In the fitness industry, there is growing evidence of a paradigm shift toward athletically oriented training. Athletes’ acceptance of sport-specific conditioning has contributed to functional fitness, prehabilitation, and active rehabilitation and postrehabilitation.
Elements of sports conditioning are evident in many personal trainers’ programs. Just as elite athletes train for performance, regular clients now pursue fitness goals more practical than developing good-looking physiques. They want to move well and enjoy injury-free activity. Trainers, too, are enjoying this shift in thinking; it allows them to dip into their athletic toolboxes and apply more complex drills to inspire clients and produce superior results.
“Extreme” sports—such as snowboarding, skateboarding and rock climbing—require more than “extreme” training or repetitive skill rehearsal. Neophytes eager to achieve competence in the skills required for these popular sports may be either too young to have a solid foundation of athletic skills or old enough to have been locked into a linear system of movement and isolation training methods. Those who train well enough not just to be competent but to excel are rewarded with the ability to participate in sports that are exciting, fulfilling and, for many, addictive.
Today, many personal fitness trainers have clients who participate “recreationally” in extreme sports; other exercise professionals face the challenge of preparing athletes to push their physical limits by trying new tricks and techniques. I have received from trainers many requests for advice on sport analysis and sport-specific recommendations, especially because these trainers often have little background in these formerly fringe sports that are rapidly becoming mainstream.
To avoid the “observe, memorize and replicate exercises” (OMR) training principle, a basic assessment of the biomechanics, physiology, time/motion relationship, performance variables and unique demands of extreme sports helps provide the ingredients for an exercise formula that transfers well to performance of these sports.
To have an idea of how to train your client for extreme sports, you need to know exactly what he is getting himself into. Here is an overview of three popular extreme sports.
Freestyle snowboarding, which has roots in skateboarding, includes half-pipe, super-pipe (a more extreme version of half-pipe) and boarder-cross maneuvers. The half-pipe and super-pipe are long, U-shaped courses groomed into the snow; the athlete is required to travel from one wall of snow as high as 15 feet and across a transition area 15 to 25 feet wide to the opposite wall of snow (also as high as 15 feet) to “catch air” (go airborne) and perform tricks. In the boarder cross, athletes race downhill over various jumps and turns.
In addition to freestyle snowboarding is slope-style freestyle snowboarding. In this event, competitors ride over a series of man-made jumps and handrails and are judged on the quality of the tricks and maneuvers that they perform en route.
Finally, freeride snowboarding takes place over natural terrain as one rides trees, cliff drops and powder lines.
Boarding sports, including both snowboarding and skateboarding, feature an array of techniques and tricks that involve catching air, carving long turns, switching stances, jumping, spinning and grabbing the board while continuing forward, and spinning one’s whole body 180 to l,080 degrees (a triple rotation)!
Skateboarding also features subspecialties. These include street skating (skating on streets, curbs, benches and handrails), “vert” skating (skating on ramps and other vertical structures), half-pipe (a U-shaped ramp with walls 2 to 8 feet high) and vert ramp (a half-pipe with steep, perfectly vertical sides).
Rock climbing is a highly technical and tactical sport that can be learned indoors or outdoors. Climbers source the best route up steep rock faces, often selecting tiny nearby holds and cracks instead of stretching beyond their range for a better hold.
Key focus areas in training for dynamic, unpredictable sports include anaerobic energetics, multijoint strength, speed, agility, balance, quickness, reaction time, balanced flexibility and highly tuned proprioception. For extreme sports, these components can be combined into two main groupings: Linked System Strength™ Training (which combines multijoint strength, braking strength, explosive power, coupling and rotary power into one training style of complex exercises) and Performance Balance™ (which blends dynamic balance, core stability, agility, quick reactions, and proprioception and body awareness).
To execute extreme-sports techniques, an athlete needs integrated coordination of his entire body: a linked system that harmonizes athletic actions. However, typical strength training isolates specific muscle groups, developing the body in a piecemeal approach. This is often done with the body completely unloaded and sitting stationary on a machine while moving one isolated body part through a controlled range of motion (ROM), usually in a strict linear or single-plane movement.
