Summit County ski conditioning: Re-program your brain-body connections
March 15, 2014
Editor's note: This is the first part in a two-part series about exercises to maintain your strength and power through the spring ski and snowboard season.
To properly execute your powder turns or improve your agility on the bumps, you might need to retrain your brain.
"As adults, we've all developed muscle imbalances that cause some muscles to be tighter than others, and as a consequence, we compensate by using any muscle we do know how to activate," said Marika Page, fitness and facility coordinator at the Breckenridge Recreation Center.
For example, she said, many people, both men and women, use their quadriceps instead of their glutes for any squatting motion.
"Over time, the quads get overused or overtight and start exerting forces on the surrounding joints that can cause hip, knee or back pain," Page said. "We then start making other compensations to relieve the hip, knee or back pain, and pretty soon the muscles are firing out of sequence and we are just 'getting by' instead of maximizing our efforts."
Page shared a handful of exercises that can help re-program our brain-body connections. The focus should be on using core muscles, she said, which means everything between your shoulders and your knees, not just your abs.
"These exercises, ideally, will train the muscles to fire in the order they were designed to fire," she said. "With repeated practice of these sequences, the neural connections between your brain — telling the muscles to fire — and your muscles — actually doing the firing — become stronger, more natural and more 'automatic.'"
Single-leg hinge and press
How to do it: Stand on your left leg with the dumbbell in your right hand. With your right leg slightly bent, lean forward using your glute muscle. Return to the original position. To add the press, bring the dumbbell through the shoulder and above your head.
Why it works: If you're only going to do one of these exercises, this is the one to do. Every time you take a step or slide your ski forward, the force goes from the ground, through your heel and up the back of your leg, crosses into your lower back and ends up in the opposite shoulder. That's the sequence that the muscles are designed to fire in. The more efficient that firing pattern is, the more energy you have to deal with everything else — steering, changing direction, turning, watching for little people, all of that.
How it will up your game: This exercise will help you have better posture with less effort, better coordination between your upper and lower body and more body control through your core.
Offset lunge with weight
Offset lunge for a bad shoulder
How to do it: With the dumbbell in your left hand, raise your left arm straight over head keeping your elbow totally straight, and step your left leg back into the lunge position, with your heel raised. Lower your back knee toward the ground, and push up through your front heel.
Why it works: Using a single dumbbell makes it harder for your abs to stabilize — both sides of your torso have to work against gravity but with each other to stay even. The weight overhead makes it that much farther from your center of gravity, forcing that whole chain of muscles to work together to stay upright. If you have a bad shoulder, you can hold the dumbbell down at your side. Doing the exercise without the weights allows you to check that you can keep your torso upright.
How it will up your game: You need to show yourself that you have control of your torso so your torso can stay upright while your legs are bending when you're skiing.
How to do it: Stand on one foot with the other slightly raised.
Why it works: When you're standing on one foot, it seems super basic, but a lot of people hold themselves there with their calf muscle instead of their hip muscle. Make sure your outer glute, the outside part of your hip, is the primary firing muscle. A lot of it is what Page calls a Jedi mind trick, using your brain to tell that muscle to turn on.
How it will up your game: Let the right muscles do the right job. This reduces overall muscle tension.
Dumbbell plank with row
How to do it: In the plank position, with dumbbells in each hand and hands directly under your shoulders, row one arm through with dumbbell in hand.
Why it works: Primarily, this is an abdominal and hip exercise and it's teaching your abs and hips to stay still while the weight is moving around you.
How it will up your game: Keeping your core engaged allows your arms and legs to move freely.