When the Olympic torch reaches PyeongChang, 243 Team USA athletes will ready themselves for the performance of a lifetime. Behind each spectacular display, though, is a lifetime of strength-based stimuli that has tuned the bodies of the nation’s fittest men and women to near perfection. Before you watch the games, try some of the winter Olympians’ favorite exercises to improve your functional strength or firm up your running form. We’ve enlisted the help of Canisius College’s Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Charles Pelitera, EhD, to break down the method behind the movements.
The Athlete: Kikkan Randall, Cross-Country Skiing
The Movement: medicine ball throws while balancing on a bosu ball
Why it works: “Cross-country skiing is a sport that is all about balance and proprioceptive response,” Pelitera says. Proprioceptive response deals with body awareness and basically refers to your body’s ability to adjust physiologically to external forces. Poor balance is a symptom of impaired proprioception.
To improve and practice this response, try one-legged balancing on a bosu ball, while constantly making upper body adjustments, Pelitera says. “You never know what looms ahead on a cross-country ski course,” he says. “The ability to react and not break form or lose speed is crucial to success. This exercise enhances all of those skills.”
The Athlete: Lindsey Jacobellis, Snowboarding
The Movement: single leg Romanian deadlift
Why it works: “I have many athletes perform single-legged RDLs,” Pelitera says. “We sometimes do that with dumbbells, as shown here, and sometimes we will do them while holding a barbell or kettlebell.”
Like Kikkan Randall’s bosu ball routine, Pelitera says Jacobellis’ specific deadlift helps develop proprioception and balance. “It is also very beneficial and part of a training protocol to reduce the chance of ACL injuries, especially in female athletes,” he says. To note, athletes should try to keep the non-lifting leg from touching the ground; it makes the execution of the movement more thorough, says Pelitera.
The Athlete: Bradley Wilson, Freestyle Skiing
The Movement: modified step-up
Why it works: The video calls this move “single leg lowers,” but according to Pelitera, that “infers that the athlete is [only] working on the eccentric contraction (lengthening) of the quadriceps and gluteals.” Rather, Wilson’s slow downward and upward movement activates eccentric and concentric (shortening) contractions.
“This exercise is an excellent choice for any type of athlete that is generating force various times from a unilateral (one-legged) perspective,” Pelitera says (take note, runners). However, Pelitera does have a critique of Wilson’s form; “To do this exercise properly, he needs to drop his hips back further as he goes down,” he says. This would keep his tibia perpendicular to the ground, which more effectively exercises the quads and glutes, Pelitera explains.
The Athlete: Aja Evans, Bobsled
The Movement: box jump
Why it works: Apart from flexing on everyone at the gym because you just boosted 55 inches, the box jump has a practical purpose in bobsled. “Plyometric exercise is a type of exercise used to enhance explosive power,” Pelitera says. “Although this type of box jump is not truly plyometric in nature, it would still be effective at improving power in the lower body.”
Typically plyometrics are characterized by a forced eccentric contraction, then an explosive concentric contraction, Pelitera says. He notes that there’s no forced eccentric contraction here. “However,” he says, “Box jumps of this type have been very effective in improving lower body power.” The craziest thing about Evans’ leap? She did it post-workout.
The Athlete: Emery Lehman, Long Track Speedskating
The Movement: power clean
Why it works: “Hang cleans [and] other Olympic types of lifts have been used for a long time to improve power and athletic performance,” Pelitera says. “When performed correctly, they are very effective.”
Hang cleans, by the way, are basically a heavier power clean, in which the athlete lands in a full squat rather than a partial squat. Both power cleans and hang cleans help develop explosive leg, core, and hip power, says Pelitera. “Power in these areas is crucial for most Olympic sports.”