Conditioning for Sport Performance

By now, most of us are well aware of the fact that having at least some degree of physical fitness can be an asset for sports performance. But recent studies have shown that traditional methods of physical conditioning may not be the optimal method of enhancing athleticism. Although strength, flexibility and both muscular and cardiovascular endurance are certainly essential to our well being, when achieved within the bonds of traditionalism, these assets become what I would call “sport adjunctive”, as opposed to “sport specific”.

Does this mean that conditioning methods such weight training and cardio vascular machines should be avoided? Absolutely not! But when attempting to create a fitness program designed to optimize athletic performance, it may be necessary to “think outside the box”.

How many of you know someone who is incredibly fit, a “gym rat” who spends hours every day lifting weights and “doing cardio”, as they say? Are you surprised that sometimes, if you were to take this person skiing, or try to have them play a sport such as soccer, they may not always be as skillful as you thought they would be? Sports medicine expert Vern Gambetta uses the word “Gaposis” to describe the gap between how we train and how we play. In the past, programs that are excellent for improving general fitness have been found lacking, in their ability to enhance athletic performance. So if an athlete came to a trainer, with an injury, or perhaps some difficulty with a particular skill, the trainer would identify which muscles are tight, and which muscles are weak. The weak muscles would be strengthened, the tight ones, stretched.

But this solved only half the problem!

Many injuries, as well as difficulties performing specific skills, are the result of faulty muscular recruitment patterns. An obvious example, would be the skier, who iniates a turn by rotating the upper torso. So in order to correct the problem, the trainer must integrate the prescribed exercises into movement patterns that either resemble the sport, or use a similar pattern of muscular recruitment.

What differentiates a sport specific program from a general conditioning program? One of the first things that come to mind is the psychological element. Most machine training is completely predictable. If you sit on a leg extension machine and straighten your legs, the machine mechanism will move upwards in a straight line, regardless of whether you are in alignment and engaging your deep core stabilizers. True athletes show a remarkable ability to respond quickly to random stimuli. A program that encourages spontaneity and quick reaction times may be far more beneficial in promoting athleticism than machine training.

When speaking about quick reaction times, it is important to consider visual acuity, and the neuro ocular connection necessary for skillful sports performance. Many sports conditioning programs utilize medicine ball training. They can be used in simple exercise tasks, as well as in conjunction with balance conditioning. These tools are a fun and exciting way to improve reaction time in sports performance.

Some trainers are starting to use exercises derived from the Feldenkrais technique, which integrate vision and movement.This can have a positive affect on reaction times.

Another overlooked factor in sports conditioning programs is environmental adaptation. Exercising in a gym that has been heated to 85 degrees will do very little to help you acclimatize for your ski trip to Mount Tremblant in January. In the same way, working out in an overly air-conditioned gym in the summer will not do much for the thermo-regulation necessary for outdoor sports.

In speaking of balance, we come to the “COREography” of sports conditioning programs. There’s a “new” concept in the fitness world today. Some call it Functional Exercise, some call it Core Stability, but whatever you call it, this is something sports participants should be very excited about. If you look around any gym nowadays, you will see pieces of equipment that you would expect to find only in a physical therapists office. Wobble boards, stability balls, foam rollers, all these things that challenge balance and stability, making it necessary to utilize your deep core muscles. In August of 2000, the International Dance Exercise Association (IDEA – awarded Suzanne Nottingham, a fitness instructor as well as a level 3 certified ski instructor at Mammoth, the title of Fitness Instructor of the year. This would mark the first year that IDEA awarded this title to a “non dance-like” instructor. Suzanne, who is a contributor to Ski Magazine, as well as TPS, designs fitness programs which promote, balance, stability, proprioception and alignment. Since fitness instructors tend to be influenced by whoever wins the Fitness Instructor of the Year award, these types of programs are becoming quite popular at fitness centers.

Although many may claim to be the “originators” of this “core movement”, no one influential in the fitness industry has explored these concepts to the degree of Paul Chek. According to Chek, an exercise must satisfy many components to be labeled “functional”. Consider the equipment at your gym. You are working, for the most part, in a totally stable position, which is provided by the machine. As a result, your bodies own stabilizers have very little need for activation. Now consider skiing. Is there some machine that holds our body in a stable position as we go down the slope, or do we rely on our internal stabilizers?

Functional exercise utilizes both the body’s righting and tilting reflexes. It involves keeping the center of gravity over the base of support in both the dynamic and static postural alignment. Exercises most be selected that improve bio-motor abilities relevant to the sport. And if muscle groups are isolated, they must then be integrated.

Sport specific training involves the development of movement patterns that either resemble, or mimic some aspect of the sport. With the exception of the treatment of injures, in most cases, it will not involve muscle isolation without integration. Studies in motor learning have suggested that the brain does a better job at recognizing movement patterns than it does at recognizing isolated muscular contractions.

Consider the fact that most sports injuries will occur in the standing position, usually because the participant has limited balance, stability strength and power in an upright alignment. Injuries such as ACL tears happen at oblique angles, partially because the athlete is not used to training in a multi-planar movement environment. Approximately 80% of the muscles of the body are rotational, but most machine exercises are linear.

Why then, do many people still consider seated weight training machines that usually operate in singular planes of movement, the BEST method of sports conditioning? By eliminating the need to stabilize the body, machine training makes the use of the core stabilizers unnecessary.

