The Pitfalls of Separation & Relying on Research

Thought for the Week: Parallax: “The effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions.” 

Why teaching “Separation” can do more harm than good 

Separation is something Eugene talks about all the time when it comes to pitching and hitting – but not for the reasons you’d think. In his current opinion, the majority of teaching around “hip shoulder separation” is butchered – and athletes are paying for it. If you’ve read his book Old School vs. New School, you’d know how important this was to him because he dedicated an entire chapter to describing fallacies when it comes to hip shoulder separation. Before we get into that, let’s start on some common ground.

We know that really good hitters and pitchers create some degree of separation between segments that are required for the production and dissipation of force. We understand that athletes are going to create some sort of stretch (i.e. separation) that pulls slack out of the system before a swing or throw. We know that the pelvis should probably reach its peak speed before the arms do – there is going to be a slight delay, or separation, between certain segments as they pick up speed. However, this doesn’t explain hip shoulder separation in a vacuum. For one, how much separation do we really need? Why do some guys create a lot of separation but others get away with smaller amounts of separation? If someone doesn’t present with an “optimal” amount of separation, is it a mobility problem or is it a movement solution problem? How much mobility do we even need in the first place? 

Mike Trout has had a lot of success without creating a great degree of separation

When we think about creating a lot of separation, the goal becomes creating the biggest stretch you can possibly make. This is usually done from a position where the hips are opened up while the shoulders are working back against them in the opposite direction. By creating more distance between the pelvis and the shoulders, the athlete has appeared to have created more “separation” and might get some more juice in the process, but it doesn’t mean it is an effective or efficient movement solution.

To explain this, let’s pretend you have a raft tied to a boat 15 yards away and the boat takes off full speed. Now let’s pretend you take that same raft and add 30 yards of slack to it. If that same boat takes off full speed with the extra slack of rope, it’s probably going to be bad news for the raft. When we try to artificially add more separation to a player’s movement solutions, we are adding more slack in the rope. The raft then becomes lumbar spine – and it doesn’t usually end well. The trick then becomes understanding how long each player’s rope actually is; then learning when and how to take out unnecessary slack. 

So how do we create separation that is efficient and effective? 

Let’s start the conversation here: Elite players have an exceptional ability to create a large amount of force in a small window of time. The ability to do this depends on their rate of force development (RFD). Your ability to create a lot of force in a small window is crucial when working under time constraints. Both pitchers and hitters have to operate under time constraints (hitting is obviously a little more difficult because of its reactive nature). If your delivery or swing can’t operate within this constraint, it’s not going to play in a game environment. Creating an insane amount of separation might work in a long drive competition, but it’s not going to work when you have to worry about barreling a 95 mph fastball. It’s not about how fast the Ferrari can go at top speed – it’s about how quickly it can get off the line. 

In hitting, the goal is to compress as much force as possible into the baseball in the smallest window of time. The bat should be reaching its peak speed into contact – not well before it. Creating a lot of separation and delaying your barrel into contact to pick up bat speed might create a bigger stretch that helps with force production, but it works against you when you’re trying to barrel up game velocity. This is a big reason why Eugene believes bat speed reaches a point of diminishing returns – we don’t have a large window of time to accelerate the barrel. If the middle is moving and the barrel isn’t, your barrel is dragging. By focusing on separating your hands from your hips, you’ve sacrificed your ability to efficiently strike the ball, made it tougher to barrel up any kind of game (emphasis on game) velocity, and sapped yourself of any adjustability. While pitchers don’t have to operate under the time constraint of a hitter, the sequence to produce velocity is no different – the only thing that changes is the implement. The separation in the sequence doesn’t happen early – it happens late. Separation is not about creating gaps – it’s about learning how to close those gaps as quickly as possible.

When the middle starts to move, the barrel moves in unison.

