Circuit Training: conditioning your muscles to avoid sports injury

Whatever your sport you shouldn't neglect a proper conditioning routine if you want to achieve muscular balance and avoid injury.

The best prepared sportsmen and women tend to have a comprehensive routine, often involving muscles that are not directly connected with their particular activity.

One of the most common sites of injury, regardless of the sport, is the lower back region. There is a whole host of causes for lower back pain; for example, in runners weak or inflexible hamstrings can often be the culprit. Poor posture is another common cause, so conditioning of the muscles that help to maintain solid posture should form part of the schedule of anyone who exercises regularly, whatever their discipline or sporting standard.

A variety of muscle groups contribute to good posture and all require attention. Naturally the lower back muscles can do with strengthening. Work on the abdominal muscles is also important because it will complement work you do on the back region; it is dangerous to develop muscular imbalances by working on just one side of the body. The contribution of the gluteal and hamstring muscles should not be overlooked when considering sound posture and preventing injury to the back region.

It makes sense, therefore, to develop a session that will work on all these areas and give the right level of conditioning for injury prevention. As a number of different exercises are used in the following training session, it is possible to construct a mini-circuit. But don't get the idea that I'm talking about normal 'circuit training', with athletes working eyeballs-out in a gym, trying to pump out as many reps of each exercise in as short a time as possible. Far from it - if you adopt that attitude to this particular session, you'll be risking injury rather than helping to prevent it. Your emphasis here should be on completing the exercises in a controlled manner so that there is no loss of form and no unnecessary tension throughout the body. For this reason I often call the session the 'No-rush Circuit'. There is no stopwatch involved and no target heart rate; the intention is to gently condition the muscles rather than to boost cardiorespiratory fitness. Six exercises are involved and you simply move from one to the next to complete one circuit. If you incorporate such a session, once or twice a week, into your exercise schedule, it will prove valuable, whatever your sport or activity.

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The six exercises

The sit-up is the first. Here you lie on your back with your legs bent, feet flat on the floor. Rest your hands on your thighs and simply sit up until your hands touch your knees. Note that you don't sit all the way up, but simply slide up and move back down in a nicely controlled fashion. This is one for the abdominals.

Back arches come next. Lie on your front with your legs crossed so that your feet remain firmly anchored to the floor. Raise your upper body off the floor, taking care to keep your head in a neutral position (neither looking to the sky nor staring at the ground). Hold this position for about a second, then lower yourself down again in a controlled fashion. It is easiest to keep your arms resting on your back, but as you get better at the exercise you can put them in the 'hands up' position or straight out in front to add to the resistance. You can even progress to holding a weight.

Speed cramps work on a different part of the abdominal muscle group and are performed a little faster. Lying on your back, keep your legs in the air, bent at the knee. Your hands can rest lightly on the side of your head (with your thumbs in your ears if necessary). Simply raise your body up to bring your elbows to your knees and go straight back down.

For your gluteals and hamstrings start in the same position as for the sit-up, except have your hands Iying by your side. From here, raise your hips and one leg and hold for a second before lowering. Repeat with the other leg.

Now the short sit-up. Start in the same position as the first exercise but keep your hands in the same position as the speed cramp. Raise your body so that your torso is at a 30-40 degree angle to the floor. If you come up any higher, the work is concentrated more on the hip flexors than the abdominals. Hold this position for one second before coming back down slowly.

Finally, back extensions. Sit with legs bent, feet flat on the floor. Position your hands on the floor behind you to take some of the weight. Raise your body off the floor so that your torso is parallel with the floor. Hold and lower.

Keep a sense of balance

The first time you do this circuit, start with 10 reps of each exercise and complete just one circuit. As with any training programme you need progression, so you can add to this in subsequent sessions. It's best to gradually build up the number of completed circuits until can comfortably perform five. Then you can begin to increase the number of reps you do within each circuit. Do not expect to be out of breath at the end - remember that the idea is to tone the relevant muscles to condition your body well.

Keeping a sense of balance is essential for all your training. If you do other types of strengthening work, think carefully about the muscles you are training and whether the session is complete. For example, in most gyms around the country there are many pieces of equipment to help strengthen your quads but few to address the hamstrings. The danger is that the quads will be far stronger than the hams and this can cause all sorts of injury problems. The answer here is to work hard on the hamstring muscles, either with leg curls or, if the machinery is not available, get a partner to hold your ankles as you kneel. Then gently rock forward as far as you can and let your hamstrings pull you back. You can perform a number of reps of this exercise to help redress the balance. Similarly, if you work out in the gym regularly and give a lot of attention to the biceps, make sure you don't neglect the triceps and cause another imbalance.

Joe Dunbar

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