The Strength Buffer

Josh fights for his 1RM.

by Rob Shaul


Perhaps the best thing we can do for our athletes is build into them a strength “buffer” against injury. I’ve yet to see a published study that investigates the link between strength and durability but I’m convinced it’s huge.

Here is the equation I use for Durability: Durability = 90% Relative Strength + 5% Mobility + 5% Proper Movement

“Relative” strength is important. We’re not training competing olympic weight lifters, or competing powerlifters here. I’m not super interested in mass effort strength. What I really key in on is relative strength – or strength per bodyweight. My goal is to try to get my athletes as strong as I can, while not significantly increasing their bodyweight.

Mountain athletes have to carry their engine into the field. As one of my skiers, Griffin Post, has brought to my attention, freeskiers must also land with their engine when they huck off a cliff. Extra bulk – fat or muscle, is a detriment. (As an aside, we weighed all of our freeskiers a month ago, and they’ve had a month to lose 10#. There are two ways to increase relative strength – get stronger, or maintain strength and lose weight. We’re doing both)

I’ve had my freeskiers in the gym training since June 15th. They’ve done some plyometrics and some work capacity training, but the one consistency in their offseason programming has been focused, barbell-driven strength training – squats, lunges, hang squat cleans – basic stuff.

It’s my belief that stronger athletes are simply harder to injure, if they do get injured, don’t get injured as bad as weaker athletes, and if they do get injured, recover faster then weaker athletes. Increased relative strength is a “buffer” against injury. It’s a buffer in favor of durability.

The barbell strength we’ve drilled this offseason hasn’t been geared toward their skiing performance. It’s been geared toward making them more durable as they go into a long season of a very dangerous sport.

Working with mountain athletes, this early on became an important distinction. Please understand I’m not personally an accomplished mountain athlete in any way. I came to work with mountain athletes not as an accomplished one myself, but rather as a professional strength and conditioning coach who wanted to work with a very unique, underserved, athletic population.

Early on I relied totally on general fitness strength and work capacity training, and while my athletes got stronger and their gym work capacity numbers improved, the transfer to mountain performance was not strong enough. I had to develop sport-specific training and cycles to push and develop pure on-mountain performance. The major fitness attribute for rock climbers, as an example, is grip strength, grip work capacity, and grip strength endurance. Back squats don’t develop this.

But, continuing with the climbing example, excessive work at the climbing gym, and on our system boards can also lead to overuse injuries, and major strength imbalances. Also, this work doesn’t acknowledge the fitness demands of a long, steep approach and descent, or of the unexpected – like having to piggyback your injured partner back to the car, or surviving a hard fall.

This is where the strength comes in. Our strength training focuses on what I call the “Mountain Chassis” – legs and core. The strength we build into the athlete’s Mountain Chassis acts as a buffer before injury. Stuff on the mountain is going to happen, and hopefully, this buffer will take the impact, instead of that impact leading to injury.



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