Balancing Acts

Don't be put off by the funny equipment—functional training builds real-world skills in the gym

 

LOUIS STACK sees the future of exercise: Dutiful employees sequestered in their cubicles, each seated on a Swiss ball—a kind of latter-day Hippity-Hop sans handle—sipping coffee, typing reports, and making phone calls. Hasta la vista, health clubs; buh-bye, Tae-Bo. No, Stack's not some interior-design wing nut. Rather, the Calgary-based former World Cup skier champions Swiss balls, along with a dozen or so other devices sold by his company, Fitter International Inc., as the keys to what's known as functional training. Stack is living proof that it works. After skiing for Canada's national team in the early nineties, he retired for good in 1995, replacing traditional gym time with some unorthodox training: sitting on a Swiss ball at his desk all summer. When he hit the slopes that winter, he'd catch an edge, feel sure to fall, and then smoothly recover. "All my buddies said, 'What have you done? Your skiing has improved so much!'"

Sounds like an infomercial, but this happens to be one with solid research behind it. Functional training develops proprioception—your body's ability to sense where it is in space—by calling on exercises that mimic the dynamic movements specific to sports such as skiing, biking, and surfing. When Stack first introduced the Pro Fitter, a sliding- platform device for skiers, back in 1985, selling it was tough. "The fitness industry was too focused on single-station machines that isolate muscle groups," Stack says. "Few people were trying to work the balance and strength system as a whole." The breakthrough came gradually. Fitter's sales started to boom in the early nineties thanks to increasing use by physical therapists and coaches, and by the end of the decade functional training had gone mainstream. It's now embraced by everyone from the U.S. Ski Team to Australian professional surfers.

At the center of functional training is some uncomplicated and delightfully dorky equipment: Swiss balls, wobble boards, weeble boards, balance boards, medicine balls, and their kin (see Field Test, right). This kind of equipment, proponents stress, fills the gap between strength and endurance training by programming the brain for sport-specific moves while simultaneously developing joint stability and range of motion. "When you use a fixed-axis machine in a gym, the muscle you develop is aesthetic, not functional," says Paul Chek, a clinical exercise specialist and head of the Chek Institute, an exercise facility in Encinitas, California. "The muscle recruitment is different than when you're weight lifting. In, say, rock climbing, when do you ever pull on a bar that moves toward you?"

Suzanne Nottingham, a Mammoth Lakes, California-based trainer and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, suggests folding functional training into regular weight and endurance routines. Do balance exercises for a few minutes just after your warm-up, and throw in two other brief sessions during your workout. "It's better to have more frequent but shorter exposures to balance training," she says. Weight lifters can add one set of presses or dumbbell fly lifts on a Swiss ball, or squats on a rocker board; try it first with reduced or no weight and build up to heavier pound-age (with a spotter, of course).

The exercises (see below) can be challenging because they demand highly refined balance, so Nottingham insists that novices warm up with the following practice moves on a stable floor without equipment: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your weight distributed evenly. Keeping chin in line with hips, slowly shift your weight to the right leg. Drag your left foot behind your body with toes pointed down and with your arms out for balance, keeping most of your weight on the right foot. Now raise the left foot. Repeat with the opposite leg.

With some of his athletes, Chek has foregone muscle-isolating machines in lieu of a functional-training protocol involving moves similar to old-school calisthenics. After all, how much do machines re-create the complex motions of whitewater kayaking or snowboarding? "You got it, baby! Zero!" says Chek. "Why stick with the first- grade mathematics of the rowing machine when you can prepare for the trigonometry of real outdoor sports?"

Balance + Flexibility

Exercises

WANT TO AMAZE YOUR friends with feats of coordination they never thought possible (by you)? Want to rip the slopes? Then try the following exercises. The easiest is first, leading to the most difficult. Each is geared toward a specific sport, but all are excellent for general conditioning. Work them into your established routine or, for complete functional-training regimens, see www.fitter1.com, www.performbetter.com, or www.power-systems.com.

Windmill with Medicine Ball
Clear your mind. Now stand on the right side of a line marked on the floor. Begin crouched in squat position with the medicine ball in both hands, held to your left side. Jump over the line, swing the ball over your head, and finish with the ball on your right side. Try one set of eight to ten reps; work up to three sets. For mogul hounds and freeriders.

Squats on Rocker Board

Stand with your feet apart, near the outer edges of the board. Now perform squats, at reduced or no weight. Once this seems easy, alternate the rocker bar alignment from front-to-back to side-to-side. Add one set of ten to your regular squat routine. You'll soon dazzle your friends on technical mountain-bike trails.