Optimal movement occurs through a linked system called the kinetic chain. Exercise creation for extreme sports is based not on muscle training but on move-ment training to fire muscles in the correct sequence and build body control within movements. Multijoint lifts, cross-body actions, contralateral lifts and complex exercises predominate in this system. Proper muscle sequencing through full-body actions arms the athlete to transfer greater power through the body and produce more efficient movement while expending less energy.
Core rotation (working in a transverse plane) always incorporates a weight shift from back leg to front leg and from hip-drop phase to drive-up phase. It begins with a strength emphasis and controlled speeds and finishes with quick countermovements focused on power initiation. Core rotation itself is part of the sport technique and, as a physical tool, helps transfer angular momentum to optimize power through the kinetic chain. Using rotary movements, cross-body lifts and contralateral exercises helps link the lower body and upper body.
Snowboarding requires great leg strength, particularly eccentric strength, for negotiating high-speed turns, landing big jumps and working against gravity and inertia on steep slopes. Explosive power and quick coupling enter the equation to create “pop” off jumps and shift quickly from edge to edge. Making sharp downhill turns and spinning during jumps and tricks depend on torso rotation.
Eccentric leg strength also helps skateboarders absorb the impact of landing after tricks and jumps. Similarly, explosive power with quick coupling is needed for the high, powerful ollies and nollies (jumps performed by tapping the tail or nose of the board on the ground). Considering that most tricks stem from the ollie, the technique that makes the board and rider airborne, power and coupling are especially important.
Rock climbers need strong legs to drive their bodies upward. Their training should stress force production from the lower body and concentrate on the toes and ankles. If a climber relies well on her legs, her arms should not be fully fatigued when she reaches a difficult summit. Grip strength and endurance and superior hip mobility are also vital tools in the climber’s repertoire.
Rotational mobility and strength help the climber both to reach across the body for holds and to transfer force to draw the body up into position. Moreover, high-density workouts for strength and endurance can prevent fatigue from impeding mental clarity.
For specific exercises, progressions and a workout plan, see “Linked System Strength™ Training Exercise Inventory” on page 28 and “Extreme Sports Exercise Program” on page 36.
The body contains receptors, sensors and “mini-brains” that compute each part’s position. Each joint and muscle reads its position with regard to the rest of the body and works cooperatively with other muscles in the kinetic chain to produce sport movements, tricks and injury- preventing reactions.
Balance and body awareness are highly trainable. However, your client’s body must be out of balance for you to train balance! The neuromuscular and sensory roles of detecting imbalance, computing the correct reaction and coordinating corrective movements require exercising out of balance to facilitate improvement.
The body functions as a unit, muscles firing sequentially to produce desired movements. Some muscles contract to help produce movement; some contract to assist with balance; some contract to stabilize the spine and hold it in a safe, neutral position. Other muscles fire either to adjust whenever the body recognizes a shift in position or to correct an error such as loss of balance. Core stabilizers and spinal erectors contract isometrically to stabilize posture and resist forces of instability.
The unstable and unpredictable environments of extreme sports demand extraordinary feats of strength and balance. Preparation requires focus on secondary fitness characteristics, such as dynamic balance, proprioception, body awareness, coordination, agility and reaction skills. Balance leads to control, which facilitates visual awareness and proper decision making, success factors critical for the extreme sports discussed here.
What’s the bottom line? Your client is only as strong as his weakest link. Strength imbalances and deficiencies are easily identified during exercises performed in unstable conditions. Such weaknesses train up to the level of the strong parts. In this way, balance training not only aims to improve body control and regain balanced body position but also considers balanced strength and flexibility throughout the body, factors equally important for performance improvement and injury prevention.
