed is relaxed and collapsed while full footed utilizes an active arch and foot and is expanded. If the load is too fore foot, especially with the resistance distributed on or through the shoulders, the resulting transfer of force through the spine transitions from compression force to greater and greater sheer force. This places greater forces on the ability of the front side core to resist collapse and the resultant spinal flexion, which is the mechanism of injury for disc trauma. In squatting and dead lifting, it is common training cues to turn the foot out 7-15 degrees and impart the force down and laterally by pushing out through the feet as the loads increase in order to lessen the load on the lower back and increase force through the hips and glutes. In Olympic lifting it is also common to turn the feet out 7-15 degrees and push out, as the pattern of the lifts begin with a squat/deadlift type movement. The difference being the acceleration of the bar and the technique after the pull as the load is less in terms of the absolute strength level of the athlete compared to the power lifts such as the squat and deadlift. In each case, the load will be full footed. In less accomplished Olympic lifters the load will shift through the forefoot at the top of the pull.
Landing– When absorbing force as in landing after a jump, sport skill, plyometric or Olympic lift it is critical to absorb the force in the same pattern as the lowering phase of the squat. If the force absorption phase is so great that the athlete goes lower and lower into a squat, the pattern should mimic a normal squatting pattern. When the load is centered in the mid-foot the backside chain can assist in force absorption and the load is closer to the center of gravity. As the force is absorbed increasingly on the front side and through the fore foot, the knees and lower back will be forced to become more and more involved. For an example, when doing multiple loaded step ups as in the Javorek Dumbbell Series which use 10-15% of fat free body weight, the inventor, Istvan “Steve” Javorek emphasized the
full foot loading of the foot on the bench as when this does not occur, the athlete will have back discomfort. Gymnasts are coached to land on the forefoot for dismounts and when tumbling. Talk to multiple national class gymnasts in their 40’s and older and inquire as to their back and knee health. Even though it happens fast in gymnastics, the force absorption is much the same as when the load drifts forward in a squat and dead lift, which occurs slow enough that we can see it and we are all aware of the consequences of losing your form forward in a squat and/or dead lift.
Gender – Women tend to front side load more than men. Why? In my opinion it is cultural and well as gender related. When women wear heels, the load when squatting will tend to drift forward with the increasing height of the heel. When wearing a skirt, women are precluded from using optimal squatting technique with the knees out and the hip hinging, so women learn to squat loading the forefoot and flexing the knees first. In addition, many women tend to have relatively weaker glute utilization in my experience than comparable elite level male athletes. This glute weakness will lend itself to dependence on the quads for greater force absorption/application.
Full footed, toe out 7-15 degrees, lateral pushing the feet while hinging at the hip is the optimal way to load force. Bracing the front side core, keeping the chest up and leading the movement up with the heart is the key to jumping, squatting, dead lifting and force absorption/force production for optimal patterns, power and long term health.
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