Paddle with Tubing and Swiss Ball
Hook the middle of a two-handled, four-foot length of tubing to a door or heavy object (like a Nautilus machine) at navel height. Thread a pole through the handles, and grip it like a kayak paddle. Now sit balanced on a Swiss ball with your legs extended and toes pointed. Keeping your abdominal muscles tight, lean back and mock a gentle paddling movement. Do three sets of 30 seconds each. You can also try it facing the other way so that the resistance is coming from behind. It's Class IV whitewater in your very own living room!

Rotations on Wobble Board
Standing with your feet balanced near the outer edges of the board, dip one edge to the floor and then slowly draw a circle going clockwise for one minute without stopping; now go the other way. Advanced: Try it standing on one leg in the center of the board (if you can't balance at first, put your other foot on the ground behind you). Advanced plus: Try it on weeble boards—mini-wobble boards for each leg.Hey, runners, no more weak ankles!

Lunges on Bongo Board
While standing on a Bongo Board (like a skateboard with a rolling spindle underneath), turn so your feet are parallel to the length of the board. Lunge forward while shifting your weight to the front leg (the spindle will roll forward); don't let the end of the board touch down. Pivot so your feet are perpendicular to length of the board, then pivot again so that you're facing the opposite end of the board, and lunge on the other leg. Do ten reps on each leg. The lunge is quite difficult; attempt only with extra caution. But for ambitious surfers, snowboarders, and skateboarders, this is where enlightenment awaits.

Balance Tools

Ignore the unfortunate names. These seven essentials can be the foundation for a home-gym workout that builds core muscle strength and balance. Now go make Bela Karoli proud.

GEAR
Pro Fitter ($499)
Versafitter ($399)


MODUS OPERANDI
Behold the gizmo that begat the functional-training revolution: The Pro Fitter features a rocking base and sliding footrests that mimic the downhiller's flexible stance. Use it to boost proprioception and build core strength, which will help keep your upper body quiet in bumps, crud, steeps, and waist-deep powder. The brand-new Versafitter is a simplified, more portable version (just eight pounds compared to the Pro Fitter's unwieldy 22).

PROS / CONS
PRO: Tailor-made for skiing, but provides a unified cardio and balance workout for all dynamic sports.
CON: Costs about as much as weekend lift tickets at Vail for a family of four. 

 

GEAR
Swiss ball ($15­-$90)

MODUS OPERANDI
Sit on it, do push-ups with it, or, for the frighteningly coordinated, stand on it while holding dumbbells. The Swiss ball's core-strengthening applications are limited only by your creativity and tolerance for ridicule.

PROS / CONS
PRO: Best bang for the buck in a home gym (or office).
CON: If you're using weights and your Swiss ball isn't a "burst resistant" model, you could end up flat on your ass.

 

GEAR
Rocker boards ($59­-$69)


MODUS OPERANDI
Simply apply these Zenlike instructions: Stand on board with unstable base, try to avoid landing on face. Entry-level, rectangular rocker boards only tip from side to side; move up a notch with round wobble boards resting on half-spheres; or take on the challenging weebles, miniature wobble boards for each foot.

PROS / CONS

PRO: Promotes ankle stability and agility—a plus for many sports, from trail running to tennis. Next step: stilts!
CON: Balancing on weebles can feel like walking a longliner deck in The Perfect Storm.

 

GEAR
Bongo Board / Indo Board ($99)

MODUS OPERANDI
The modern Bongo consists of a skateboard deck secured by a bungee to a rolling base and requires lateral balance to stay up and core stability for fancier moves, like switching to fakey. The Indo Board, developed by shorebound surfers in the 1960s, lacks the bungee, allowing pro-level flip tricks.

PROS / CONS
PRO: Nearly a sport unto itself. Ultra-practical for snowboarders, surfers, and skateboarders.
CON: Embrace the pain of falling—or retreat to a shag carpet.

 

GEAR
Stretch tubing/ resistance cables ($5­-$20)

MODUS OPERANDI
Handles attached to surgical tubing that comes in various degrees of resistance. Pull on them. Repeat. Build stabilizer muscles by combining with balance boards or Swiss balls for a full-body workout.

PROS / CONS
PRO: No-frills simplicity. A recommended home-gym cheapie.
CON: Poorly secured cords could leave you with medicine ball­size welts.

 

GEAR
Medicine ball ($13­-$90)

MODUS OPERANDI
Throw it. Catch it. Voilà! No more 98-pound weakling. Combine with balance boards for a more complex workout.

PROS / CONS
PRO: Injects a retro yet manly vibe into your workout.
CON: Miss catching the 25-pounder and you'll learn why one company calls them "Ooof! balls."

 

GEAR
Rock'n Rody ($69)

MODUS OPERANDI
Sit on the polka-dotted saddle, grab Rody's ears, and hang on. Nurtures rodeo-specific proprioception for budding bouncy-horse cowboys.

PROS / CONS

PRO: Great conversation starter for shy athletes.
CON: Appropriate for toddlers to teens.

