Leap-Year Liftoff

With longer days looming, it's high time to build stronger, faster legs

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Just because April is the cruelest month doesn’t mean you have to sit back and take it. With all due respect to Eliot, it’s also a fine time to hone your competitive edge and start visualizing yourself burning past show-offs on the trail, or spiking a volleyball down the throat of some would-be Karch Kiraly. Before you make your rivals bleed in battle, though, you’ll need to sweat in training—on the bike path and in the weight room—with a shake-off-wintertime conditioning program that targets those twin pillars of just about every summer sport: your legs. Not to suggest that you’ve passed all this time sitting on the porch watching the grass turn green, but getting by and getting down are very different things. And with just three months till prime world-domination season, it’s time to come out of hibernation.

To get you into fighting shape, we’ve designed a regimen that will build a baseline of leg strength and performance for most summer activities, from running the diamond to hoofing it up to that secret alpine lake for a day of fly-fishing. But—and here’s what makes the program kick—it also includes specialized drills to help you master those sports of summer that demand the greatest skill and preparation: biking, in-line skating, and that dog’s breakfast of potential strains and tears, beach volleyball.

Your workout begins in the weight room with a handful of easily mastered lower-body exercises (see “Quadrophenia,” just below). “Weight training gives you the ability to generate high power quickly,” says Craig Griffin, an endurance track coach with the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team. “You want explosiveness, like in a cannon. The better you pack and prime the charge, the more firepower you have. In sports, it’s a matter of recruiting and firing as many muscle fibers as fast as possible.”

Aside from making you look like the all-powerful supreme being that you really are, this conditioning will also toughen up ligaments and tendons. Without training, those easily overlooked connectors could make themselves known, rather painfully, on your first ferocious leap at the ball. “Tearing an Achilles tendon is like getting hit in the back of the leg with a baseball bat,” says Mike Boyle, a longtime conditioning consultant with the NHL’s Boston Bruins. “Connective tissue is much more vulnerable to injury than muscle. But decreasing the risk of injuries in general is the best reason for a conditioning program.” Righto. That, and being in prime shape to mount a sneak attack on the competition come July.

Enough talk. Your program consists of three four-week phases, with the final week of each serving as a recovery from the weight room. Throughout the program, you’ll only be doing a handful of leg and torso drills. During phase one, the hypertrophy stage, you’ll lift light weights with a high number of repetitions to build muscles while training your body to perform the exercises correctly (and toughening those tendons and ligaments). In phase two you’ll add more weight and reduce the number of reps, strengthening the muscles as much as possible. The third stage emphasizes “Stone Cold” Steve Austin-like power: You’ll back off a bit on the weight, but lift quickly, perfecting better, stronger, fastermovements that you can draw on when the time comes to power up a long, grinding grade. But we’re not consigning you permanently to the weight room; the sections that follow spell out regimens of specific drills for cycling, in-line skating, and volleyball. And after this stint you’ll be through with the gym and able to turn your attention fully to the great outdoors. Stay focused on attaining peak condition, and by the time summer rolls around, you’ll be ready to lord it over your rivals—without risking humiliating penance in a knee brace.



Free-weight moves to gear up your gams for summer


Virtually every summer sport enjoyed outside the confines of a kayak recruits some combination of the lower body’s eight major muscles—and even kayaking calls on some of them—so overall strength is important. But cycling, in-line skating, and volleyball all come with their own finicky demands (skating, for example, relies heavily on the otherwise little-used adductors of the inner thighs). Thus our three-month conditioning regimen combines general leg exercises with different drills for the different sports. Each of the three distinct phases—mass, strength, and power—lasts four weeks. No matter which of the three sport-specific routines you choose, you should follow the schedule at right, and hit the gym five days a week except during the fourth week of each phase, when you’ll skip the weights altogether and head outdoors to play. Preface each weight workout with a five- or ten-minute aerobic warm-up and finish with a few minutes of stretching. You’ll want to lift weights that are heavy enough to bring you to failure by the last rep of each set. Rest between lifts for twice as long as it takes to complete a single repetition, and rest for three minutes after each set.


In the first three weeks, do three sets of 15 repetitions of leg exercises on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and two sets of 15 torso drills on Tuesdays and Thursdays (see list below). On Saturday, add an extra hour of activity to your sport-specific cardio schedule. Rest on Sunday. In week four, stay away from the weight room and bust outdoors to practice your chosen sport three days a week, including an extended aerobic outing on the weekend.

In the first two weeks, do three sets of six reps of leg exercises on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and do two sets of 20 reps of torso exercises on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Again, cut the weights in week four, replacing those sessions with practice in your sport.

For the first three weeks, do three sets of ten reps of the leg exercises on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and continue with two sets of 20 torso exercises on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Cut back by 20 percent the amount of weight you lift and, with the exception of the Good Mornings (see description below), lift that weight as quickly and explosively as possible, but take care to lower it slowly. By the fourth week, your weight room days will be behind you, and you’ll be celebrating your own Independence Day in the great outdoors.


ONE-LEGGED DEAD LIFT (From a standing position, bend at the waist, place your right hand on a chair, and extend your right leg behind you. Holding a dumbbell in your free hand, bend your supporting knee and lower the weight to the floor, and then resume standing position. Switch sides and repeat.)

GOOD MORNINGS (From a standing position, place a barbell behind your neck, bend forward at the waist until your trunk is parallel with the ground, and return to an upright position.)




