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Improvement of Mobility in Elite U.S. Ski Team Athletes

 

by: Per Lundstam, U.S.S.A. Sport Science Department

Improvement of mobility in elite U.S. Ski Team athletes is essential for high level performance and on-snow safety. The following article provides a sample workout and introduces methodologies which are part of the U.S. Ski Team conditioning approach. Integrated into many complex training situations, the BOSU® Balance Trainer (BT) is used to increase performance and decrease the risk of injury. The properties of the BT create the same physical stimulus that U.S. Ski Team athletes experience during training and competition.

Strength work, accomplished with the BT, is of great benefit to athletes because it trains neurological components which differ greatly from other training methodologies. The BT stimulates muscle activation and joint stability, and synchronizes muscle co-contraction. Due to the inherent balance challenge of standing on the BT's dome, the proprioceptive system is also engaged. Overall, the training environment for athletes becomes fun and competitive, adding a whole new dimension to the task at hand. As a result, athletes continue to improve proprioceptive skills and performance.

Warm Up
Defined as a process of physical work that increases in intensity and specificity, the warm up is used to prepare athletes for utilizing greater load and increased force output. It usually consists of light, aerobic work to start, followed by more intense work in order to increase neurological firing and prime the metabolic/energy processes within the muscle.

Progressive Sets
An extension of the warm up, progressive sets are exercises that precede the more intense performance enhancing work. These include exercises within the training plan that are performed with less resistance or intensity to create the final preparation for more intense training. 

Exercise 1 - Overhead Squat
Place both feet approximately hip width apart on the dome side of the BT. Feet should be slightly over the top of the dome with the toes slightly lower than heels. Hold a light, weighted bar in both hands, and raise arms straight above the head. Lower body using a five second count until the femur bone reaches the desired depth. This is dependent on how flexible and balanced the athlete is during the exercise. Normally, elite U.S. Ski Team athletes reach a depth with the femur bone slightly lower than parallel with the floor. Return to starting position using a smooth, slow muscle contraction, maintaining a fully aligned body.
The overhead squat is great for alignment and balance purposes, and improves mechanical efficiency. Furthermore, it improves hip mobility and provides a better platform from which to ski and/or exercise.

Exercise 2 - Supine Hamstring Curl
Lie in a supine position with shoulders on the dome of the BT and heels on a BOSU® Ballast® Ball (BB). Place arms on the floor next to the hips, slightly supporting the upper body. From this straight-body, or plank position, curl the BB underneath the gluteus using the hamstrings. Keep hips level during the exercise, and use a smooth "in" and "out" movement during the curl.
The supine hamstring curl improves muscle balance between the quadriceps and hamstrings, and stimulates development of the entire posterior chain. The activation of muscle complexes is very aggressive, so there is a need to maintain body posture, engaging the posterior muscle chain.

 

Exercise 3 - Alternate Dumbbell Push-Press
Place both feet on the dome of the BT approximately hip width apart. Slightly angle toes outwards to allow more of a vertical trunk position. Keep knees and hips relaxed so hamstrings are "resting" on calves. Begin with a set of dumbbells resting lightly on shoulders. Then, one at a time, push dumbbell up until the elbow is straight, and dumbbell is directly above the head. Slowly lower dumbbell to starting position on the shoulder. Repeat on other side. 

The alternate dumbbell push-press teaches alignment and balance, especially when hips are positioned underneath shoulders, and a load is lifted above the head. It is also a great warm up exercise to encourage proper lifting mechanics.

Exercise 4 - Glute/Hamstring Raise
Position knees on the floor of one side of the BT, dome side up. Use a soft mat to cushion the knees during the exercise. Have a partner hold the lower legs by bracing firmly on the ankles. Place both hands behind the head and maintain a straight body position from head to knees. Engage hamstrings and lower forward over the BT until quadriceps are in contact with the dome and upper body is parallel to the floor. Then, engage the posterior chain to create a contractile force involving the spinal, gluteal and hamstring muscles. This allows the upper body, trunk and thighs to return to starting position. The lowering phase of the exercise develops eccentric force production, and on the return phase, concentric force production. 

