Tendon training is pushing (and pulling) athletes to bold new heights
By Alisa Smith
NOI PHUMCHAONA WEIGHS 116 pounds but she can lift 911. At last year's U.S. All-Round Weightlifting National Championships, the flyweight from Thailand (by way of Cleveland, Ohio) lifted eight times her body weight, clinching her 12th consecutive gold-medal in the women's hip lift by hoisting almost a thousand pounds suspended on a waist belt, outclassing
many male competitors. So what does Phumchaona have that her competitors—and most likely you—don't? Read her hips: tendons of steel.
Tendons, those firm elastin and collagen fibers that connect muscle to bone—along with ligaments, which hold joints together— are the secret behind impressive feats like Phumchaona's. But they also help empower elite rock climbers like the late Wolfgang Gullich, whose one-finger pull-up training helped him ascend Frankenjura, Germany's
finger-flaying Action Directe (5.14d)—one of the world's most difficult climbs—in 1991. Of course, this same connective tissue is also one of the most injury-prone parts of your physical architecture, often sidelining pro and amateur athletes alike.
Now tendons and ligaments, long neglected in training regimens, may at last get their due. "There is not a lot of science right now on the effects of resistance training on tendons," says William Kraemer, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Indiana. "But you'll be hearing about it over the next five years." While in
the past tendon research was conducted on animals, advances in computer imaging technology allow scientists to analyze human tendon physiology—a subject Kraemer is currently planning to examine during an 18-month study.
Plenty of athletes are already ahead of the curve. The NFL's Cincinnati Bengals have recently made such conditioning, sometimes called "deep-strength training," a regular component of their workouts. And Dale Goddard, former captain of the U.S. climbing team and author of Performance Rock Climbing, claims it's one of the
keys to tackling tough rock routes. Put simply, deep-strength training entails lifting heavy weights with few repetitions. Devotees combine explosive moves like an Olympic-style clean and jerk with "negatives," which focus on the downward, or gravity-assisted, component of a lift. Deep-strength regimens also prescribe restricted "partials," motions that
cover only a few inches. Some tendon builders also train by carrying heavy, awkward objects around. (You can now buy rocklike, 60- to 330-pound granite spheres from Pennsylvania-based Atomic Athletic, www.atomicathletic.com). So how will this help you? Mountain bikers can improve wrist and knee strength, hikers and backpackers can stabilize wobbly ankles,
and skiers will be able to conquer the most joint-wrenching bump runs with knees intact.
Building better tendons ideally requires a minimum of six months of conditioning, a modest investment considering that a ruptured forearm flexor can involve up to six months of rehab, not to mention a possible trip to the operating room. "When a tendon goes, you can hear it up and down the cliff like a rifle shot," says Todd Skinner, a professional
climber based in Lander, Wyoming, and the first to free-climb Pakistan's Trango Tower, among other formidable ascents. "It's a terrible structural failure that can end a career." In other words, think of tendon strength as catastrophic insurance for your joints.
Tendon training starts with good base fitness—and serious caution: Go slow. "Rapid muscle development," says Ronald Zernicke, dean of kinesiology and a joint-injury researcher at the University of Calgary, "is a recipe for tendon rupture." Gradually build up to sessions during which you'll lift heavy weights only a few times—maybe just once.
Always be sure to include at least a ten-minute warm-up like high-rep, low-weight sets or a quick run; cold tendons and ligaments, like cold muscles, are susceptible to damage. Also, deep-strength workouts should be done less frequently than cardio or strength training; fold them in only once every one or two weeks and you'll soon reap the benefits. "It's
the Holy Grail of training," says Kim Wood, assistant coach and strength trainer for the Bengals. "I started with some outstanding athletes, and they've all improved."