by Dana Cavalea December 27, 2015

Six Pack

The six keys to becoming a better conditioned athlete.

By Mike Mejia CSCS

Although previously reserved for collegiate and professional level competitors, sports specific training is fast becoming the rule for today's serious young athlete. In fact, theses days it's not uncommon to see kids as young as 10 years old enrolled in programs specifically aimed at increasing speed, strength and power. While there's nothing wrong with athletes wanting to improve upon these key athletic attributes, I find that often times it's done at the expense of developing a sound overall conditioning base. The unfortunate reality is that by placing too much emphasis on performance related outcomes rather than training to improve overall athleticism, many young athletes and their coaches are failing to see the forest through the trees. What good is improved agility, or a better vertical jump if you lack the mobility and core strength necessary to avoid injury. After all, if you're hurt- you can't play, right?

That's why I've outlined six key components to becoming a better conditioned athlete. It doesn't matter if your game is lacrosse, soccer, tennis, or swimming, these universal laws of physical preparation will help take your game to the next level. Not only will you become stronger, with improved energy levels and an increased resistance to injury, but you'll be pleasantly surprised with the noticeable boost in performance. In part one of this two-part article, I'll examine the importance of core training, mobility work and increasing systemic strength.

  1. Train your core: I'm not talking about targeting your abdominals with mindless sets of sit-ups, or crunches at the end of your workout. Real core training involves working all of the muscles that comprise your body's center of strength. To accomplish this, your core routine needs to include exercises that address stability (planks and side planks), rotary strength (cable rotations, medicine ball wood chops etc.), as well as both flexion and extension of the spine (birddogs and standing cable crunches).  Not to mention the fact, that in order to have better transfer to your chosen sport, the core drills you choose need to be of a more functional nature. This essentially means that things like medicine ball wood chops and standing cable crunches, which are performed in an upright position, offer more value that more traditional abdominal exercises that are performed lying on the ground.

Finally, since it's such an integral part of developing overall systemic strength, core training should be given priority over other aspects of your conditioning program. Instead of blowing through a few exercises at the end of your workout, try hitting your core first when your energy levels are at their highest.  About the only exception to this would be prior to a heavy squat, or deadlift workout. You wouldn't want to fatigue your core prior to attempting total body exercises like these, as the stability it affords will be key to your ability to execute these lifts with proper form.

  1. Focus on mobility: While improving your range of motion around key joints like the shoulders, hips, knees and lower back is certainly desirable regardless of what sport(s) you play, how you go about can have a tremendous impact on your results. The fact is; traditional static stretches, the type where you passively hold a muscle, or muscles in a stretched position so they can relax and elongate, don't help improve strength to any appreciable degree. As such, they don't really improve your ability to move more efficiently on the field of play. Sure, they can make you more "flexible," but increasing your range of motion around a joint, or joints without a concomitant increase in strength, can actually increase your chances of injury! Mobility drills on the other hand, require you to actively increase your range of motion. In doing so, they can much more effectively replicate the movement patterns you'll use in your sport(s). For example, a traveling lunge with torso rotation has a lot more functional transfer to sports participation than say a static quadriceps stretch. While both target the front of the thigh, the former requires balance, coordination and muscular control to effectively help improve your range of motion. This is precisely why drills like leg swings, inch worms, overhead squats and various types of lunges should comprise the bulk of your flexibility training. Look for examples of these in future articles.

Not that static stretching should be avoided entirely. It's a great tool to use at the end of a tough workout to help relax and restore your muscles to their resting length. Just be sure you limit them to your post workout routine. That same relaxation you seek at the end your workout can spell doom when you're trying to get your muscles fired up to train. Mobility drills would once again be the preferred choice here due to the stimulatory effect they have on the central nervous system.

  1. Get stronger: Although this one seems fairly obvious, you'd be surprised how often increasing strength gets overlooked. A perfect example of this is offered by all of the speed and agility training that is marketed at young athletes and their parents. While it's true that there are a variety of different drills that can be performed to improve running mechanics and hence, overall speed, the simple fact is that any results you do get will pale in comparison to those you can attain by simply becoming stronger. For example, a better arm swing, improved knee drive and even proper foot spacing on change of direction drills will all improve speed and agility to some extent. However, technical proficiency alone, no matter how well it's instructed can't make up for a lack of strength in the muscles that power these movements. In order to get more out of your arm swing when running you need a strong core to provide the foundation for that movement, otherwise you'll start rotating your torso- which will only serve to slow you down. Likewise, the propulsion it takes to both flex and extend your hips during sprint and change of direction drills requires a significant of lower body strength. I don't care how sound your footwork is, if you're not exerting enough force into the ground to power your movements, you won't be going anywhere too quickly.

It's also worth mentioning that the kind of strength I'm referring to here can't be built on machines. Things like leg extensions, leg curls and the ever-popular leg press (which enables just about anyone to use large quantities of weight) have very little transfer to actual running ability. The guided path they offer and isolated fashion in which they engage the muscles simply can't compare to drills like squats, lunges and step-ups. Of course, it should be mentioned that any lower body, or core strengthening exercises that you do should first be mastered with just your body weight before moving on to using any form of external resistance. In fact, I start all of my athletes on a strict regimen of body weight training before progressing them to things like medicine balls, resistance bands or free weights. This typically includes lots of lunges, squats (usually of the one-legged variety), push-ups, pull-ups and of course, a heavy dose of core strengthening.

There you have it- three "can't miss" tips for improving your overall athleticism. Be on the lookout for part two where I'll go over the need for  training multi-directional speed, how to fuel your body properly and the role that "pre-habilitation" exercises play in keeping you off the disabled list. Until then, start implementing this advice right away and before long, you'll be the best conditioned athlete on your team!

 

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Dana Cavalea
Dana Cavalea

Dana Cavalea is the former Director of Strength and Conditioning & Performance of the New York Yankees. Currently, he is a High Performance Speaker & Consultant to Pro Athletes, Entrepreneurs, Business Executives, and Workforces on lifestyle strategies to reduce stress, improve work/life integration, and most importantly improve daily performance /outcomes. Book Dana to Speak at your Company Event or Conference Today!


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