The Uphill Athlete KIS Strength Series
-By Uphill Athlete co-founder Scott Johnston
In part 1 we described how an Uphill Athlete should view strength training within the big picture of endurance, as a tool to improve. Much has written about strength training but most of these writings come from the strength and conditioning world where endurance means 15 reps. At Uphill Athlete, endurance means 15 hours.
In part 2 we looked at the differences between General and Specific strength and made the case for both. We also explained that, despite many studies, no one really knows how strong you need to be to perform well in endurance sports. Yet, despite this lack of scientific support, there is strong empirical evidence that improving general strength can positively influence an athlete’s endurance performance. In this article we answer this question: How do you know if you would benefit more from building a solid base of general strength or if you should focus your efforts on sport-specific strength demands.
We’ll start by reminding you that endurance sports require many thousands of repetitive movements. Even the slightest muscular imbalances or joint misalignment can, at the very least, result in wasted effort, and, in many cases, lead to overuse injuries which are the bane of all endurance athletes.
Assessing General Strength
While there are many assessment tests and many exercises you can use to address general strength deficiencies, here are two simple strength tests for mountain athletes listed from easiest to hardest:
Legs/hips: These provide the motive force to propel mountain athletes. Addressing any strength deficiencies here is a good idea before making a beeline to specific strength work.
Squat – (easy) Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart with toes angles out slightly. Squat down as low as you can while keeping your spine as vertical as you can. This action should drop your hips down between and slightly behind your heels. Do your knees cave in toward your centerline as you descend and then stand back up? This indicates weak hip (gluteal) muscles.
FIX: Place a rubber band or cord around your knees and squat while resisting the inward pressure. Do 3 sets of 20 squats 3-4 times/week
Back ½ Squat – (medium) Caution: Squatting technique requires instruction to do safely. Seek qualified help to learn this movement. Perform a proper back ½ squat (using a barbell weighing the same as your body). Can you do this without your knees caving inward, with stable shoulders and hips with no wobbling? Great! You have good general strength. If not, this can be an exercise for you to include in your strength routine. Do 4-5 sets 10-12 reps 2-3 times/week using 40-60% of your body weight while working on perfect form. Build toward 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps using about 80-90% of your body weight 2 times/week.
Box Step Up – (hard) Stand 12-16” in front of a box or bench that is about knee height. Place one foot on the box and step up without using the foot on the ground for assistance. Does your weighted knee fall to the inside as you step up? This indicates weak hip (gluteal) muscles. Can you control it consciously or is it an uncontrollable reaction to stepping up? Either of these signs indicate need for general strength improvement.
FIX: Start with as low a box height as it takes to allow your knee to track over your toes during the step up. Use no added weight at first and do 3 sets of 20 repetitions/each leg, 3-4 times/ week. Raise the box height as you gain strength. Add resistance with a bar bell on your shoulders or a weighted backpack to make bigger strength gains while doing 3 sets of 8-10 reps/ each leg 2-3 times/ week.
In the next article we’ll examine how to extend this power so you can improve your uphill endurance.
The mountain endurance athlete’s midsection is used to stabilize the hips and shoulders so that the arms and especially the legs can go about their business of propulsion from a solid foundation. Core strength training is general in nature because it is a support which allows more effective sport specific training. Several muscles help perform both this stabilization as well as flexing, extending and twisting the spine. But the principle core stability muscle is one called the transverse abdominus (TA). This deepest layer of core muscle wraps completely around your midsection like a girdle. It does not perform a movement function the way some of the more glamorous core muscles do; such as the abdominus rectus (six pack) which flexes the spine. This humble TA muscle’s sole purpose (besides containing your visceral organs) is to stabilize the spine and hips. Because it does not move any major joints it is hard to activate and harder to isolate, meaning it can be hard to strengthen. A consequence is that the bigger prime mover core muscles responsible for movement end up taking up the slack for a weak TA. This compensation will lead to a further weakening of the TA.
Core Stabilization – Plank isometric hold. Assume a prone position on the floor. Support your body weight on your forearms and toes with your body aligned such that a line drawn from the base of you neck to your heels would be straight: hips neither sagging nor raised. Hold this position for as long as you can before shaking or losing this form. If you can’t maintain good form for 30 seconds, you lack strength and endurance in the TA muscle and need to prioritize this type of strength training. This is one muscle that can never be too strong, so include frequent plank training into your routine. A reasonable program might be 4-5 max holds with a minute of rest between. When you can hold a good plan for over 1 minute, progress by adding resistance: Use a weight vest or balance a weight plate on your hips; alternate lifting an arm and foot so you are balanced on 3 points during your holds.
If you find yourself challenged with any of the above, work on that deficiency before moving on to specific strength exercises. Check out our Basic Core Routine and Scott’s Killer Core Routine videos.