Ever wonder what it would be like to cross-country ski like an Olympian?
If there’s one thing that really distinguishes a high-level athlete, it’s this: movement efficiency. Just watch a slow-motion video of your favorite Olympic athlete, and you can appreciate the coordination and precision that makes their bodies top-notch efficient. So, what makes them more efficient? How do we know if we are inefficient?
One of the greatest indicators of inefficiency is pain. Different from the expected muscle soreness experienced after a workout, pain can indicate abnormal stresses imposed on the body. According to research performed by the Institute of Physical Art, orthopedic patients are often found to demonstrate improper timing, or sequencing, of muscles which stabilize the spine and support the extremities during complex movements.* These stabilizers are your endurance muscles - and they should switch “on” before any other movement occurs.
So, how do we properly train the core? Many traditional exercises for the core target fast-twitch muscles actually intended for much larger movements (rather than stability). They also often train within straight planes of motion, which is not consistent with how the body actually moves!
Functionally, the human body works in spirals and diagonals. The ankles, knees, hips, pelvis, and even shoulder blades are involved in complex patterns with every step - and every stride in skiing. Having just one part of this sequence disrupted or delayed can throw off the mechanics of your “well-oiled machine,” your body, affecting both the performance and the enjoyment of your sport. Learning to switch “on” the stability muscles within the proper movement patterns is key to achieving optimal efficiency as well as avoiding pain.
One of the most foundational exercises for initiating greater use of the core is “clocks.” These can be done lying on your side, with either the shoulder blade or the pelvis. Imagine that there is a clock face placed face-up on your shoulder or pelvis, with the “12 o’clock” at the top, and the “6 o’clock” towards the feet. Start with shrugging your shoulder up to the “12,” then down to the “6” until you feel confident that you are reaching each of these numbers. Next, move to the “3” and then the “9 o’clock” spots. Then try to reach each portion of the clock, 1-12, in diagonals. Finally, roll your shoulder (or pelvis) clockwise and counter-clockwise to reinforce full mobility of these motions. Be sure to use your scapula (your shoulder blade) to move the entire shoulder, not just the arm.
Scapular “clock” exercise
Once you learn and achieve all the directions, more advanced core exercises focus on the most functional “points on the clock” used in many day-to-day activities. This next exercise targets the core muscles utilized during gait. Pose 1 mimics and strengthens the “swing” phase, and pose 2 strengthens the “toe off” phase. These motions are seen even more obviously in activities such as running, skating, and skiing - which can be thought of as an “exaggerated” gait. A resistance band can always be added to the arm or leg, as shown, or you could even push your foot into a stabilized exercise ball to provide a greater challenge. You can start with 3 sets of 10, or comfortable fatigue, about every other day. As you progress for pose 2, try to lift your knee a little higher and lower the ankle slightly.
Having a good foundation for your core can do so many things for you - not only for your sport, but for everyday life. Improving your efficiency can eliminate pain and improve your performance, and having a program to specifically address your body’s needs can be invaluable. As a PT, I have found this to be one of the most important skills I can teach!
For a skilled assessment of movement patterns, or to address your pain and other orthopedic/neurological needs, call Body Mechanics Physical Therapy at our Pewaukee clinic (262) 695-3057 or Milwaukee clinic (414) 224-8219 to schedule an appointment. Free consultations are available with telehealth, or in-person at one of our two clinics. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. We would love to collaborate with you to help you unlock your potential!
This article was authored by Dannie Wunderlich PT, DPT, one of our manual physical therapy experts at our Pewaukee clinic. You can call either of the two phone numbers above to schedule with her, or email her directly at email@example.com.
*Johnson, G.S., Saliba, V.L., & Wardlaw, C. (n.d.). Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Rational Manual Therapies, 243-284.