Power to the People

Marty Nothstein can help you get in touch with your inner beast

 

WE'VE ALL GOT A NEMESIS. For track cyclist Marty Nothstein, it's Jens Fiedler, the German who outpaced him by inches to win match-sprint gold in the '96 Olympics. Nothstein spent the next four years refining explosive muscle training—and it paid off. Last September the 29-year-old from Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, dusted Fiedler in the semifinal before going on to capture the gold in Sydney. Lucky for you, the benefits of power training reach beyond the velodrome; you can prevent injuries and become a monster sprinter and climber. "I'm a lot bigger than most road cyclists," says Nothstein, "but I get up hills pretty well." The key to power on demand: explosive lifts and power riding. Nothstein's sure-fire plan is below.

A Little Muscle, Please

Power Cleans
This classic Olympic-style lift is an essential back and leg builder. Squat in front of a barbell and grip the bar with palms facing toward you. In one smooth yet explosive movement, stand up, straighten your back, and then raise yourself up on your toes. As the weight reaches mid-thigh, shrug your shoulders and pull up on the bar. Dip down to catch the bar on the front of your shoulders near the collarbone (the more weight, the lower you'll need to go) and stand up straight. Let the weight drop to the floor, and you're ready for the next rep. Good form is critical: To avoid shooting a vertebra across the room, keep your butt low at the start of the lift and strive for fluid movement. Start with very little weight, building up slowly to heavier sets. Do four to five sets of three to four reps, each with a comfortable amount of weight.

Deep Squats
Using a freeweight barbell on a squat rack, "address" the bar by nestling it against the back of your neck, supporting the weight at the top of the trapezius muscles. Grip the bar palms-forwardand thrust your elbows back. Lift the weight off the stand, step forward, and slowly lower into a deep squat with your butt near your heels. Keeping your chin up, explode with your legs back up to the starting position. Practice with just the bar or very light weight until you've perfected your form, and don't do it at all if you have bad knees. Shoot for five sets of four to five reps. Work up to 80 percent of your max (the most weight you can lift once).

Romanian Dead Lifts
Also called stiff-legged deadlifts, RDLs focus on glutes and hamstrings. Stand on a platform four to eight inches high. Bend over at the waist and grip a freeweight barbell, palms in, hands shoulder-width apart. With legs slightly bent, slowly stand up with the weight. You should feel the stretch in the backs of your legs and your butt more than in your back. This lift is slow and steady, not explosive. And keep the bar close to your body. "I've got scars on my shins because I keep the weight in so tight," says Nothstein. Go light at first, say 50 percent of your max. Do four to five sets of five reps.

Power Riding
Power riding is essentially interval or sprint training in big gears. On a stationary bike, or on a training ride, fold in a session of five 20-second sprints in a big gear in the middle of the ride. "Pick an object like a speed-limit sign as a starting point," counsels Nothstein. "Accelerate as you approach it, then go all out for 20 seconds when you hit it." The gear should allow you to hit150 rpms (bike computers that measure cadence can help). Rest for five or ten minutes, then repeat. "If you can do five good ones," says Nothstein, "you've accomplished something."

REGIMEN
Hey, buddy, spare a month? (Good, we'll make you stronger.)

Following the regimen of an Olympic athlete with thighs the size of oil drums ain't easy, but regulated recovery can help. Weeks one and two separate power lifts (cleans, squats, RDLs, and upper-body lifts) from power riding with easy rides or active rest. Weeks three and four add a day of lifting, but power intervals remain at once-a-week. Now stop that whimpering. It's only a month.

WEEK 1

MONDAY
1-hr. bike or swim, or 30-min. run

TUESDAY
power lift

WEDNESDAY
off

THURSDAY
power lift

FRIDAY
1-hr. easy bike or swim, or 30-min. run

SATURDAY
2- to 3-hour ride w/power intervals

SUNDAY
off


WEEK 2

MONDAY
1-hr. bike or swim, or 30-min. run

TUESDAY
power lift

WEDNESDAY
off

THURSDAY
power lift

FRIDAY
1-hr. easy bike or swim, or 30 min. run

SATURDAY
2- to 3-hour ride w/power intervals

SUNDAY
off


WEEK 3


MONDAY
power lift

TUESDAY
1-hr. bike or swim, or 30-min. run

WEDNESDAY
power lift

THURSDAY
1-hr. easy bike or swim, or 30-min. run

FRIDAY
power lift

SATURDAY
2- to 3-hour ride w/power intervals

SUNDAY
off


WEEK 4

MONDAY
power lift

TUESDAY
1-hr. bike or swim, or 30-min. run

WEDNESDAY
power lift

THURSDAY
1-hr. easy bike or swim, or 30-min. run

FRIDAY
power lift

SATURDAY
2- to 3-hour ride w/power intervals

SUNDAY
off

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