When I first started doing work with the Australian Freestyle Ski Team in 1996, I discovered that many of the athletes were actually quite strong in the gym. I had already experienced their prowess on the snow, and pleasantly surprised to see them grunting out big full squats and pumping up the power-cleans.
But not too long thereafter, niggling injuries started randomly emerging among athletes, and I started noticing a limiting dimension to their skiing skills. Many of them were outstanding skiers and excellent competitors, yet they seemed unable to respond positively to slight changes in snow conditions, speed or body position. And if they made a small mistake or got thrown slightly off balance during a run, it was all over! Big explosion, no recovery. No result. I didn’t understand.
Then one day during one of our first afternoon soccer games, it hit me like a snowball in the face on a cold morning. As I sat on the sidelines (after scoring a goal, of course) watching these elite level athletes endeavoring to maneuver a soccer ball toward a goal, I was struck with a cold harsh truth. In their focused efforts to specialize and become the very best in their sport, they had given up one very important element—their Athleticism.
I could not believe my eyes. As I sat there watching, I could have sworn I was watching a bunch C3-PO lookalikes running around aimlessly, looking for Master Luke. Robots-- with very little sense of balance, coordination, foot speed or agility. And these were the same people who only hours before had been flowing like I.C.E. Eurail trains down a mogul run and performing multiple twisting aerial maneuvers on the jump site. Crazy!
What I soon came to realise was that the majority of their gym-acquired strength was actually inaccessible to their bodies once they were out of the gym and into dynamic motion. The closed chain, up-down, monitor-paced movements of lifting weights had bolstered the diameter of their quads, but had made them slow and boxy.
Even on the hill, their strength was only useful so long as their bodies stayed in perfect form, and no rapid, radical changes in position were made. Neurologically, they were chained to the controlled movements that they had practiced in the gym. This was NOT an acceptable limitation on the road to elite athletic achievement.
That was when we launched into a development phase called "Movement Vocabulary Expansion", which is actually still in motion today. Along with gym work and ski skill development, we explored such realms of activity as Tae Kwon Do, Yoga, Palatise, Surfing, Rollerblading, Skateboarding, Soccer, Tennis, and Gymnastics to name a few. We engaged in activities that would challenge and expand the general athleticism and movement abilities of the skiers. We added to these activities, daily drills in postural carriage, balance, foot speed, flexibility and agility. For several months, our training regime looked like the itinerary of a summer sports camp, and in the end, it worked. The following season we achieved the best results ever for the team in international competition, and we completed the entire season without any debilitating injuries—a huge bonus in a sport of such high impact as freestyle skiing.
By increasing the movement vocabulary of the athletes, their performances first in the gym and then on the mountain improved immensely. In the gym, expanded muscle recruitment patterns lead to increased maximum lifting abilities in all areas. They had more access to their present strength, and in turn experienced accelerated and broadened strength development. They stopped complaining about little injuries, and their fluidity and power of movement on the snow elevated almost effortlessly. New skills seemed easily acquired, and situations that had once caused major threats to their performance were now surpassed without fault or stumble.
Some of the athletes increased muscle mass, some of them trimmed down, but the constant key to success was that each of them had learned how to respond powerfully and quickly outside of the closed-chain gym atmosphere. By beefing up the neurological challenge of their training off the snow, we put them in a much improved position to work towards and achieve results in competition.
In a modern athletic arena that says "specialize or fall behind", it was refreshing to discover the exciting, real life benefits of ‘cross training’. While a calculated strength training regime can be an immensely powerful preparation tool, it must never be performed to the detriment of the athlete’s ability to move. Especially in sports involving power, speed and agility. In the modern sporting world where the difference between silver and gold can be a fraction of a second, the ability to move fluidly through space, in a variety of speeds and angles of motion must never be underestimated.
These principles have ramifications for elite athletes and the common personal training clients alike. Whether you are training someone for World Cup soccer or just trying to make them look good for their wedding, it is worth taking time observe how your clients MOVE. Before your next gym session, take a few minutes to kick or juggle a soccer ball with them, or lead them through a series of dynamic warm-up exercises (see "Dynamic Warm-Up" in the Advanced section of this site).
With many athletes I spend as much as an hour per session in this area, and for some, we do ONLY this type of movement work for weeks on end, until their patterns of movement are fluid enough to move safely and powerfully into the weight lifting arena.
By paying attention to how a client moves, we receive great indication of how best to start and proceed with their program. Each client and athlete is unique and offers us a chance to expand our own insight and approach as trainers. By taking time to observe movement patterns, and by creating innovative ways to challenge our clients’ movement limitations, we avoid turning them into robots in the weight room, and we pave a powerful path toward building balanced athletic development and dynamic physical diversity.