Drop and Give Me a Month's Worth

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, April 1999

Drop and Give Me a Month's Worth
Why modern calisthenics can bridge the gap between gym and field

By Kevin Foley

You may be approaching the warm months with enough strength to crumple telephone books and more endurance than a string of pack mules, but don't tell Loren Seagrave you're ready to hit the turf. The man who prepped Terrell Davis for the NFL draft and Donovan Bailey for his comeback from a torn Achilles tendon won't hear of it. "Fitness is relative to the demands of what you're doing," he says. "You don't get ready to play soccer by snowboarding. You don't learn to propel your mass through the air by doing squats."

As thousands of overeager but underprepared athletes are bound to find out come their first day on spring's playing fields, suddenly jumping from gym to earth ù or even from one seasonal sport to another ù can be quite dicey. If your strategy doesn't stray from the weight room's predictable push-and-pull or the slow grind of a cardiovascular routine, you simply won't be ready to play.

Worse, you may be setting yourself up for injury ù as Neal ElAttrache, an orthopedic surgeon at the renowned Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, can attest firsthand. Several years back, ElAttrache tore both of his hamstrings in a springtime pickup football game. "I knew better," he says. "That's what kills me. I'm a sports medicine specialist, yet I asked my tendons and muscles to do something they hadn't done recently. And boom, I paid the price."

Perhaps the best way to avoid such a penalty is to turn to an oldfangled, unhip, not at all glamorous, but thoroughly utilitarian standby: calisthenics. Spend four weeks bounding and balancing and lifting your body weight against gravity and you'll build an injury-resistant base. You'll toughen your joints, sharpen your reaction time, and improve your balance. Indeed, a calisthenics program can be the perfect bridge to the sports of spring and summer. "The right calisthenics regimen will take the gains you made in the weight room and teach you how to apply them to the ground," says Seagrave. "That skill is the core of playing sports safely."

Think Fast

What's the "right regimen"? Well, it's not made up solely of those classic moves you remember from the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge in junior high PE. "You can't just go out there and do some jumping jacks and think you're getting your fast-twitch muscle fibers and neuromuscular recruitment systems ready for sports," says James Johnson, head of the exercise and sports studies department at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Johnson should know: He's been using various forms of calisthenics to prep his athletes for 30 years. "You need something much more intense."

You need, in short, dynamic calisthenics. Essentially, they get you off the ground, and in so doing prepare your muscles for the rapid contractions and rigors of sports. Instead of merely doing 30 push-ups, which builds muscular endurance and maintains a degree of strength, you'll explode off the floor with each repetition. This way you're building oft-ignored fast-twitch fibers, prepping your body for the unpredictable surges of sport. "If you don't train fast," Johnson explains, "you can't expect to move fast."

Developing the pop necessary to get into the air isn't the only benefit this method provides. After all, what goes up must come down, and this inevitability exposes muscles and connective tissue to the shock of landing, forcing them to grow stronger. "There's no question that you can strengthen a tendon or ligament by exposing it to stress and strain," says ElAttrache. "You train any tissue to handle violent contractions by exposing it to violent contractions."

It can cut both ways, of course, and all this talk of assault and battery against cartilage, ligaments, and whatnot should be prefaced with a few words of caution. Be sure to warm up for ten minutes before diving into the regimen (see the sidebar at left). And because moves like the lunge jump pound your knees, ankles, and lower back, always do the routine on grass or carpet or the beach. "If you start an intense sprinting and jumping program without working into it gradually," says Johnson, "what you thought was preparation is more likely to get you hurt."

The Finishing Touch

The other major benefit of calisthenics ù and one that's hard to duplicate with any other type of regimen ù is improved balance. Though a simple calisthenics drill like, say, a one-legged squat won't overload the quadriceps as effectively as a leg press, steadying yourself throughout your leg's long, rickety range of motion strengthens the reflexes and the tiny stabilizing muscles that the machine ignores. "Most athletes take care of the large muscles pretty well," Seagrave points out. "It's the small ones that rear up and bite you."

To hone this system even more effectively, try closing your eyes or extending your arms while performing the move. This, ElAttrache says, helps to keep these exercises from becoming rote and thus more closely mimics the uncertainties inherent in sports. "Whenever you pivot and twist in the field of play," he explains, "you trigger a variety of receptors in the brain that fire back impulses to contract the right muscles and tendons to give you the right support."

A month of dynamic calisthenics won't prepare you for your sport as directly as actually playing would, but then again, it won't get you hurt. It's a better real-world preparation for sports than anything else. It's also more interesting. "Getting in shape for sports is a lot like making gumbo," Seagrave says. "You need to know when to simmer and when to stir, what to put in and how much. Calisthenics can be the spice in that mix."

Kevin Foley lives in Charlotte, Vermont

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