As runners we’re always keen to find ways to train for performance. How do we get faster times, better recovery and maintain joint health in the most efficient way? And how do we change it up, keeping things interesting for our minds and bodies so our time on the road or track continues to not only be more effective, but even more fun?
There are many ways to train for performance, but one important yet often neglected area is stabilisation – both of the critical working joints (such as knee, ankle, hip and pelvis) and just as importantly of the core itself. Without addressing stabilisation, running training can become like trying to building a house on sand – where the most diligent work may come undone through injury resulting from poor joint alignment. Training for stabilisation is in many ways like laying a solid foundation, establishing and maintaining good joint alignment to minimise the chance of injury while helping optimise strength, power and endurance gains through improved joint movement and muscle recruitment patterns.
To operate effectively while we run, all the muscles around a joint must perform their proper function at the proper time. Before movement begins, stabilising muscles – such as the leg adductors and abductors – must align and stabilise the hip and knee joints. Once aligned and stabilised, the prime movers – quads, glutes and hamstrings – can then fire through their effective range of motion. To train a joint/muscle complex effectively, therefore, you must not only train the prime movers to move, but also the joint stabilisers to stabilise! And the stronger and faster you get, the greater these corresponding stabilisation needs become.
Of course there is nothing to stop you adding stabilisation training to the regular training you’re doing, but wouldn’t it be even better to have the best of both worlds? To combine your strength training and joint stabilisation challenges in one program to effectively double your workout? Wouldn’t you rather combine your strength gains with joint stability improvements, each progressing together? Wouldn’t you rather train for joint health and longevity as well as performance, ensuring that you run at your best not only tomorrow, but also perhaps still when you’re 80?
Enter the Gymstick, a portable and versatile training tool from Finland. The Gymstick is great not only for working prime movers in traditional load-bearing exercise, but also for adding stabilisation challenges to further optimise training benefits. Unlike conventional weights, which rely only on the pull of gravity to achieve mechanical load, the Gymstick provides two elastic attachments wide apart from one another, each able to produce a strong line of pull with variable resistance in any almost direction you desire. Using the Gymstick, you can customise and turn even the most conventional exercise into a novel and varied stabilisation challenge! Together with gravity, you have up to three independent loads help challenge the body from at a variety of angles, and therefore to hone and optimise muscle recruitment patterns and joint stabilisation.
The Gymstick brings a unique focus to functional training, as it lets you apply destabilising resistance while you train the prime movers through their full range of motion. You don’t need to move from a prime mover exercise (such as a squat) to a stabilising exercise (such as leg adduction) to work each muscle in isolation. Instead, you can challenge leg adduction (using the Gymstick bands) while performing a squat (using a combination of Gymstick bands and gravity) in the one exercise. By varying the Gymstick resistance and line of pull, you can progressively load the squat just as you would with a barbell, therefore still replicating the traditional benefits of weight-based resistance training.
Furthermore, by challenging stabilisation throughout the range of motion while applying load to the prime movers, you can ensure your stabilisers are being trained in the most relevant and functional way possible! Any weak areas or joint angles will be felt immediately, so you can focus on strengthening and correcting those problems before they turn into injuries on the road.
So how much resistance are we talking about here? Fortunately, Gymstick comes in a variety of colours and strengths to suit your training needs: green for remedial work and injury recovery, blue for modest resistance, black for standard resistance, silver for strong athletes and gold for those who run for medals of the same colour. Regardless of your strength capabilities and fitness goals, there is a stick that’s right for you.
So let’s get practical. Let’s see how we can use the Gymstick to revisit and enhance traditional exercise by adding stabilisation challenges through the joints of most concern to runners: ankles, knees, hips, pelvis and the core.
Squat with Leg Adduction
Purpose: Challenge the inner thigh and VMO stabilisers in a squat pattern.
Setup: Hook one band around each foot, then place the centre of the Gymstick on the fleshy part of your back (shoulder or trapezius muscle). Stand with legs slightly wider than shoulder width, toes turned out approximately 20o. Draw shoulder blades back and belly in.
If more resistance is needed, wind the bands around the Gymstick, ensuring they are not loose when you are at the bottom of the squat.
1. Perform a conventional squat, ensuring knees track in line with 2nd and 3rd toes, the chest remains lifted and the hips are pushed back.
2. As you rise from the squat, lift one leg off the floor and sweep the instep of your foot across your body in front of you (as though you are kicking a soccer ball to a person standing beside you).
3. Repeat on other side.
Prime movers: Glutes, Quads, Hamstrings, Calves.
