B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning – Articles 39
A Pound of Prevention
Part IV: Strengthening at the Gym
By Mike Mejia, CSCS
So far in this series, I’ve outlined an effective warm-up strategy, as well as body weight strengthening exercises that can help guard against ACL injuries. This time around, I’ll be showing you some great drills you can do at the gym, using various types of equipment. Perhaps even more importantly, though, I’ll also tell you which exercises to stay away from. Because as important a role as strengthening plays in reducing your risk of suffering an ACL injury, doing it the wrong way can often be just as damaging as not doing it at all.
Rage against the machine
Chief amongst the exercises you should stay away from is pretty much anything done using a machine. Although there are a couple of notable exceptions (which I’ll go over shortly), machine based training is of extremely limited use for athletes. Unless you’re rehabbing an injury under the watchful eye of a qualified therapist, the type of muscle isolation and/or set movement patterns machines are known for simply isn’t worth your effort.
Certain types of machines, like leg extensions and leg curls for instance, not only isolate specific muscle groups, but they’re what’s known as “open chain” movements- meaning that your foot isn’t in contact with anything. Besides offering little in the way of carryover to athletic performance, exercises like these don’t allow for the kind of “co-contraction” of the quadriceps and hamstrings that’s key to improving knee stability.
Now, there are some machines that allow for strengthening in the more desired “closed-chain” position (where your foot is in contact with either the ground, or some type of force plate) and do require this co-contraction. The leg press and Smith machine squat immediately come to mind. The problem here, however, is twofold: 1. The resistance moves along a set path- requiring little involvement of the stabilizing musculature and 2. The linear path the resistance takes actually increases stress on certain joints- particularly the knees and lower back.
Those seated abduction and adduction machines aren’t much better. True, they do target muscles that are often weak in female athletes; which can theoretically help with improving knee stability. The problem is the completely non-functional way in which they go about it. Let’s face it, out on the field there aren’t a lot of instances when you’re required to move your legs in and out against resistance while in a seated position.
Think outside the box
So, if you’re going to avoid using most of the more traditional lower body strengthening equipment, what exactly should you be doing? In addition to any number of free weight exercises like squats, deadlifts and various types of lunges, there are some lesser-known exercises that also warrant inclusion.
First up is the stability ball leg curl. The thing that sets this apart from the machine leg curl is that it not only trains knee flexion (brining your heels towards your butt), but it also requires you to extend your hips. Since the hamstrings actually cross the knee and hip joints, you can see why a drill that includes both motions would be a better choice. Plus, it’s a closed chain movement which targets that all-important posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors working together), so theres an awful lot to like here.
Execution: Lie on your back with your calves and heels resting on top of a stability ball. With your arms positioned out to the sides for balance, extend your hips until your body forms a ramp from your feet to your shoulders. Keeping your hips up and your core braced, pull the ball in towards you as far as you can. Hold the top position for a second, then return the ball to the starting position and repeat for 10-12 reps.
Next up is the low cable abduction. Here we have one of those more acceptable machines I alluded to earlier. Because they allow for movement in the three-dimensional plain, cable based machines have a lot of application for athletic conditioning. This first exercise will be especially effective because it places different demands on each leg. One leg (along with your core, or course) will be required to stabilize your position, as the other- which is hooked up to the machine- moves away from your body. The moving leg will dynamically strengthen your hip abductors (muscles that take your leg away from your body), helping to improve knee stability. While the other will simultaneously fight to maintain your position, increasing ankle knee and hip stability.
Execution: Place a cuff around your left ankle and step out a few feet away from a low cable machine. Balance on your right leg, as you take your left leg out away from the midline of your body, making sure that your knees and toes point straight ahead. Hold for a second at your furthest point, then slowly return the weight to the starting position and repeat for 10-12 reps per side.
The cable adduction is another great drill. This one once again requires a combination of dynamic strengthening and stability; making it a terrific exercise for athletes looking to improve on field performance and reduce injury risk.
Execution: Place a cuff around your right ankle and step out a few feet away from a low cable machine. Balance on your left leg, as you draw your right leg in across the midline of your body. Hold for a second, then return the weight to the start position and repeat for 10-12 reps per side.
Next up is the BOSU squat. This odd looking contraption is becoming more and more popular in gyms, and offers a great way to improve balance and stability. The trick is using a controlled pace and trying to allow for as little shaking as possible as you squat up and down. It’s also a great way to strengthen, without having to jump right in to using heavy weights. Get good at squatting on this thing and regular free weight squats will be a breeze!
Execution: Get up on the BOSU by placing one foot on close to the edge of one side and then pressing down so you can step up with the other. Once you’re balanced, begin by sitting your hips back and keep your chest up as you descend into a parallel squat position. Pause for a second or two, and then press back up. Continue for 10-12 reps
Despite the fact that this last drill doesn’t require any additional equipment- except for an exercise mat and a pair of dumbbells- I’m including it here anyway. It’s called a high-kneeling step up and the reason I like it so much is that it puts more emphasis on the lead leg than the traditional standing step-up. Regular step-ups are a great exercise, when done properly, because they stress glute activation. The only problem is that a lot of times kids use momentum to propel themselves up with the back leg, which is pretty much impossible here.
Execution: Get into a high-kneeling position with your knees resting on a mat. Holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length, bring one leg around in front of you and plant it firmly on the ground. Next, press mainly through the heel of the forward leg as you drag your back leg up like it’s dead weight. Come to a standing position and then slowly lower yourself by bringing the back leg down first, then return the front leg to the starting position. You can either continue this way, or alternate legs until you’ve completed 10-12 reps per side.
So there you go. Five less traditional exercises that will have you working plenty hard, while simultaneously targeting all of the areas where female athletes tend to be weak. When mixed in with other drills like squats, lunges, deadlifts and other unilateral strengthening exercises like the one’s featured here, they should go a long way towards reducing your likelihood of ever sustaining an ACL injury.