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Functional Sports Conditioning: Bridging the Gap between Fitness & Athleticism

post #1 of 13
Thread Starter 
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 http://www.Gambetta.com describes “Gaposis” as 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. Many trainers now use exercises based on the Feldenkrais technique, that integrate vision and movement.

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 Tremblont 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. Fitness instructor Suzanne Nottingham, is a strong advocate of outdoor training. Check out her website at http://www.suzannenottingham.com. Be sure to take a look at the balance exercises.

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. http://www.paulchekseminars.com

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 skier is not used to training in a multi-planar movement environment.

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. I know you are quite 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, as skiers, we should 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. 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. Woman 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. If you were to compare modern skiing to an older classical style, you can see that the modern technique uses the transverse abdominals and the deeper layer of internal obliques as stabilizers. In the pre shaped ski days, there seemed to be a greater reliance on the obliques in their rotational function. When a skier uses the Feldekrais image of "move your belly button to the right to iniate a right turn" they are actually engaging their deeper stabilizers. And since the stablizers ARE in fact endurance muscles, engaging them is far more energy efficient then over using the external muscles.

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:


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. 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!
http://www.LisaFitness.com http://www.ski-fitness.net


<FONT COLOR="#800080" SIZE="1">[ January 13, 2002 07:42 PM: Message edited 6 times, by Lisamarie ]</font>
post #2 of 13

Good article. The gym is full of big arms and shoulders and no calves type blokes. Good bouncers but not much good in the chase. he he ... you can't catch me.

I do an all-round routine in the gym and vary it with surfing and\or beach fast walk on my gym "rest" days. I believe my surfing gives me an excellent core workout due to the dynamic outdoor nature of the sport; the breathing, the arched back paddling and the quick pushup take off maneuver are fast twitch\endurance moves. Mostly this is upper\core body so my static weight gym work has a lot of leg and lower body emphasis.

Would you agree with surfing being a core workout?

Does speed inline or ice skating work the core muscles?

Cheers I will include some more core exercises as I agree with your articles philosophy.

Are the exercises on this page any good? Abs work

Oz [img]smile.gif[/img]

P.S. your post has one of those sneaky repeat paragraphs.

<FONT COLOR="#800080" SIZE="1">[ November 20, 2001 02:29 AM: Message edited 1 time, by man from oz ]</font>
post #3 of 13
Good post! I have had an ongoing fight with the local school's ski coach. He only understands gym machine training for the team.

He hasn't caught on that the team members that progress are the ones belonging to the local ski hill's team. They do good training!

Twice I have "guest lectured", but then was politely told that there is too much to do, and the machines can be used anytime. Members can talk and socialize while working out. Oh well.

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
post #4 of 13
Good post LM,

It was funny to see a group of very fit boxers try mountain biking. Even though they ran, lifted weights (low weight high reps for stamina) and went through intensive trainning sessions (inc 15 mins abs work) they tired very quickley.

I would bet treking, water skiing, inline skating, rock climbing and mountain biking are better trainning methods for skiing than static exercises as they all involve balance, longer periods of exercise and changing terrain - not just a few reps of each muscle on a flat gym floor. Some static machines do have their use (e.g. strengthening the hamstrings to prevent ACL injury) but using free-weights with balance (e.g. one legged lifts) is probably better but doesn't this increase the risk of injury? I can see why the skiing simulation machines (e.g. skiers edge) are so successful.

post #5 of 13
Thread Starter 
Whew! That post needed an edit job. I should never try to copy from a Word program at 1:30 am!

Oz, surfing DEFINITELY uses core stability. The exercises you linked to are good. many of them are Pilates based. Check out this site http://www.sissel-online.com

Click on "Free Exercises" . If you use the drop down, select Pilates. You can see how you can use the ball and other toys to make it more stability oriented.

Kee Tov; I feel your pain. Here's a way too break them in "gently'. First, have them do a machine exercise. Right afterwards, perform an exercise thatuses the same muscle groups, but takes a more athletic approach to its usage, That way,you are not taking anything away from anyone, you are adding something.