Acute or chronic injuries, strength imbalances, limb-length discrepancies and repetitive technical flaws can contribute to flexibility imbalances or minor problems in one area of the body and affect other muscles and joints. For example, as a protective mechanism, the body compensates for a tight left adductor muscle group by shifting more body weight to the right side. After repeated workouts and competitions, this compensatory shift may lead to a damaged right knee or ankle. This injury would be blamed on one obvious sport action, but, in truth, the body would have been set up over time to be injured. Likewise, most sports injuries can be traced back to problems in other areas of the body.
A snowboarder makes endless adjustments to accommodate changing terrain, jumps and tricks and needs a highly trained proprioceptive system; laying down motor engrams can help make this autonomic. (The three stages of motor learning are cognitive, associative and autonomic. Learning and rehearsing reactive movements help make a response autonomic, as opposed to having to think first and move second.) A snowboarder also requires reaction skills for unexpected changes in terrain. On the mountain, she needs the agility to change direction quickly by transferring her weight from edge to edge in an instant.
Similarly, a skateboarder must make automatic adjustments because of his ever-changing body position, the technical demands of tricks, and skateboard construction and design. The athlete needs both dynamic balance drills and instability integrated into other exercises as a high percentage of his overall training volume. Agility must also be emphasized to ensure that his body weight is quickly transferred and that his body position is altered properly on the board in mid-flight. Not all movements and tricks will be executed perfectly, so heightened reaction skills will help the athlete survive another fun day on the board.
For specific exercises, progressions and a workout plan, see “Performance Balance™ Exercise Inventory” on page 34 and “Extreme Sports Exercise Program” on page 36.
In snowboarding, the feet are strapped to the board in boots that support the ankles. Conversely, a skateboarder’s feet are free of constraint; the shoes worn allow a broad ROM about the ankle to aid the performance of tricks, many of which feature flipping and spinning the board and require amazing foot and ankle control, coordination and stability. Conditioning programs for both sports must focus on ankle strength and prehab exercises.
Rock climbers need to be strong from their toes to their fingertips and able to generate force from their feet at various angles and mechanical disadvantages. Involving the toes and ankles in leg exercises is particularly beneficial.
Athletes who participate in boarding sports draw from the body’s ATP-PC system to perform tricks and from a blend of anaerobic and aerobic energy supplies during freestyle and freeride snowboarding and street skateboarding. During vert skating competitions, skaters complete tricks every 2 to 3 seconds for 45 seconds, placing high demands on their anaerobic glycolytic systems. Both riders and skaters should train anaerobically by using functional exercises with a super-high number of repetitions or exercise supersets. Emphasize developing the athlete’s ability to generate power, handle instability and coordinate actions under fatigue.
Climbing is also very strenuous but is more continuous. A climber can intersperse a climb with long, purposeful ascents and rest periods. Proficiency of technique, degree of difficulty and continuous climb time all determine the aerobic-anaerobic continuum.
In addition to physical prowess, these three sports require strong psychological characteristics. In plain terms, these are called guts! Confidence is paramount to attack technical and tactical demands without hesitation. Maintaining acute focus during relaxation is also beneficial. Challenging snowboarders’, skateboarders’ and climbers’ athletic abilities during workouts (within frameworks that make sense for their respective sports) while allowing the athletes to conquer challenges not only gives them the physical tools that they need to succeed but also builds their confidence in their abilities.
Teaching nervous system activation warm-ups and encouraging athletes to use them before participating in their sports enhance their mind-muscle connection and readiness to perform. In extreme-sport training programs, scheduling balance exercises first stimulates the nervous system before the workout, fostering a higher-quality workout and enabling the athlete to experience a difference in alertness and performance. (See “Dynamic Nervous System Activation to Do Before Working Out or Participating in Extreme Sports” on page 32.)
Extreme sports undoubtedly impose extreme demands on an athlete. Your challenge is to package your client’s training to meet and exceed those challenges.
Designing a whole-body functional training program that not only integrates strength and power through movement and balance but also integrates body awareness through instability is the general focus for extreme-sports training. Blending funciton and multijoint sequential muscle firing and incorporating the techniques, tactics and tricks of these sports into exercise variables will set you and your client on the right course to sport-specific results. Enjoy coaching your athlete to extreme personal success!