Our guest columnist today is Lauren Downes (see right), founder of Sk8Strong Inc. Lauren has a MSPT (Master of Science in Physical Therapy), and is also a physical therapist, skating professional, and off-ice trainer who has worked with figure skaters since 1994. I asked her to select a topic that she felt was important for figure skaters to be aware of, and she wanted to share her expertise in the benefits of functional training versus gym machines. As figure skaters, we're constantly balancing being strong and flexible, but not looking bulky and tight. Here is what Lauren had to say about being in the best shape possible for skaters.
Functional training or gym machines: Which is better?
by Lauren Downes, MSPT
Back in the "old days" of training, almost every athlete could be found in the gym using weight machines to build strength and muscle mass, no matter which sport he or she played. They used the traditional leg press, leg curl, and leg extension machines to bulk up their thighs, and the calf press for their lower legs. There is no question that these machines increase muscle mass and make these athletes stronger, but how did this type of training carry over to their sports? Unless the athlete was a power lifter, it didn’t!
Most weight machines isolate one muscle or muscle group at a time, by following the action that muscle controls. Repetitive contraction against resistance will strengthen a muscle’s fibers and make it bigger and more defined. If a person wants to tone or target a certain area of the body, using a weight machine can accomplish that goal, but it will not maximize training benefits for an athlete. In the majority of sports, using figure skating as an example, athletes are constantly required to recruit power and speed from several muscle groups at once. Figure skaters’ muscles need the ability to accelerate and decelerate with significant force and strength to complete jumps, change speeds and directions, and hold spin positions. A single muscle cannot accomplish this on it's own -- synergistic contractions of muscles are needed to create such forces. The most beneficial way to train muscles to co-contract is through functional training.
The official definition of functional training is "the classification of exercises which involves training the body for the activities performed in everyday life." These exercises use the body’s weight as resistance, with one of more extremities planted on the ground or stable surface. Examples include lunges, single leg dead lifts, hip strengthening while standing on one leg, bridging, and one-legged squats. Such exercises mimic actions that we perform every day, whether it be reaching to pick a pencil off of the floor or loading a dishwasher. Humans are constantly balancing their body while bending over or on one foot -- we are exercising when we don’t even realize it!
Figure skaters are perpetually in motion, bending the knees, hips, and ankles. Ninety percent of the actions skaters perform require a certain degree of core stability, balance, and strength, using several muscle groups at once. With many functional based exercises, the body is forced to use the core, balance receptors, and lower extremity muscles together to complete a motion. Performing functional exercises, a skater can accomplish much more in a shorter time frame than using a weight machine, by condensing the strengthening of several areas into one exercise.
Besides saving time, functional training can be safer than using weight machines for exercises. Most of our bodies are not entirely symmetrical, referring to joint movements, muscle flexibility, and muscle strength. Many machines are moved by both the upper extremities or lower extremities simultaneously, requiring symmetrical movement of the joints and muscles. By using asymmetrical movement, there is a greater chance for injury or increase in joint dysfunction. Machines also should be adjusted properly according to one’s height, and injury can occur if the machine is not set up properly. In an exercise such as a lunge, the body follows its natural path of movement, instead of being controlled by the movement of a machine. The body activates muscle memory in regards to the positioning and control of a joint, which can carry over to functional movement in our everyday life.
Using weight machines can be helpful to a skater, by increasing muscle mass and strength, yet functional training will prove to be more beneficial for balance and stability. Figure skating is one of the most technical and demanding sports on the body, and skaters need the best off-ice training available to them to accomplish their goals. Functional training is the answer!
Under the direction of Stephen Conca, a strength and conditioning specialist, Lauren and Sk8Strong have produced four different strength and conditioning DVDs specifically for figure skaters, from beginner, to competitive, to adult. Each DVD (see right) provides detailed instruction, demonstration, and progression of each exercise appropriate for a skater's level. The exercises are designed to provide skaters with a comprehensive training program to build core, lower and upper body functional strength, increase plyometric jump height, build single leg stability, and reduce risk of injury. Also available at Sk8Strong are an off-ice training manual, skill analyses, injury reports, site membership, video analysis, and more. Lauren also acts as an off-ice training advisor and is readily available to answer any skater's or coaches questions about injuries or training.