Lowering the Bar

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Fitness for the Outside Athlete, December 1996

Lowering the Bar

To avoid the weight-room snooze, think sport-specific
By Andrew Tilin

Paddling | Cycling | Rock Climbing | Running | In-Line Skating

Winter, with its stinging winds, icy streets, and sun-starved days, has at least one fitness benefit: It forces us into the gym. We embark on ambitious weight routines, working toward a full-body overhaul. But before long, the inside of the gym doesn't have much more appeal than the dingy skies outside, and we find ourselves simultaneously overwhelmed and bored, on the verge of quitting. "Club memberships hit their peak around the beginning of the year," says Steve Farrell, an exercise physiologist at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas. "But those numbers only last a few weeks. People don't stick with it."

Indeed, Farrell continues, even elite athletes have to search for motivation in the gym, which is why many focus their off-season strength training on working what physiologists call the "primary movers," the muscles key to their sports. "Think specificity," Farrell says. "Ask yourself, 'What muscle groups do I use most?' There's no need for a distance runner to spend enormous amounts of time doing upper-body work."

Of course, the Body-by-Jake types will protest that full-body gym regimens achieve better overall fitness. True. But as David Morris, head physiologist for USA Cycling, points out, "Working the primary movers is far better than doing nothing at all."

Whether you're readying yourself to hop on the bike or into a kayak come spring, though, you should start your sport-specific preseason weight routine soon. Like tomorrow. "The biggest strength gains are made in the first eight to 12 weeks of the program," Farrell says. "But there's still significant improvement after four months. If I were running Boston in April, I'd start lifting in December."

Take care in these abbreviated routines not to overemphasize one set of muscles at the expense of its neighbors. Physiologists like Morris warn that "opposing" muscle groups, such as the hamstrings and quadriceps, must be strengthened together, since they act as counterbalances.

Here then are five fast, minimalist indoor routines that will put you in fighting shape for spring cycling, paddling, running, rock climbing, and in-line skating. Just three quick visits per week to the weight room for three or four months will satisfy your strength-training needs--and ensure that joining the club isn't merely an exercise in futility.

"Think of the lower torso as the engine and the shoulders and arms as the transmission," says kayak guide Chris Spelius, a former Olympic flatwater paddler. "Unfortunately, some folks use the transmission as the engine, and that causes problems."

To combat transmission wear, Spelius advises strengthening all the shoulder muscles--with special emphasis on the rotator cuff. Essential to paddling, the RC is a set of four spindly muscles in each shoulder that are difficult to isolate and strengthen. Spelius, who began religiously working his RC after a bout with shoulder pain--"I found out my rotator cuff had the strength of a kitten's"--advocates using a length of surgical tubing (four to six feet will do) in lieu of weights; it allows you to work your muscles in a broader range of motions.

Internal rotations: Anchor the elastic tube to anything stationary at shoulder height, and move far enough away so that the tube is under tension. Stand with your right side perpendicular to the anchor spot. Hold your right upper arm at your side, your lower arm forward, angled slightly upward, and grasp the end of the tube. Keep your wrist locked. Without excessively moving your upper arm--a tennis ball lodged between arm and torso helps--pull the tube across your abdomen until your wrist hits your opposite hip. Start with three sets of ten reps with each arm, working to four or five sets of ten to 15 reps.

External rotations: Lower the tube to elbow-height and turn 180 degrees so that your left side side is perpendicular to the anchor spot. Now move your forearm away from your torso until it's straight out to the side. Follow the same program of reps as above.

Empty cans: Anchor the elastic tube near the floor and to the left of where you're standing. With your right arm angling down in front of your body, hold the tube taut with that same hand. Stick out your thumb, hitchhiker style, to help isolate the rotator cuff's supraspinous muscle. Then, keeping your arm straight, swing it like a pendulum up to your right until it's just above parallel with the ground--it should look like you're emptying a can. Work both shoulders, mirroring the progression of reps recommended for the rotations.

There's little hope of avoiding squats if you're a cyclist, says USA Cycling's David Morris, since they exercise the gluteal muscles, the gastrocnemius muscles, the soleus muscles, and most important, the quadriceps. But developing your quads without working the hamstrings is lifting dangerously. "Powerful quads stretch the hamstrings at higher velocities, and they'll resist by contracting," Morris says. "If they're comparatively weak, the hamstrings can tear." So it's important to exercise both muscle groups.

