Knowing Is Half the Battle
LANCE WALKER, training director at the Michael Johnson Performance Center, near Dallas, is sitting behind his desk, looking over the results of my "movement screen," a head-to-toe assessment of how well I bend, twist, stretch, and torque. I'm alarmed that most of the eight categories (Hurdle Step, In-Line Lunge, Seated Trunk Rotation, etc.) are highlighted with yellow "deficiency" alerts.
"You know what I see here?" Walker asks, scrutinizing the printout.
"Potential!" he shoots back, banging his fist on the desktop. "In a day I can improve your mobility. In a week, we could see gains in your functional movement."
Every athlete, no matter what his or her level, has weaknesses. I've come to MJPC to find mine. Turns out I'm "overpowered." For years I'd worked on my ability to go faster and farther, without thinking much about going, well, better. I could sustain almost 300 watts on a bike but couldn't complete a proper lunge without waving my arms like a drunken Yankees fan. That meant there was a load of untapped power locked away in my stiff hips. I could bench my body weight (190 pounds), but I couldn't hold myself in "plank" position for more than a minute and my weak core prevented me from translating whatever upper-body strength I had into meaningful power in the field. I was dancing before I'd fully learned to walk. If I continued to ignore these cracks in my fitness foundation, my real athletic potential would remain unfulfilled, and my chance of injury would steadily increase, since, as I?get older, my body is becoming less able to withstand the forces acting upon it. Time to get back to basics, said the MJPC crew.
Michael Johnson, the Olympic sprinter who set a world record in 1996 while wearing gold track shoes (to match the medals he'd take home), opened this 20,000-square-foot facility in 2006 to help pros achieve their stratospheric goals and average Joes like me break out of their ruts. But before I even got near the cutting-edge vision-analysis lab or the infrared-timed sprint track, I was put through a full-day battery of basic tests that would reveal the weak links in my fitness chain.
At first, it seemed remedial to exhume these gym-class exercises, especially since most contemporary fitness clubs contain so much high-tech equipment that they've begun to resemble the command center at NORAD. Johnson's facility, while nice, was mostly filled with free weights and open floor space, around which I saw A-list athletes like New Orleans Saint Dan Campbell and top NFL inductees Michael Oher and Brandon Pettigrew working out. This place, I soon realized, was about movement squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, and other primal actions not just muscle.Like other well-respected conditioning gurus, the crew at MJPC view athletic training as a pyramid: At the bottom are the fundamental "functional" movements, above that is power, and above that, skill. If you're not able to do the basic movements maybe you're too stiff in the shoulders or flimsy in your core all the power and skill in the world won't help you reach your potential.
I returned home after a couple of days, clutching my report card and ready to overhaul my training. On the pages that follow, you'll find the results of that fitness makeover, delivered as a series of tests and exercises that we're calling the Outside Challenge. Since we don't believe in one-size-fits-all training programs, take this for what it is: a great way to identify (and then fix) your weak spots and build a rock-solid platform. We've broken it down into five primary dimensions: Functional Flexibility, Core Stability, Long-Range Power, Strength, and Recovery & Nutrition. Pass all the tests and we'd say you're ready for just about anything: climbing a big peak, training for a marathon, thrashing your buddy in the city tennis tournament.
Don't panic if you can't nail them all or even any of them at first. We made them tough so they could serve as goals and, once you've progressed, as yardsticks. Each is accompanied by several exercises to help get you there. Splice them into your existing regimen, or toss out your old approach altogether and start anew.
That's what I did, and within a few months I began to discover the potential that Walker was talking about. I'd become a better, more balanced athlete and not because I was working harder. I felt like I'd discovered something magical, but the truth was simpler: I was working smarter. And I didn't even have to study.