The man in the gym adjusted the core machine to 250 pounds, then began twisting his torso from one side to another to push the shoulder bar around.
He was working out wrong. His workout will never make him a better athlete.
Nearly every athlete, at whatever level he plays or competes, knows how important it is to have a strong core. Every movement of the arms and legs originates from that part of the body, and those thin sheets of muscle also determine the force of every athletic movement.
But there are limits.
Take two sports that are totally different: basketball and skiing. Both require the extensive — and very quick — use of every core muscle. That quickness is the key to training. A wise coach once defined the basic link between conditioning and performance this way: “The way you train is the way you will perform.”
If you’re using heavy weights to work your torso, then by definition, you’ll be moving slowly. New studies have shown disturbing news for athletes: Training with resistance will make an athlete stronger or quicker, but not both. Athletes can train moderately to improve both qualities at once, but training with heavy weights that require pure power will make you slower, while working out quickly, with light weights, will improve reaction time. Quick reactions are necessary in both basketball and skiing — and most other sports as well.
Although it’s good to schedule regular heavy resistance days into your conditioning program, your best workout will be designed with sport-specific exercises. For example, flexing down at the hips and knees, then jumping up as high as possible is a good exercise for basketball players. After the body adapts to this movement, begin holding two light dumbbells at shoulder level. As the jumps become higher and quicker, begin turning the upper body to one side, then the other.
Skiers and snowboarders need quickness in flexing the legs, especially in bumps or ungroomed terrain. Having fast reactions is essential. Aside from lifting heavy to gain strength and power, especially in the lower back (spinal erectors) and thighs (quads and hamstrings), practice squatting quickly with very light weight, or with no weight at all.
As you train, visualize the movements of your sport. Mimic those movements without resistance, training for speed. Add light resistance that allows you to continue reacting quickly and doesn’t slow down your ability to move fast.
Runners and cyclists can train without emphasis on different ranges of motion. But if your sport uses diverse movements that make you go in different directions — cutting sideways or reversing your path, you certainly should train for agility rather than just hoisting a weight in the same range of motion over and over again. That’s why free weights are much better than machines.
With free weights such as dumbbells or a weighted bar, you’re working on balance, range of motion and exercising the small “helper” muscles that are used in active sports. With machines, you’re only working in one range of motion — that of the machine. When it comes to your field of play, machine training will leave you weaker in other ranges of motion. You will be a lesser athlete than your potential may allow.
Unless you’re trying to impress others in the gym (and why would you do that?), work out according to the requirements of your sport. You’ll improve your athletic ability — and after all, isn’t that your goal?
Wina Sturgeon is the editor of the online magazine Adventure Sports Weekly (adventuresportsweekly .com).