Stabilisers: Adductor muscles, Hip stabilisers, Semitendinosus, knee stabilisers, ankle stabilisers.
Stepping Wide Squat with Leg Abduction
Purpose: Challenge the outer leg stabilisers and abductors in the squat pattern.
Setup: Hook one band around each foot, then turn the Gymstick through 180o and place it on the fleshy part of your back (shoulder or trapezius muscle – the bands should cross one another part-way between your ankles and your knees). Stand with feet together and parallel. Draw shoulder blades back and belly in. If more resistance is needed, wind the bands around the Gymstick.
1. Take a long step to one side, dropping into a deep squat and remembering to turn feet out slightly to align knees with the 2nd and 3rd toes. Ensure the heels and toes of both feet are firmly in contact with the ground, the chest remains lifted and the hips sit back to engage the glutes.
2. Driving through the heels, return to a narrow standing position with feet side by side. You can either step back to where you started, or step up towards the other foot and then return to your starting point on the next repetition.
Prime movers: Glutes, Quads, Hamstrings, Calves, leg abductors (Glute medius, Tensor fasciae latae, etc.)
Stabilisers: Hip, knee and ankle stabilisers.
Stepping Lunge with Trunk Rotation
Purpose: Challenge the ankle, knee, hips and pelvic stabilisers, core stabilisers and rotators in the lunge pattern.
Setup: Hook one band around each foot, then place the centre of the Gymstick on the fleshy part of your back (shoulder or trapezius muscle). Stand with feet hip-width apart, draw shoulder blades back and belly in. If more resistance is needed wind the bands around the Gymstick.
1. Keeping chest up, chin in and eyes level with horizontal, step forward into a deep lunge. Ensure:
– The front knee remains behind and aligned with the 2nd and 3rd toe.
– The torso does not twist or rotate. Keeping the torso straight against the rotational resistance of the Gymstick is part of the challenge of this exercise.
2. While in the deep lunge, rotate your torso (opposite shoulder turning towards front knee). Ensure you remain tall through the rotation and keep your shoulders relaxed.
3. Rotate your torso back to its start position.
4. Push strongly off the heel of the lunged foot to return to a standing position. Ensure you do not snap your head back to assist the return.
Prime movers: Glutes, Quads, Hamstrings, Calves, Internal and external obliques.
Stabilisers: Adductor muscles, hip stabilisers, lower back muscles (Erector spinae). Semitendinosus, knee stabilisers, ankle stabilisers.
One Legged Squat with Donkey Kick (and Optional Shoulder Press)
Purpose: Challenge the ankle, knee, hips, pelvic, core and shoulder stabilisers in a one-legged squat with glute activation on the alternate leg (a very compound exercise).
Setup: Hook one band around each foot, then hold the Gymstick in a wide, overhand chest-press grip (against the nipple-line of the chest). Stand on one leg with the other leg bent, knee forward, with raise foot next to the standing knee. Bend forward at the hip slightly, but keep chest up, chin in and spine in neutral.
Level 1: Maintaining balance in the supporting leg, kick the raise heel out behind you (donkey kick). Ensure the hips stay level, the heel stays up and the toes point directly down to the floor.
Level 2: While doing the above with the lifted leg, bend the supporting leg to perform a one-legged squat. Pay particular attention to knee alignment and stability. If supporting knee starts to wobble, reduce the range of motion and/or reduce the Gymstick resistance.
Level 3: While doing the above with both legs, add a 45o chest press, pushing the Gymstick forward and up from your body.
Prime movers: Glutes, Quads, Hamstrings, Calves, Pectorals, Deltoid, Triceps.
Stabilisers: Shoulder stabilisers, core muscles, back muscles, hip stabilisers, knee stabilisers, ankle stabilisers.
The exercises given here demonstrate only a sampling of what’s possible. Each shows how you can add stabilisation challenges to the working joints and core when working the squat and lunge patterns – the two most relevant to runners of the six fundamental movement patterns in bodywork training (squat, lunge, push, pull, bend-to-extend and rotate). By adding leg adduction, leg abduction and torso rotational stabilisation challenges to these exercises, you can enhance joint stability, minimise the chance of injury and keep improving your overall running performance in the short, medium and – most importantly – long term by ensuring that improvements in leg strength are matched by equivalent and complementary improvements in joint and core stabilisation.
Andrew Brenton is a Personal Trainer, Pilates Instructor, Group Fitness instructor and Group Fitness Instructor Trainer through the Melbourne CAE.