Squats: With feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly outward, and the barbell resting squarely on your shoulders, let the hips--not the back--lead the weight down as you squat. Keep your back straight and focus on a spot on the wall ahead of you, slightly above eye level. Squat until your thighs are parallel with the floor before you start back up. Do three sets of ten to 12 reps, and after two to three weeks increase the weight lifted. If you're on a 12-week program, you should cut your sets in half and increase the weight during the middle four-week block. Then, during the last third of your preseason training, decrease the weight, increase the reps, and perform the exercises more quickly.

Hamstring curls: Lie prone on a leg-curl machine, aligning your knees with its axis of rotation. Don't jerk the weight into motion, but curl the bar slowly toward your hamstrings until the pads touch your legs. Perform reps and sets as with the squats.

Rock Climbing
"People typically associate pull-ups with climbing," says 5.14b climber Dale Goddard. "But that's wrong, because you can usually put weight on your feet. Instead, you want power that will pull you in, keeping your body close to the wall." That takes forearm and shoulder strength, achieved by the following exercises.

Seated rows: At a seated-row machine, brace your feet against the foot-plate and hold the bar with your arms straight ahead. Making sure to keep your hips still, pull the weight straight back toward your sternum. Let the bar back slowly. For the first eight weeks, do three sets of eight to ten reps. In the next five weeks, decrease reps and increase weight. In the remainder of the preseason, decrease weight and increase reps to 15 to 25.

Modified bent rows: Set a dumbbell at your feet and rest your left knee and hand along the length of a bench. Grab the dumbbell, but before you lift the weight, pull your right shoulder up, opening your chest toward the wall at your right. Lift the weight straight into your armpit, keeping your elbow close to your body. (This action simulates climbing's common twist-lock position, in which you have to pull your body into the wall.) Use the same routine as with the seated rows.

Finger curls: Hold a barbell at your thighs, arms straight and palms facing behind you. Stand near a squat rack, which can act as a spotter. Open your hands just enough to let the barbell roll toward your fingertips. Now roll it back into your palms. This works the flexor muscles in your forearms, which control grip. Follow the same schedule of reps as above.

During training, a runner's lateral vastus muscle--the quadriceps muscle on the outside front of the thigh--is quickly developed. But the medial vastus, on the inside front of the thigh, doesn't get the same kind of on-the-run workout. The result? "It's like you have rubber bands on your upper leg, and those on the outside get taut while those on the inside stay loose," says Jack Daniels, an exercise-science professor who has coached the women's cross-country team at the State University of New York at Cortland to six NCAA Division III titles in seven years. "The taut ones pull the kneecap out of its groove, which can cause a lot of soreness." The following exercise, Daniels says, will strengthen the inner quads and help reduce race-season knee problems.

Modified leg extensions: Using a leg-extension machine, lift the weight until your lower legs are parallel to the floor. Then lower your legs a few inches--ten to 15 degrees--before raising them again. If you lower the weight completely, the remainder of the cycle will work only your outer quadriceps. Perform three sets of eight to ten reps, holding the last lift of each for eight to ten seconds. After several weeks, increase the weight enough to make it difficult.

In-Line Skating
Skating demands, above all, a strong trunk. Your abdomen and lower back muscles must hold your hips and glutes in place to provide a sturdy platform for each leg stroke. A strong midsection also makes that aerodynamic Bonnie Blair tuck possible. "You can't get into the right position if your torso can't support it," says Carl Foster, chairman of the sports medicine committee for the U.S. speed-skating team.

Elite skaters do five sets of 50 crunches, 50 leg raises, and 50 good mornings as "a warm-up," Foster says. Fortunately, he doesn't advocate that program for the rest of us. A much-abbreviated midsection regimen, done properly, is sufficient.

Crunches: Start with one set of 25, building to three sets of 50. To increase their difficulty, use an incline bench (feet at the top) and keep your knees up. But don't add weight, since that brings the hip flexors into what should be an abdominals-only exercise. Plus, he says, it puts undue strain on the abdomen and lower back.

Good mornings: On what is often misnamed a "hyperextension" machine, set the incline at its steepest, easiest, setting. With hands behind your neck--or folded across your chest if you can't keep your back from arching--slowly lower and then raise your torso until it's horizontal. Start with one set of ten and build to two sets of 25. As you progress, lower the incline to increase the difficulty.

Andrew Tilin is a former senior editor of Outside and a regular contributor to Bodywork.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Get tips. Get stories. Get fit.

Looking for the best in fitness? We got you covered.

Thank you!