Functional Training for New Strength Training Athletes

Functional training is taking the strength and conditioning world by storm for three very important reasons. First off, it’s fun. If you have never dragged a sled or flipped a tire, you don’t know what you are missing. It may sound kind of silly but the first time you get under a tire, drive your hips forward and heave it over you’ll know that you’ve found something that you’ll want to do again and again.

Next, there is less muscle soreness in the days following a functional workout vs. a traditional strength training workout using barbells, dumbbells and bands. The reason for this is that there is little or no eccentric contraction to most functional movements. The eccentric phase is the lengthening phase for a muscle – with a squat, it is the movement from the top to the bottom and this tends to be the phase that causes the most damage and subsequent pain. With functional movements, this phase is all but eliminated. For example, when dragging a sled, the load wants to stay still. No matter how much weight you put on it, it is never going to pull you backwards.  The same applies to tire flipping, sledgehammer swings and battle ropes – basically you are breaking inertia and that is it.

Finally, functional training gets you results that are useful in sport. Traditional BB and DB work makes an athlete stronger and they can then use this strength in their sport, but there isn’t a direct relationship between BB strength and skating for example –performing a dead lift will make someone much stronger but the strength they gain is general and needs to be assimilated in order for it to be put to use. Functional movements however more closely resemble the movements one performs during athletic competition. Sled drag crossovers, for example, will increase the strength of the muscles responsible for the crossover movement which will help to increase the power of this movement. Another great example would be Russian Boxes – two 35 degree ramps that slope towards each other. The action of jumping off of the outside leg from one box to the other is very similar to the skating motion. This functional movement is excellent for improving ones skating power.

Given these facts, I recommend functional training for everyone – from the young athlete to the older adult who is looking to keep their mobility into their later years, and everyone in between. In fact, I believe that functional training is particularly useful for those athletes who have never done any formal strength training before because they already have some experience with the movements – most sports have the athletes run, twist and jump and these are all facets of functional training – the learning curve for functional training is much shorter making these types of workouts production very quickly.

When functional workouts are paired with proper nutrition the results are fantastic! Body composition will improve dramatically as decreases in body fat are coupled with increases in lean body mass. On-field or on-ice performance will also improve dramatically as stronger leaner athletes are able to produce more relative force – this translates into harder hitting, higher jumping, and faster running or skating. Proper nutritional habits will fuel the body correctly meaning it can function optimally – higher sustained energy, higher force generation and quicker recovery from intense efforts.

If you have never done a functional workout before, you have no idea what you are missing!

What Can Aerobic Athletes Learn from Strength Athletes?

For too long, many people have been unwilling to bridge the gap between how aerobic athletes and strength athletes train. It is as though they are on different sides of the training fence and anyone who suggests that there should be similarities in the way these two groups train is considered an outcast. But recently, research shows that things have started to change; at least in terms of what an aerobic athlete can gain from training like a strength athlete. There are so many obvious benefits, that we now know it is not wise for an aerobic athlete to hold onto the notion that strength training isn’t useful for their purposes.

Here are some of the benefits of strength training for aerobic athletes:

Strength training will help avoid injuries

There is a popular saying that if you repeat one movement too often, you’re going to sustain an injury in the overworked area. This is true because, while the body can adapt to becoming very good at the one thing, it starts to become very poor at the things that are not being tended to. Long distance runners, for example, tend to end up with bad knees. Some believe that this is because of the impact running causes to the leg and hip joints.  But this isn’t necessarily the case, because the body eventually adapts to the impact sustained. The actual reason why the knees end up hurting is because the work of running results in an imbalance in the muscles of the upper leg. Distance running doesn’t require a lot of hamstring strength and as a consequence, the hamstrings do not develop well enough to hold the knee in a safe manner. This lack of development decreases the structural strength of the knee and therefore increases the risk of injury.

Strength training will help to eliminate pain caused by muscle imbalances

Many cyclists suffer from knee pain because their IT bands are extremely tight which causes their knee caps to track incorrectly during peddling. (IT Bands – iliotibial – are a tough group of fibres that run along the outside of the thigh.  They function primarily as stabilizers.) This IT Band pain can be avoided if the muscles that pull the knee cap in the other direction are strong enough to hold the knee cap in line. Strength training is the only way to correct this weakness and allow for pain-free riding.

Because strength training improves the body overall, aerobic exercise will seem easier

In almost all sports, performance improves if the athlete is able to generate more relative force from their muscles. The easiest way to increase relative force is to get rid of extra body fat and increase muscle mass. Contrary to popular belief, strength training is much more effective at reducing body fat than performing aerobic exercise. In fact, there is growing evidence that aerobic exercise stops being an effective method for fat loss after about 8 weeks as the body adapts to the demands of the movement. Once this happens, fat loss tapers off and the body stays the same. More often than not, if food intake is not reduced to adjust for this decrease in calorie-burn fat will begin to accumulate and the athlete will be LESS powerful.