DB: You are correct! I remeber when you and i were both 'newbies' here, and we spoke of the frustration of being very fit people, but without a "natural" talent for skiing. These programs have been part of a solution for me.

Thank you everyone for your feedback. It is helpful for me to record my notes here, as opposed to notebooks gathered throughout the house, which have the capability of turning into dog and cat toys!
post #6 of 13
Thread Starter 
Hey check this out! I just recieved an email from JC Santana with a link to his website: http://www.ihpfit.com/BeneFuncTrain.htm

Two of the things he said about Functional Training could be applied to ski instruction: Controlled Chaos: IMHO, one of the reasons people take up skiing in "later" years, is an escape from predictability. Good ski instruction provides an opportunity to experience the "chaos" in a RELATIVELY safe way.

Have fun and make sense: A ski lesson should be enjoyable, but it should also have a foundation of logic that makes it accepable to the student.
post #7 of 13
I wonder how an entire summer and autumn of trampolining (4 times per week) will affect my skiing? Can't wait to find out...
post #8 of 13
Thread Starter 
I would say that's a pretty decent method of sports conditioning. I use urban rebounders, http://www.urbanrebounding.com
in my ski conditioning classes. Its a good mix with traditional plyometrics, ssince your knees get a [sort of} rest. Also, the surface of a rebounder or trampoline is a bit less predictable than the floor, making it a more functional training tool.
I think G- Dubs does some trampoline training for "new school".
post #9 of 13

Very well put. I believe that more trainers and instructors need to take into account that there is more to conditioning the body than performing traditional muscle work. It's like that old song that says "the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone the thight bone is connected to the hip bone etc." It's all interconnected and works together so it should be trained in the same manner. When do you ever isolate a muscle when you ski, hike, swim, or run? We need to train the movement which in turn will train the muscles for the activity. I do this with personal training clients and group exercise classes. If you haven't tried this form of training I highly recommend that you do. It's challenging yet alot of fun.

Lisa even though I have know you for a long time you do still amaze me with your depth of knowledge.
post #10 of 13
Thread Starter 
Why, thank you, Top Gun! Top Gun is a colleague of mine. We were roomates at the Miami Sports Conditioning Conference, and spent hours rehashing all the material.
BTW, Top Gun, myself and another trainer, who is also a Physical Therapist, are in the process of developing a workshop based on these concepts . I will be doing the basic exercise on how to "find the core" so to speak, and they will be challenging the stability and agiliity with all sorts of fun drills. We will start it "in house" at our gym, but hope to take it on the road. We are probably open to a barter sytem at ski areas.
post #11 of 13
<BLOCKQUOTE>quote:</font><HR>Originally posted by man from oz:

...The gym is full of big arms and shoulders and no calves type blokes. .

No kidding. That is a pet peeve around here. I guess since I grew up skiing and playing soccer and tennis, the skinny top/strong bottom has more appeal. I guess "strong" both places would be preferable, but in my book an athlete MUST have good legs. Any bozo can lift weights.
post #12 of 13
Thread Starter 
"An athlete must have good legs". GOOD POINT! An important goal of functional training is to bridge the gap between functional and absolute strength. Someone may be able to curl 100lbs. on a seated bicep machine, but what will happen if they are standing up, with no weight belt, or any other sort of support?
Not much!
Some people have overtrained their body so much using restrictive equipment devices, that they are relatively weak when it comes to using their entire body as an integrated, functional unit.
post #13 of 13
Just a note - a slightly updated and reformatted version of Lisa's article that started this thread is now posted at her website at: http://www.lisafitness.com/articles/...orts_cond.html

Or just get to it from the links at the front pages of http://lisafitness.com or http://ski-fitness.net - there's also a formatted-for-printing version.

Mark (the webmaster who should spend more time in the gym and less time on ski-fitness websites)
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