The body’s core stabilizers are at the heart of this trend toward a more functional mode of fitness. The concept of “all movement stemming from one’s center” is the credo for any cutting edge fitness instructor. So does this mean that you should start doing 200 crunches a day? I think not.

Consider this. Observe the alignment of many skiers on the hill. You may be aware of a hunched forward position in some of them, with the neck protruding in a manner that I’ve heard instructors describe “The Stevie Wonder” position. Now, think about a classic, abdominal crunch, especially if performed with a pelvic tilt. Note the rounding of the spine, and the jutting forward of the neck. Hmmmm.

But more important is the fact that while crunches are adequate for strengthening the rectus abdominals, athlete need to be infinitely more concerned with the transverse abdominals. The transverse are what Paul Chek refers to as the “inner unit”. Their role is to support the internal organs, and assist in both static and dynamic postural stability.

Chek even has a theory about how a weak transverse abdominal muscle may eventually cause knee problems. Consider this: In healthy individuals, anytime you take step, the transverse abdominal muscle should become activated. If it does not, it will affect the stability of the sacroiliac joint, which may cause a slight twisting action that can effect the alignment of the femur. Uh oh! Knee injury.

So, how do we locate these guys? Some easy ways. Cough. Feel an inner tightening. That’s your transverse. Or take a deep breath, then, upon exhaling, press your navel to your spine. The transverse abdominals will press against the diaphragm to expel the air during an exhalation. Women may be most familiar with the best way to activate the transverse abdominals. Lately, the concept of exercising the pelvic floor all throughout life has been given so much press, that I’m surprised that there isn’t a slogan “Kegels, not just for pregnancy”.

Most women are taught to use their pelvic floor by visualizing the muscles they would use if they were trying to stop the flow of urine. For the sake of fitness activities, I tell my students to think of the area down below as a hammock, and to draw the hammock up. The affect on alignment and balance is amazing. I have also told this to new ski students as an image for getting off a lift chair, and I have whispered it to fellow ski students who are totally hunched over. Men also have a pelvic floor. Many have told me that doing Kegel exercises prescribed by a physical therapist has improved their lower backs and thus improved their skiing. I’ve also been told that this is highly effective for skiing moguls!

Recently, I learned that it is possible for one side of the transverse abdominal muscle to be weaker than the other. Sometimes, this may happen as a result of an injury to any body part. If someone has a weak TVA on one side, their balance and skill on that side may be impaired.

This may become apparent in how someone skis. A classic example is the student who cannot unweight the inside ski on one side of the body. Or the student who can traverse the hill balanced on one ski, but not the other. If the student feels that they cannot balance in certain moves due to biomechanical instabilities, they will not progress, even with the best instructors available. And until they train their bodies to use the transverse abdominals and other stabilizers on both sides, their skiing may always have an uneven quality.

The transverse abdominal muscle is supposed to be a postural stabilizer. It is essentially an endurance muscle. The superficial rectus abdominus, which is utilized in crunches, is NOT supposed to be involved in endurance. But by doing 100s of crunches a day, and then, sitting hunched over a computer, we have turned these spinal flexors into endurance muscles. As a result, many people walk around in what we call “upper cross” syndrome; hunched posture, neck forward. To further complicate matters, by over using our superficial muscles, we have trained our inner unit to be less functional.

Force generation begins in the core stabilizers. It then travels down to the feet, back up to the center, and then to the upper extremities. So when we talk about developing power for any sort of sport , you need to strengthen your core, before anything else.

Does anyone think they can fire a cannon from a canoe?

What other factors need to be considered when speaking about functional sports conditioning? One of the most cohesive, comprehensive methodologies was developed by Juan Carlos Santana, of the Institute for Human Performance ( in Boca Raton Fla. (561-620-9556) His book, Functional Training, Breaking the Bonds of Traditionalism, is a favorite of many fitness trainers.

It is Santana’s observation that activity takes place in 4 Pillars of Human Movement:

  • Standing & Locomotion
  • Level Changes
  • Pushing & Pulling
  • Rotation

In designing a conditioning program for a specific sport, it is important to understand the interplay of the movements within these 4 pillars. The next step is to determine what energy system is used in the sport, aerobic or anaerobic. Assessing the strength component of a specific sport is crucial, since strength has a direct relationship with speed. At this point, it becomes crucial to bridge the gap between functional and absolute strength. Someone may be able to lift a considerable amount of weight when using exercise equipment, but they may be much weaker when they are working without the constraints of a machine or weight belt.

As to the other aspects of speed development, acceleration is an important part of any form of sports conditioning. Therefore, it can be helpful to perform some sports conditioning exercises at a higher speed than one would use for traditional weight training, obviously using a lighter weight. But it is deceleration that fine-tunes most sports. Unfortunately this is often neglected. Cutting edge trainers are now exploring different ways to add deceleration into the conditioning routine.

If an athlete is involved in “throwing sports”, or activities such as golf, it is crucial that they are not given loads that are inappropriate for their grip strength, even if their muscles can handle it. To do so can cause hand injuries. Some trainers such as Paul Chek, will actually substitute the handgrips on a pulley machine for the opposite teams rugby jersey, when training rugby teams. This obviously adds an interesting psychological component to the training!

If you are already following some sort of fitness program, use these guidelines to tweak your routine, in order to make it sport specific!

Have Fun!

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