The smooth movements of cycling and skating are like deep-tissue massage compared with the trauma of the constant jumping, reaching, hitting, and sand-sandwich eating that occur during the average volleyball match. “You need a solid foundation of fitness for good body control,” advises Doug Beal, coach of the U.S. men’s Olympic Volleyball Team. In the weight room—aside from the crunches that build core strength—Beal says volleyball players also need to work their shoulders, triceps, and trapezius muscles. But the biggest upper body in the world won’t help you if you can’t sky above the net, which is where the leg exercises come in. According to Beal, running will give you the best aerobic foundation for volleyball.

In addition to your weight training, you should begin your program with 30 minutes of running three times a week, plus 45 minutes to an hour on Saturdays. Halfway through phase two, spice up one of your weekly running sessions with 20-meter sprints. Warm up with a ten-minute jog, and then blast down the trail as fast as you can, with 20 or 30 seconds of rest between sprints. Begin with five 20-meter sprints each session, work up to ten, and then switch to five 40-meter sprints, again working up to ten. Do these high-intensity drills once a week.

The most diligent players will pile on another layer of brutality to their routines: plyometrics, those drills that develop one’s ability to unleash explosive bursts of power. “Volleyball combines critical hand-eye coordination with muscle power and it demands great jumping ability,” says Beal. Do each of the following three exercises once a week, allowing at least one day’s separation from the sprints, but don’t tackle them until halfway through phase two. For the first drill, after warming up with a ten-minute jog, break into a “high skip,” doing 15 seconds of exaggerated, bouncing skips reminiscent of John Cleese’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” routine on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Then jog for 30 seconds and resume 15 seconds of high skipping. After repeating this cycle six times, recover with a few minutes of walking and prepare for the second plyometric drill: Standing with your feet together, jump up and forward as far as you can, and continue for three jumps. Then jog in place for 30 seconds to recover. Repeat six times. Take another one of those short walks before you do the last of your plyometrics. Jump off a three-foot platform such as a picnic table—bending deeply at the knees upon landing to absorb the impact—and then, carrying your momentum forward in one motion, leap up and out as far as possible. Repeat six times, resting 30 seconds between jumps. You might look like an oddball, but just think of how your opponents will look scarfing sand when they try to return your spikes.

Inline Skating

First the bad news: regardless of what kind of shape you’re in, if you are a beginner, your form probably stinks. “When you just go out and skate for fun for an hour,” says the Bruins’s Mike Boyle, “you’re just perfecting the art of performing poorly.” While a skilled skater will angle his torso parallel to the ground to lower his aerodynamic profile, beginners should avoid that position. Instead, find your own sweet spot by bending your knees as sharply as you can manage—as close to right angles as you can—before extending and straightening your leg as you push off in a long power stroke, folding back in, then switching legs. When you can skate long and hard with maximum knee bend, it’s time to start leaning forward. “The key is to keep as low as comfortably possible,” Boyle says. “That’s where all the speed and power come from.” Translation: Better leverage generates better thrust.

Start phase one by hitting the pavement for a half hour on your weight-lifting days, plus at least an hour on the weekends. After week six—halfway through phase two of your program—add intensity once a week with fartlek training, a Swedish term that translates to “speed play.” In other words, after warming up for ten minutes, sprint at breakneck speed for an indeterminate period of time toward an arbitrary goal, such as the end of the next block, or that third telephone pole. Make sure you maintain Boyle’s proper form. Then back off and resume your usual pace. Repeat several times per workout. In phase three, formalize your fartlek training by replacing it with strict intervals. Increase the bursts to one minute, with two minutes of easy skating, and then try alternating between 45-second intervals of hard and easy skating, followed by sessions of 60 and 60.


Daylight savings time extends your evening workout allowance by an extra hour this month, and you’ll be taking advantage of it. In phase one, you should spend three days a week doing at least 30 minutes of light cycling, and add an extra half hour of riding on Saturday. Continue this schedule until halfway through phase two, and then test your new muscles with some serious saddle time. “You want to apply the gains you make in the weight room to the bike,” explains cycling coach Griffin. So twice a week, right after you lift, head outside, unlock your wheels and launch into a 30- to 45-minute ride. Steer toward a flat stretch of road and after ten or 15 minutes of easy but steady pedaling, pick up the cadence, spinning as fast as you can—without rocking side to side—at a low resistance for two to five minutes. Then return to your easy pedaling for a few minutes to recover. Repeat this process twice, and then spend ten or 15 minutes riding at a comfortable pace. Round out the weeks during phase two with one ride of two to three hours’ duration on both Saturday and Sunday. Don’t push it—you’re already doing structured weight work and interval training. Carry this routine into phase three. Then, throw in some ten-second bursts of furious pedaling. “That teaches your muscles to fire quickly and sequentially,” says Griffin. After you’ve survived that, really pour on the power. Pedal as fast as you can for ten minutes, back off for ten minutes, and then repeat.

In week four of each phase, the weight-training respite, build up your endurance by clocking six hours of riding spread a few hours at a time over the course of three or four rides. Don’t neglect your form—concentrate on smooth movements, and keep your upper torso steady while you pedal. You might not win the Tour de France on this regimen, but keep at it and you’ll easily flatten the competition on the first neighborly ride of July.   

Terry Mulgannon wrote about interval training in the August 1999 issue.

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