The glute/hamstring raise develops the posterior chain and improves muscle balance between the quadriceps and hamstrings. Development of the posterior chain also supports mechanics and strength development to enhance explosive/power muscle training.

 

Exercise 5 - Split Squat with Weight Rotation

Place two BTs on the floor approximately three feet apart with the dome side up. Place one foot on each BT dome with the upper thigh of front leg parallel to the floor. Hold a medicine ball slightly in front and above head. Lower medicine ball to one side until trunk faces the same direction and until ball reaches the hip region. Return ball to raised overhead position. Repeat on other side. During the exercise, use an isometric hold with the lower body. Then, move the upper body dynamically, but while maintaining control.

The split squat with weight rotation is designed to enhance the reactivity of stabilizing muscle complexes throughout the body. It supports stabilization action in joints by enhancing muscle co-contraction. Furthermore, the exercise simultaneously promotes strength endurance gains while stimulating the proprioceptive system, teaching the body how to stay balanced.

 

Exercise 6 - Single Leg Weight Shift

Place one foot on the dome of the BT, while the other foot lifts in a knee raise (Picture 1). The hip is in a high-aligned position with both arms raised above the head. Place three cones around the BT, one for the "for-push," one for the "aft- push" and one for the "lateral-push." Lower body while trying to push the front cone forward a few inches with foot (Picture 2). Return to starting position. Lower body while trying to push the side cone a few inches with foot (Picture 3). Return to starting position. Lower body while trying to push the back cone a few inches with foot (Picture 4). Return to starting position. Repeat front, side and back movement for approximately three rounds, attempting to push each cone further, or until it is at a maximum distance from the BT. Perform exercise slowly while envisioning the entire muscle complex involved, including the gluteus, quadriceps and other stabilizer muscles.

The single leg weight shift is an intense exercise and requires progressive training before execution. It taxes the contractile properties to the maximum, and enhances segmental contractile abilities in the muscle complex (or improves coordination in the neurological system), differing from other strength exercises. A coach must be sensitive to only use this exercise when deemed appropriate, as it performed in a deeply flexed hip and knee position. However, the exercise is beneficial for athletes that execute hip and knee extension from a fully flexed position during dynamic movement or recovery on snow.

 

Exercise 7 - Single Leg Hamstring Curl on Slide Board

Place a BT with the dome side up on the short side of a slide board. With slide socks on feet, lie in a supine position with shoulders resting on the BT. Extend legs with feet resting on the slide board, creating a plank position. Straighten one leg toward the ceiling and straighten the other leg to full extension so only the heel is in contact with the slide board. The body is in a slight posterior bend (flexed hip) because the heel is strongly pushing downward to keep a strong, plank position.

The single leg hamstring curl is designed to heavily load the posterior chain. This exercise should progress from using both legs to the single leg movement.

 

Exercise 8 - Seated Abdominal Twist
Sit on the dome of the BT, slightly towards the front. Lean upper body and trunk backwards while lifting both feet off of the floor in a balanced position. Keep knees and feet together with knees slightly bent. Move arms and upper body to one side while moving legs and lower body to opposite side, creating a rotational movement of the core region. Try to extend the upper body as far away as possible from the lower body while maintaining balance on the BT. Return to starting position. Repeat on other side.

The seated abdominal twist trains the abdominal complex to be reactive which helps stabilize the core and improve muscle activation sequencing during dynamic, athletic movement.

In conclusion, these mobility session exercises are applied in warm up, strength training and rehabilitation settings and prepare U.S. Ski Team athletes for on-snow training and competition. Functional training tools such as the BOSU® Balance Trainer (BT) and BOSU® Ballast® Ball (BB) are useful and essential for athletes to develop precise sequencing and muscle activation patterns. Simply put, this type of conditioning approach allows U.S. Ski Team athletes to limit the risk of injury and enhance performance.

About the Author:
Per Lundstam was born in Stockholm, Sweden. He served as head conditioning coach for the Swedish Men's Alpine Skiing Olympic Team between 1990 and 1994. Then, from 1994-1996, Per was a conditioning coach for the U.S. Men's Alpine Skiing Olympic Team, promoted to head conditioning coach for the entire men's team in 1996, and maintained the position until 2002. He currently works for the U.S.S.A. Sport Science Division.


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