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Functional Training

By Gary Dranow

Now that you all are well into your "endurance" or "Base" portion of your off season training program (road biking, Mtn biking, hiking, running) it is time to start thinking about integrating the next step and that is "Functional Training".

Functional training can be either very sport specific or simply general sport oriented.  Since we all wish to kick butt next year at Steamboat (and elsewhere) it would stand to reason that most of us would want to design a training program that is very sport specific.

For my purposes I define the functional training aspect of our off season program as the strength, flexibility and agility training that is performed with weights, apparatus or a combination of the two.  Examples are free weights, medicine balls, exercise balls (Swedish Balls, 60 - 65CM), balance boards, stretch cords, and the like.

To properly develop a program that strengthens the muscle systems we use to move our center of gravity (COG), maintain in balance, enhance performance, increase agility and minimize injury, one needs to understand the different muscle systems  and then how to properly affect those systems during training.

Unfortunately most equipment that is available at your typical gym does not train the body properly for our sport or any sport other than lifting weights.  The reason is that the apparatus, such as an arm curl machine, utilizes benches, straps, rests or other things that immobilize the body.  This immobilization may work well to bulk up certain muscle groups but it does very little to assist muscle systems to work together, as they should naturally, to create balance, core strength and joint support, articulation and responsiveness.

Many people, for instance, believe that the quads are essential for flexing the knee.  When you consider a person simply walking, much less running, cutting or skiing, it becomes clear that the quad is really more involved with the deceleration of knee flexion offsetting the resultant force vector (1) of your foot hitting the floor and the body's weight being transferred to that foot.

Even in this simple example the quads are not acting alone nor do they act independent of the frame (the bones) on which they act. 

Without going into this in great detail suffice it to say that as we load each side of our body as we move around our world, we are stewarding our COG through three dimensions.  These are the three planes of motion or what I call triplanar motion.  The planes are the sagittal (front and back), frontal (side-to-side) and transverse (or horizontal, or rotational).  If you think about walking in a straight line and imagine your COG moving along with you it is pretty easy to see that your body is moving in all these "dimensions" as you go.  With each step there is not just linear movements, but rotary motion as well, especially with the muscle groups the make up our "core systems".   Within a simple structure of each of your legs (well not so simple) the same and linear movements are happening.  The bones rotate under load and the muscles act to stabilize that rotation to keep the joints in alignment and functioning properly to maintain balance and force.

In skiing, much more so than walking, our COG is moving from a state of imbalance to a state of balance then out again from turn to turn.  Our muscles, joints, bones and nervous system constantly monitor the energy, force, and vector on each joint and our muscle systems more or less efficiently adjust to allow us to complete a turn balanced on our ski edges.

For Dr. Liz and I we will be seeking to establish a regime that will identify the core muscle systems we use in skiing and train the systems to be stronger, faster and more subtle with the goal of enhancing our performance this coming season.  We intend to develop our program to work our bodies and muscles in all three planes, not just in sagittally, as most exercise systems and machines concentrate on.

Starting to look at this next step in our program begins the process of designing this additional phase (Road Biking being our endurance or base conditioning phase).

So far I have identified that there are two major muscle systems we rely on to ski well.

The inner core unit and the outer core unit.

The inner core system serves to support and protect the spine from excessive internal AND external forces.  The inner core unit consists of the transversus abdominis, multifidus, diaphragm and pelvic floor.

The outer core unit works with the inner core unit to manage forces (such as making a GS ski turn) by handling a greater or lesser part of the workload based on conditioning and how the athlete moves in general.

The outer core unit is made up of four systems :

    Anterior Oblique System (AOS).The AOS consists of the external obliques and the opposite adductors. In some cases, the fibers of each of these respective muscles even cross the pubic symphysis and blend with the fibers of the other muscle.

    Posterior Oblique System (POS).The POS consists of the latissimus dorsi (lats) and the opposite gluteus maximus (glutes). The fibers of these two muscles are directly in line with each other, and perpendicular to the sacroiliac (SI) joint, thus supporting this often-troublesome spot. Since the glutes are the largest muscles in thebody, and the lats are the largest muscles in the upper body, working this system is excellent for calorie burning and metabolic conditioning.

    Lateral System (LS).The LS consists of the abductors and adductors of one leg, and the opposite quadratus lumborum, a muscle often implicated in low back pain. These muscles act to keep the body upright in the frontal plane. When driving a car, you steer slightly to the left and slightly to the right to keep the car moving in a relatively straight line. The same idea applies to your abductors and adductors, which work in unison to keep the pelvis relatively level and the knees facing relatively straight ahead.

