Movement Modes: A way to think about core stability in nordic skiing
The idea that the core should be stable and rigid during sport performance is widespread and popular. It’s a key aspect of modern nordic skiing technique.
But is it always a good thing? What if instead we think about different movement modes? The concept of Performance Mode and Learning Mode might be just what’s called for.
Core Stability: In the gym and in sport
One of the hallmarks of the modern elite nordic skier is a strong and stable core. The entire torso, all the way from the shoulders to hips, is stable with little visible movement. Dasha Gaiazova Atkins, 2x Olympian, says her core is a “platform” she pushes against.
The idea that the core should be strong and stable is widely accepted in sport. Strength training in the gym teaches the same principle. We used to move when we trained our trunk muscles. Now core training is all about preventing movement. We don’t do flexion exercises, like crunches; now we do anti-flexion exercises, like planks.
Strength training exercises must be healthy and safe movements. We don’t flex the trunk – that’s too risky to the lower back – instead we brace the lumbar region and hinge at the hip joint. The biggest trends in nordic ski technique follow the same principles.
“Ab crunching” is a popular and persistent cue for double poling, but in competitive circles it’s increasingly passé. You won’t see much trunk flexion in expert skiers, especially in the lower back region. Modern double pole technique is build on a hip hinge movement, like a deadlift, rather than an ab crunch.
Working under load in the gym carries risk. The greater the load and/or the more rapid the movement, the greater the risk. Bracing the core helps protect the spine from injury. Using other joints correctly, such as the shoulders, also helps prevent injury.
Nordic ski racing is stressful and risky. It’s a type of load that mixes speed, strength and endurance and can provoke injury. This true for both the citizen racer and the elite World Cup skier.
The rule of thumb for evaluating ski technique is that you don’t want to see any extraneous movement. As much as possible, the skier’s body movements should relate to forward movement. When it comes to the trunk, that means no rotation and no lateral movement.
I think flexion is a bit different. Flexing your trunk does add power to your poling and propels you in the forward direction. But it’s still not allowed because it puts the lower back at risk. (Remember, hip hinge, not ab crunch.)
Are we taking this a little too far?
I understand all these rules and, for the most part, I accept them. In double pole technique in particular, I can feel the benefits of bracing the core and hinging at the hips. Tension in the trunk does help transmit force to the poles.
But I wonder if the core stability trend has gone too far and the pendulum needs to swing back a little. If we weren’t meant to move through our torsos, wouldn’t we have rod-like spine instead of vertebrae?
Counter rotation of the shoulders and hips is a natural aspect of walking and running. Maybe it doesn’t make sense from a biomechanical point of view (unlikely, but whatever). Maybe it creates extraneous movement (movement that does not relate to forward movement). Regardless, there’s no denying it’s natural.
We aren’t robots – physiology and biomechanics are interconnected. Rotation in the trunk when swinging our arms and legs in opposition is not just normal – it’s a good thing. In my experience hip rotation in diagonal stride is not only natural, it’s worth teaching. It doesn’t need to be forceful, but deliberate practice can help beginners progress.
Then there’s the breathing thing, which is also kind of important for sport performance. Isn’t it possible that being overly rigid in the trunk might impede natural breathing?
Movement Model: Performance Mode versus Learning Mode
I’m a little dubious about the entire “core stability” thing. I can see benefits, certainly, but I think there are downsides if we take it too far.
I have a movement model that helps me resolve my conflicted feelings about core stability. It works like this…
You have two movement modes:
- Learning Mode
- Performance Mode
Core stability and body tension belong in Performance Mode. In Learning Mode you encourage freedom of movement. Learning Mode is about making mistakes, exploring possibilities and trying lots of different strategies.
Over exaggeration drills are an example of being in Learning Mode. Over exaggeration is a tried and true method for learning new movement skills. A rigid torso will prevent you from experiencing the benefits of these drills.
You can’t see much torso movement in expert skiers. That’s true. But it’s doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of small, coordinated muscular activity going on. Their movements were large and ineffective before they were subtle. It’s even possible that a little more movement in the trunk would improve performance, even at the elite level. The research hasn’t been done.
I do think it’s helpful to lightly brace your lower abdomen in Learning Mode. Activating the famous transverse abdominus can help with balance. But from there I want people to explore movement – not just in their arms and legs, but in their trunk too.
In Learning Mode, you want to experience as much movement as possible. You want to avoid “lock down”, which is what I call it when people ski the same way year after year.
When you’re learning how to ski, you don’t need a fully braced core. You’d not under load. If anything, you need to fight off the tendency to tense up as you move into new and challenging positions.
I think of Learning Mode and Performance Mode as existing along a continuum. As your skills progress, it will make sense for you to create more tension and reduce movement in the trunk. But everyone needs time in Learning Mode too.
In my view, not only is movement in the trunk natural, it should be deliberately encouraged in learning mode, and perhaps even in performance mode.
Credit: Rob Black, my Feldenkrais teacher, got me thinking about this topic and gave me the expressions Performance Mode and Learning Mode. He is helping me undo damage from too much time in Performance mode. If there’s an art and science to teaching movement, Feldenkrais is at the “art” end of the spectrum. If you try it, don’t expect a workout. It’s not exercise, it’s learning.