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FORGET BALANCE and agility—I was 27 and I wanted to get huge. Maybe not Schwarzenegger huge, but at least Springsteen huge. Three times a week I’d stretch, head outside for a late-winter run, and then swing by the Y to hit the bench press, the military press, and the leg sled—the machines, in my mind, that make you look good. Sit-ups? Who needed ’em, let alone a bunch of drills with a medicine ball. Sometime thereafter, of course, this one-dimensional regimen took its toll, when a pickup basketball game elicited an ominous ping in my mid-lower back. “It’s a strain,” the doctor said, as I stood bent like a man who’d spent five straight hours watching NBA games in a recliner. “Strain” is an awfully mild word for six weeks of shooting pain. The kind of pain that left me begging the night-shift ER resident for a refill of Elvis pills.
Now, ten years later, my bad back returns from time to time—as does the wobbly ankle, first turned on an accountant’s foot during another hoops game, and the bum knee that went out when I tried to up my running mileage fourfold in four weeks. Nontraumatic sports injuries are embarrassing enough, but somehow I managed to hit the dilettante’s trifecta: the two most common injuries—ankle sprain and low back strain—and the most common overuse complaint, kneecap pain. Smirk at your own peril: If you’re not training for injury prevention, it’s only a matter of time before your vulnerable joints and weak muscles betray you. Moreover, once injured, you’ll start paying compound interest on that hurt: Not only is the chance of recurrence high, but the body starts subconsciously compensating for the sore areas, putting new regions at risk.
The old myth was that a good stretch and proper warm-up were all you needed to stay off the sidelines, but today, the smart money for injury prevention is on improving your core strength and balance. “You can stretch to optimize your range of motion around a joint,” says Ed Laskowski, codirector of the Mayo Clinic’s Sports Medicine Center, “but when it comes to injury prevention, you stand to do more by addressing areas of previous injury—your ‘weak links’—and optimizing strength and stability in sport-specific movement patterns.”
David Musnick, a Boulder, Colorado, physician who specializes in sports medicine, has translated that theory into practice. Musnick is author of the multifaceted handbook Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness. Helmets and caution, he says, are obviously the first line of defense when it comes to climbing, skiing, and mountain biking, but the best armor against less head-banging injuries on snow, rock, ice, or trail are strength and balance drills that incorporate midsection-based, multiple-joint movements.
“Research shows that injuries tend to occur not because you were inflexible,” says Musnick, “but because you didn’t have the strength or the balance to do what you were trying to do. To get that, you have to do workouts that build your core and your extremities in motion patterns similar to how you will be using them outdoors. You just can’t get that by sitting at a machine and building your muscles one at a time.”
Using Musnick as our guide, we’ve selected eight strength drills that address the movement patterns—what physiologists call engrams—you use to stay upright on the slopes, in your kayak, and on the trail. These exercises mimic the unstable environments and awkward motions you’ll encounter outside the gym, and strengthen the tight and weak muscles that get ignored lifting weights. Add these to your thrice-weekly strength routine, or, if you’re pressed for time, consider replacing your standard lifts altogether. “People might do these and that’s all,” says Musnick. “You could also do your whole aerobic workout first, and then finish with these eight exercises.” Instead of a rack of disks, you will be working primarily with your own weight, on one or both feet. Will you look a bit odd? Yes. But pretty soon the only real oddball will be that guy at the weight-room curling bench with the sore back, twisted ankle, and show-pony biceps.
Drills for the Core
One-legged side Bends
“Carrying a heavy load, like a pack for an overnight snowshoeing trip,” says Musnick, “is going to challenge your balance even on level ground.” Standing on one foot facing a wall eight to 12 inches away, hold a three- to five-pound medicine ball with both hands over your head. Bend your trunk to the right and then return to the center. Do the same toward the left—and when that gets easy, try leaning forward and touching the wall with the ball at ten, 12, and two o’clock. Easy? Speed up the movements. No problem? Try it with closed eyes. Do two to three sets of 15.
Supine Crunch on Balance Ball
To develop important stabilizer muscles—the obliques and transversus—take your crunches to the wonderful, wobbly world of the balance ball. Sitting on the ball, walk your feet out until your weight rests on your shoulders or upper back and your hips are in the air. Raise your torso and perform a crunch as you would on flat ground. Do two to three sets of 12 to 20 reps.
Medicine-Ball Toss on Balance Ball
“A lot of injuries from kayaking occur to the rotator cuff,” says Musnick. The same holds for cycling. Develop a seated ability to keep your center of gravity. Sit on a balance ball facing a partner and play catch with a medicine ball. Throw two-handed to alternate sides, arms out. Keep a minimum of weight on your toes. Do two sets of 30 to 45 seconds.
Drills for the Core (Part 2)
One-Legged Overhead Tubing Twist
“We have three planes of motion,” says Musnick. “Front-to-back, side-to-side, and rotational. People should think about doing exercises in each of these.” Or one that does all three, like this: Secure resistance tubing with handles to a door frame or other anchor about head height. (You can also use weighted cables at the gym.) Hold a handle in each hand and position yourself to create tension on the cords. Balance on one leg, place your arms over your head, and quickly push one handle forward while the other moves back. Focus on rotating your trunk, rather than pulling your arms, to make the twisting motions. Do one to two sets of 30 seconds on each leg.
Drills for the Extremities
Dips are some of the best all-around exercises for strengthening the muscles needed to stabilize yourself on a climbing wall or when wrestling a Class IV hole. Grasp two parallel rails, hop up so you’re supporting your weight, slowly lower yourself until your elbows are bent 90 degrees, and then push back up. If your body weight is too much to start, have a partner assist you by lifting up on your waist or feet. Do three sets of ten to 12 reps.
Pulled muscles and tendons often strike climbers when making powerful but off-balance lateral movements from hold to hold. To prevent such injuries you need to develop lateral stability. Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, hold a medicine ball near chin height. Extend one leg out to the side and, with your torso straight, bend into a squat while bringing the medicine ball and the majority of your weight down to the extended leg. Move back to the starting position and repeat. Don’t let your hips dip below your knees, and keep your back straight. Do three sets of ten to 12 reps on each side.
One-Legged Standing Dip
The most common cause of knee pain is an injury to the iliotibial band, which is there to decelerate the inward movement of the leg, “like when you’re coming down a steep snow field or trail in snowshoes,” says Musnick. You can reduce the risk of this kind of injury by making your quads familiar with balancing heavy loads. Stand on one leg atop a knee-high bench, weight on your heel, and dip your knee in a controlled fashion until your free heel touches the ground. Keep your weight on your upper foot, your torso upright, and return to standing position. A cinch? Try holding dumbbells in each hand. Do ten to 12 repetitions with each leg.
Drills for the Extremities (Part 2)
Staggered-Stance Diagonal Row This movement imitates exactly the sort of real-life kinetic soup that exploits some miniscule yet consequential hole in your dynamic repertoire. (In other words, it prevents you from throwing out your back while, say, pulling up a tent stake.) Stand with your legs spread two to three feet apart with light dumbbells in each hand. Rotate your torso to the left, bend your left knee 90 degrees, and extend your right arm to bring your right hand outside your left foot, palm inward. Stand up while “rowing” the weight back to your opposite side. Do two to three sets of ten to 12 repetitions on each side.