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The Key To Strong Backcountry Performance? Core Strength—Here’s How To Get It

Author: Sam Naney

August 29, 2016

If you’ve got a big mountain goal ahead—like a race or a climbing or ski objective that’s going to push you to the limit, adding in strength training to your regimen will help you get there more easily. But strength training for the mountains might not look exactly like the strength training you’re picturing.

To build the strength you need for mountain travel, you don’t need big muscles or the ability to do 10,000,000 burpees in five minutes in The Box. What you do need is to improve your strength-to-weight ratio and resulting muscular endurance for greatest efficiency. In the same way as training the aerobic system, your muscles must be able to do a high volume of work for the smallest amount of energy expended.

There are myriad ways to approach this and they vary based on time and equipment available, as well as your abilities going into the training. But there is one component that holds strong (get it?) throughout all the variables: core strength. Now, don’t confuse true core strength with images of beefcake abs and endless sit-up routines and Jane Fonda videos. The core musculature of importance are your deep abdominals, those muscles which support and hold firm the rest of your body during movement. As you start to fatigue from a long climb up the mountain, your weakening extremities shift the burden to your core to hold your body firm. If you have a weak core, you have no link in that chain and the whole system collapses. The legs and arms are forced to work harder earlier, and they tap out before you reach your objective. Building a strong core supports those muscles so they’re not overloaded, and supports your whole frame so that there are no “energy leaks” that come from imbalances.

Core Strength Workout for Mountain Athletes

This workout isn’t about how many reps you can do; each exercise is designed to fatigue your deeper core muscles, which are usually challenged through isometric, or unmoving holds (similar to yoga).  As such, many of them can be progressed as you get stronger by adding weight. Video descriptions of all exercises can be found at www.cascadeendurance.com/exercise-library.

Forearm plank: Hold a front plank with forearms on the ground and draw your navel to your spine to engage the deep abdominal muscles. Hold for one minute if possible. Once you can easily do that, add load by placing weights (start with 10 pounds) on your lower back, but don’t let it sag!

Windshield Wipers: Lay flat on your back with your legs straight in the air and arms outstretched to your side, palms-up. Draw in your navel and slowly sweep your legs down to one side, them over to the other like wipers on a car, in slow, steady movements.

Mountain Climbers: Start at the top of a push-up position, then without letting your hips rock and while keeping the back flat, draw each knee to the opposite elbow and slowly return it back. Alternate knees and see how “quiet” you can keep your torso while doing it.

Hanging Knee Raise: Using a pull-up bar, hang with straight arms and while drawing in your navel to the spine, slowly pull the knees up to your chest and lower them again, trying to whole time to keep yourself from swinging. To make it more challenging (especially good for climbers), use a bent-arm hang with elbows at 90 degrees, and keep the legs straight when you raise them to horizontal or even all the way up to touch the bar.

Table Top to Gymnast L: Begin with palms flat on the ground, chest facing upward and feet planted shoulder width apart.  Now drive your hips toward the ceiling to form a “bridge” pose (Table Top), trying to make your chest all the way to your knees one straight horizontal line. Now without touching the hips to the ground, slowly draw them back until you are in a straight-legged sitting pose, and see if you can lift one or both legs off the ground along with the hips (Gymnast L). This part of the exercise really challenges not only the core and hip flexors, but the strength of your shoulders. Shift back and forth from Table Top to Gymnast L several times without resting the hips on the ground.

Sideline Leg Lift: The hip musculature is not always categorized as “core” but remains integral all the same; without strong hips you transfer inappropriate loads to the larger leg muscles. The Sideline Leg Lift involves laying on one side with a straight line traced from your head all the way through your hip and stacked legs. Now shift the top leg about 10 degrees behind the bottom leg, and slowly raise it to about 45 degrees from vertical, and lower. You should feel this on the top and slightly rear in the hip – your gluteus medius muscle.

3-2 Point Plank: This is a progression from the standard front forearm plank. In this variation, begin in the upper push-up position and raise one foot off the ground without rocking the hips. If this feels stable, try lifting the opposite hand and reach it in front of you, without dropping the hips. Hold as long as you can, then switch sides.

Up/Downs: Another push-up variation; this time, begin in the upper push-up position and beginning with your left arm, move into a forearm plank, then back up again one arm at a time. Switch the starting arm halfway through and notice the difference.

Seeking adventure in the mountains offers an unparalleled opportunity to challenge yourself physically and mentally. Getting prepared in advance of your trip with smart training will not only make you more capable and able to have more fun, it will set you up with a base of fitness which can extend beyond your trip’s end date, and on to the next foray into high country. With strength and speed comes success in mountain travel – good luck!
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Photo by Dan Patitucci.

Sam Naney

Sam Naney is an endurance coach and owner of Cascade Endurance, a coaching and events business based in the Pacific Northwest. After competing for a decade as a professional cross-country ski racer, Sam retired in 2014 and shifted his focus to coaching. He competes in trail running and marathon ski races, and regularly adventures in the mountains with his wife Alison, daughter Fiona and Siberian Husky Nikki.