    Deep Longitudinal System (DLS).The DLSstarts at the big toe with the peroneus longus and continues on to connect the biceps femoris, sacrotuberous ligament and spinal erectors. It's affected whenever the foot is on the ground, and is a vital shock-absorption system.

    These two units work with our central nervous systems and its sensors, which are called Proprioceptors, to help us move in 5 ways.

    Pulling and pushing. Pulling exercises performed in the standing position help fortify the POS, and strengthen the mid-back, low back and dozens of spinal paraspinal muscles. Pushing exercises performed in the standing position integrate the chest muscles with the abdominals, while the hips and legs stabilize. Unilateral pushing exercises with a natural rotation also accentuate the Serape Effect (the way the right internal obliques, left external obliques, left serratus anterior and left rhomboids all work together and criss-cross with their counterparts on the other side of the body) to recruit the external obliques and the serratus anterior. Mid-back muscles, such as the middle trapezius and rhomboids, retract the scapula (supination) in preparation for a stronger protraction (pronation).

    Rotation Rotation exercises emphasize transverse plane dominant muscles, such as the internal and external obliques, and also include the often-neglected transverse plane function of many other muscles, including the hamstrings and adductors. The hips have a large degree of rotation, yet no machine strengthens this movement. Moreover, many people have lost the rotation in their hips and shoulder girdle, so when they rotate -- as we do all day long -- any rotation is focused in the spine. This can lead to low-back pain. Though they might appear harmful at first glance, standing rotational exercises can help restore hip and thoracic rotation that will actually decrease the amount of potentially dangerous lumbar rotations your members go through.

    One leg stance. Researcher and physical therapist Vladamir Janda points out that, since walking requires you to spend about 85 percent of the time on either one leg or the other, one leg stance is the standard posture of humankind.  Exercises that combine one leg stance with the foot hitting the ground (lunges are the principle example) teach your leg muscles to react subconsciously to ground reaction forces.  As described earlier, everything changes when the foot hits the ground. The internal rotation of the lower-body segments is controlled by subconscious and reactive eccentric action of numerous lower-body muscles. The proper exercises can fortify these reflexes.

    Moving the COG. Moving the COG is simply a manifestation of supination and pronation, and works virtually all of your lower-body muscles, in addition to your low-back muscles. COG exercises are great for teaching and reinforcing proper lifting mechanics and dynamic spinal stabilization.(2)

Clearly in skiing we utilize each of these basic movement patterns.  We both push and pull within our muscle groups as well as in conjunction with our apparatus, our skis, boots and poles.  Clearly, whether we like the term or not, we use tons of rotation of the core muscles in every ski turn we make.  As we transition from one turn to the other, very much like walking, we achieve or move through a single leg posture.  Lastly, we are very involved in moving our COG while skiing.  It is the efficient movement of the COG that makes us faster or slower racers.

Putting all these systems and concepts together with your trainer should result in a program that concentrates on exercises that enable and enhance how our system should natural work in its optimal condition.  An example is the wild animal in its normal environment.  The successful predator, such as a leopard or lion, moves effortlessly, quickly and powerfully.  All of the concepts of conditioning applies to them but they achieve naturally surviving in their environment.  We, the thinking, playing predator, usually must work our systems back to their optimal "natural" state to react at the highest levels of performance (I certainly do, and especially now, being a wounded animal).

The system I have stumbled on to is called the 3-4-5 system.  It is called this because you and your trainer take the "3" planes of movement, "4" outer unit systems and "5" basic movement patterns into consideration in designing your exercise circuit.

Once you and your trainer understand the concepts each exercise will utilize movements and apparatus to re-initialize your systems for optimal sports performance. 

Whether you do this in the gym or at home some simple pieces of equipment can be assembled to develop a well rounded training program as long as each movement activates these critical systems through the combination of the proper movement patterns.

I am working with a physical trainer and will hopefully have a full off-season ski specific program put together and added as part of our informational system at MSR.com.  Hope this give you all something to think about.


1. Rick Schnellmann, Balance, The Keystone of Skiing, www.modernskiracing.com, May, 2006
2. Stephen Holt. Fitness Management Magazine, September 2002
3. Janda, V. The Janda Compendium (vols. I and II). OPTP.
4. Vleeming, A. Movement, Stability and Low Back Pain. Churchill Livingstone: London, England, 1997.
5. Voss, D. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation: Patterns and techniques. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins: Philadelphia, Penn., 1985.
6. Tommy Kirchhoff, Serape Effect, Nastar Forum, 2005