A really good analogy about separation is to think about how you would rotate a cable or a flywheel (see video below). It becomes very difficult to move the load if you open up your hips, close off your shoulders, and try to create a lot of separation early in the sequence. It becomes much easier to move the load when you stack your shoulders over your hips and move it as one interconnected unit. While you may not appear to have a lot of separation, you’re creating a better sequence by putting your body in better positions (pelvis closed and anchored, midsection braced) so the separation can happen later. Separation should not be viewed as an active move early in the sequence; it should be viewed as a passive move as the result of a good sequence. 

Separation is important, but how we create that separation is just as important. If creating separation prevents us from delivering a large amount of force in a small window of time, it’s not beneficial – it’s a barrier to performance.

Let the Research catch up to us

“When you don’t have any data, you have to use sense.” – Richard Feynman, physicist and Nobel laureate

This topic has been fascinating to dive into because of the current state of player development. I think we have developed a tendency to gravitate towards peer reviewed research. Since we can measure it and write a conclusion about it, it comes off as factual and as something we can trust – but that’s not always the case. Reading and understanding the research is very important, but taking it as absolute truth is a huge mistake. There are plenty of coaches that do things that aren’t validated by research, but it doesn’t mean they don’t work. Every day in the trenches is a research project. Using a lack of research as a barrier to actually coaching is a problem because the best coaches are doing research every single day. They just don’t need to know it’s peer reviewed to know it works. 

There are plenty of coaches that do things that aren’t validated by research, but it doesn’t mean they don’t work. Every day in the trenches is a research project. 

If we look to the strength and conditioning field, Michael Boyle – owner of Boyle Strength & Conditioning – explained the fallacies of research in the Muscles and Management podcast by bringing up how much it’s changed. When research came out arguing against static stretching, Boyle jumped on the trend and eliminated all of the static stretching in his programs – until he started to see more injuries. When he discovered a lot of the physical therapy work being prescribed to injured clients included a lot of stretching, he rethought his stance and decided to incorporate static stretching again. Sure enough, injuries started to go down.

Boyle does plenty of stuff in his gym that doesn’t have any “evidence” behind it, but he argues he actually has plenty of evidence: The people he actually trains. He doesn’t really care there isn’t any peer reviewed research that supports foam rolling because he has plenty of clients who feel better after foam rolling. He’s not interested in rethinking his stance against bilateral back squatting just because some study used it to test for lower body strength; a deadlift, split squat, or front squat could have proved the same point without throwing the L5 under the bus. Invalidating someone’s experience because there isn’t any “research” to support it is not only stupid; it’s a lazy way to poke holes in someone else’s training.

“A wise man once said research is sports history. The researchers study what we’ve already done to figure out why we did it.” – Michael Boyle, from Muscles and Management podcast episode 57

Eugene didn’t need a research study to figure out the arm recoil and kick back were good ideas. He used common sense. If basically all guys who throw fuel recoil, why would recoiling be a bad thing? If some of the best hitters in the world kick back with their back leg, why wouldn’t we try to teach it? Better yet, why would we take it away from someone who naturally does it?

“We have to consider the research process and what it entails to even get things out,” said Eugene. “While they are busy trying to get large enough samples for their work and making sure they eliminate variables, boots on the ground are figuring out stuff considerably faster. After seeing exit velocities improve 10+ mph in as little as 20 minutes by adding a kick back, and seeing similar improvements in others, I knew it needed to be tested. After testing it with like 30 players and seeing ridiculous differences, I didn’t need to wait for some bullshit study to tell me it’s good.

“I’m trying to get results today, not wait for someone to give me the okay. We should always be 20 years ahead of the research. Let them catch up to us; not the other way around.”  

Before we pull out the research card, let’s start by using common sense card. New information is going to come out that will shape our beliefs and change how we train, but it cannot be used to confirm agendas, discredit experience, or ignore empirical observation. Research is used to enhance our understanding of why things work and why they don’t work; it should not be a barrier to actually coaching. It you want to be right rather than be helpful, do us a favor and don’t research.

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