Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Corrective Triathlete Exercises

From USA Triathlon:
By Justin Levine

With so much demand on the body from vigorous training, triathletes need to include building balance as part of their training plans. All athletes need core, hip and shoulder stability and ankle, hip and thoracic (mid-spine) mobility. The stronger your structure becomes the less you become injured and the higher your performance will soar.

Endurance athletes seem to wait too long to correct their imbalances and issues. Whether it’s an unstable lower spine, weak and “loose” hips and shoulders or a weak core, triathletes are destined for a physical therapy clinic. These six corrective exercises can be a huge assistance to correcting some major issues I see in a majority of athletes. These movements need to be part of a regular routine so you can build a balanced body, increase your flexibility and mobility and decrease your chance of injury. Remember when you get hurt you cannot train and when you cannot train you cannot improve. Train smart and perform these exercises daily.

Plank/Side Plank

This might be the most important exercise for triathletes. We need stability and stiffness in our lower lumbar region. If we are unstable our lower back will get unwanted movement, thus causing lower back pain. There are many repetitive movements in swimming, biking and running. You are continually doing the same thing over and over which can cause asymmetries in the body. Having a stable core means that your body will be able to release power throughout your hips and shoulders more efficiently. The plank effectively trains all of the stabilizing muscles in your body, from your shoulders, through your spine, to your hips and ankles.

The plank is a very simple but efficient exercise. You do not have to hold a plank longer than 45 seconds for it to be effective. Start out by holding a plank or side plank for 15 seconds and perform two sets. Build to 3 sets of 30 seconds each. Once you have mastered this progression, elevate your feet on a bench or box. You must maintain a perfectly straight body, braced abdominal region and stiffness through the exercise. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides and directly underneath your shoulders and keep your forearms straight out in front of you.


Whether you are swimming, biking or running, triathletes need strong stability and posture of the upper back. If you have a weak posterior upper body, your body will learn to compensate through unwanted stress of the lower back, shoulders, hips and knees. These simple exercises will enhance shoulder stability, rotator cuff strength, and scapular control. The scapula area (shoulder blades, rhomboids, rotator cuff, middle trapezius, posterior deltoid and subscapularis) are all stabilizing muscles of the upper back. If we lack strength in these small stabilizing muscles our posture will suffer thus causing stress and pain in other areas.

You need to be in a good athletic position while performing these exercises. Knees should be slightly bent and you should be bent over 45 degrees toward the ground. Remain strong and tight in the trunk area. You will make a Y, T, W and L with your arms to work the shoulder blade and rotator cuff. Start out by doing six repetitions for each exercise and do not use any weight. Build to 10 repetitions of each exercise. Once you have done this set of exercises for at least 4 weeks, then you can move to 2 pound dumbbells. This exercise is meant for light weight so we can continue to strengthen the stabilizers. The heavier you go the more your deltoid will want to take over, thus defeating the purpose of these moves.

Mini-band Walks

Most triathletes have very strong quadriceps and hamstrings but very weak hip stabilizers. The gluteus medius is a very important muscle for stabilizing the hip joint and controlling the femur. If you have weak hip stabilizers you will not be able to control the movement of the femur, which can cause hip, knee and low back pain.

Running and biking are unilateral movements. You are always using one leg or the other during these sports. If you cannot stabilize on one leg because of inadequate hip stabilizers you will get injured very fast. This exercise, done daily, will strengthen your gluteus medius and will assist in stabilizing your hip joint. The more stability you have in your hips the more we can swim, bike and run more efficiently.

When performing this exercise, think of having a book on top of your head with great core stability. Do not wobble all over the place. Remain tight and balanced. Your toes should be pointed inward to get more recruitment of the gluteus medius. When going lateral, start off by doing 10 small steps to your left and 10 small steps to your right. Build to 30 small steps to your right and left. When linear, start off by doing 20 small steps forward and back and build to 30 small steps front and back.

Deep Squat to Hamstring Stretch

This is a powerful exercise. This will help loosen up your ankles, open up your hips and stretch your hamstrings. Triathletes get very tight in their hips and hamstrings from constant biking and running. This exercise done every day will enhance ankle mobility, hamstring flexibility and hip mobility. Make sure to keep your chest up and back flat, keep heels on the floor and keep your elbows inside of your knees during the squat. As you go into the hamstring stretch, push your hips up and keep a straight back until your feel the stretch in your hamstrings. Start off by doing five full repetitions of this movement.

Lateral/Straight Leg Swings

This dynamic exercise is performed to increase hip mobility. This is a mandatory movement in your daily workout routine. If you lack mobility in your hips, your lower back will take the stress and will eventually start to hurt. These movements will open your hips in a frontal and sagittal plane of motion.

World renowned strength coach Michael Boyle said, “The problem is that the hip is built for mobility and the lumbar spine for stability. When the supposedly mobile joint becomes immobile, the stable joint is forced to move in compensation, becoming less stable and subsequently painful.”

During lateral leg swings keep your back stable and let your hips do the movement. Cross the center line of your body and do not let your toes externally rotate out. Keep your toes facing the wall. With straight leg swings maintain a tall and stable trunk. Swing your leg up as high as you can go without bending your knee. Keep your toes flexed back.

Thoracic Rotation

This is another simple but effective exercise. Too many triathletes suffer from lower back pain. These issues are most likely caused from tight hips or an immobile thoracic spine. Our thoracic spine is the 12 vertebrae located in the middle of the spine. You need active mobility in this region. If you lack mobility in this area you are likely to move at the low spine and cause back pain. Also, because of lack of mobility in the thoracic spine you could spark serious neck and shoulder issues.

When sitting, your thoracic spine is in a locked position and its true function (extension, flexion and rotation) is turned off. This can lead to poor posture mechanics which can send a chained signal to the rest of the body to compensate. Compensation is what leads to injury. When one part of the body is turned off or not functional, another area will try to pick up the load and this will lead to an injury. This exercise is done on all fours. Your body must remain straight and in good position. Put one hand on top of your head, rotate down and touch your opposite shoulder and then rotate up as far as you can. Try and look up to the ceiling when rotating up. You will feel the stretch between your shoulder blades. Start off by performing 8 a side and build to 15 a side.

Here are three exercises triathletes (or any athlete for that matter) should never do again:


The movement of crunching puts the spine into flexion. The spine does not want this load. The function of the spine is meant to remain stable. Repetitive movement at the lower spine will cause pain or even worse a blown disc. Read any research from Dr. Stuart Mcgill, a low back specialist, and you will see why spinal flexion, extension and rotation are a recipe for a blown low back disc. Want a healthy and strong back? Build stability and stiffness and stay away from crunching.

Leg Curl Machine

This machine is a very non-functional “strength training” exercise. First of all it is a machine. Machines do not build function. Your movement is constricted on an exercise machine. Secondly, this exercise will work the hamstrings without engaging the hips and the glutes. When you do that it will lead to over-dominant hamstrings, thus leading to imbalanced glutes and hips, which can lead to injury. These two muscle groups need to work together. Try the stability ball leg curl instead. This will allow your hips to work with your hamstrings and this will create balance and a strong posterior lower body.

Low Back Hyperextension

Have you ever done the Superman exercise? Just like crunching this is another recipe for low back pain. The low spine is meant to remain stable, and when you put unwanted load on the spine it will cause serious back issues. It might not happen the first, third or 50th time you perform this exercise but every time you perform spinal flexion, extension or rotation you are setting yourself up for disaster. Stay away from this exercise.