Strength training will help make the muscles more powerful, thus increasing relative strength

Making the muscles stronger will boost relative strength. From a practical stand point, a muscle that produces more force will propel an athlete further with each movement when compared to muscle that is weaker. Imagine an athlete who is able to add an inch to stride length because of strength training. Given that stride rate tends to remain stable over the course of a 24 mile marathon, that extra inch is going to mean fewer strides are needed to complete the run, so a runners time will decrease by a significant amount. Even if the stride length only increases by 1 cm, the improvement is going to be dramatic.

Strength training will make the body more efficient at recruiting muscle fibres

The nervous system adapts to the needs of strength training and it becomes more efficient at recruiting more muscle fibres. This improved coordination of firing will result in a further increase in force production. This is different from increasing the strength of the muscle in that a weaker muscle can produce the same amount of force as a stronger muscle if more muscle fibres are recruited, but the outcome is improved stride length and increased force production.

The diet of strength training athletes is very close to the ideal diet for aerobic athletes

Contrary to popular belief, aerobic athletes do not need to consume massive amounts of carbohydrate. However, it must be said, that they need more carbs than the average under-active person.  They should take in similar amounts of protein and good fat as the strength training athlete consumes. The type of carbohydrate consumed should include slowly digested carbohydrates, like oatmeal or sweet potatoes, as well as carbohydrates that are immediately available for energy, quickly digested carbohydrates such as Gatorade, dextrose, maltodextrin, etc… at the time of greatest physical exertion. This is exactly the same way strength training athletes eat. It ensures they get enough energy to fuel their workout and enough protein and fat for body repair.

Strength Training For Figure Skaters

Figure skating is one of the most demanding sports in the world because it is the combination of the requirements for middle distance running (programs last between three and five minutes), Olympic lifting (extremely explosive movements), gymnastics (holding difficult positions for 10-15 seconds) and the hitting aspects of hockey or football (the sudden impact with the ice when a jump doesn’t go according to plan). For this reason, it is important that figure skaters train for all of these events. If you are a parent of a figure skater, you should consider the 5 facts below when making the decision whether or not to have them strength train.

1) Your child is going to have muscle imbalances that are hurting their on-ice performance.

Figuring skating is a very repetitive sport that places a disproportionate amount of demand on landing leg. Most of the skaters I have worked with tend to have well balanced landing legs due to the sheer number of jumps and landings they perform during their practices – 100’s of reps per week. The other legs however do not function as well. Their knees tend to buckle during testing which is a good indication of a weakness in one of the muscle responsible for straightening the leg {most skaters tend to have a weakness in the vastus medialis obliquus which is the tear drop shaped muscle on the front of the leg to the inside of the knee.} It is important to correct this imbalance and doing so will improve the skaters’ performance.

2) Your child would be safer and more resistant to injury if they where stronger.

Figure skating can be a contact sport, particularly when learning a new jump. Falling is inevitable so it makes sense to build up the body to help absorb the impact. You can also help to prevent knee injuries by training the hamstring muscles given that they play an important role in knee stability – if the knee doesn’t twist ACL injuries will be avoided. Figure skaters tend to have weak ankle stabilizers because their skates are fairly ridged and this also puts them at an increased risk of injury.

3) Your child is going to need to get stronger to progress at their sport.

To advance from doubles to triples a skater is going to need to jump higher and rotate faster and this is only possible if they get stronger. The strength required to make this leap will come with lots of practice but if they strength train a skater will achieve these gains more quickly. This could save them a lot of time and move them through the ranks faster than their non-training competition.

4) Your child should have a good sense of body awareness.

Skaters need to have a very good sense of where they are in relation to the ice and the rest of their body. This sense develops over time and is enhanced with completion of all types of movements. Strength training that takes a joint through the complete range of motion is going to enhance body awareness because it puts the body into all types of positions. It will also be enhanced by performing movements were the skater holds a position so they can feel the muscle contract e.g. a front plank or a superman hold. These movements, called isometric holds, help to establish the mind/body connection that is critical for improving body awareness.

5) Your child’s brain is going to develop to be better at the things it does more frequently.

One of the marvelous things about the human brain is its ability to devote greater portions of itself to the things that happen more often. This means is we get more brain power to do something the more we do it – the more we move the better we get at moving. By incorporating strength movements into a training regime, we increase a skater’s ability at controlling their movement. While there may be no direct carry-over from split squats to triple axels, performing splits squats will cause changes to the nervous system that WILL help the skater’s movement.

When it comes to strength training for figure skaters, there are really no reasons for them NOT to do it – provided they are trained by a strength coach who understands the needs of the athlete and the demands of the sport. Assuming their coach knows what they are doing it’s only going to make the skater more athletic and improve their chances of winning and avoiding injury.