Focusing on Sustainable Gains


Sustainable resources are a hot topic today. From fuel and housing materials to water sources, this decade has seen an almost unprecedented awareness about the need to seek sustainability in our lifestyles. In a nutshell, we are starting to realize that if the scales are tipped to far in one direction then we will lack the balance to sustain our resources in the future.

This train of thought is just as applicable to an area that few think about – your training. You have to realize that not all gains made in training are equal. Just like we need to keep a balance with our natural resources we have to keep a balance with our body or else we will break down.

Gains in strength or skill that come at the expense of being able to maintain functional movements are what I call “unsustainable gains”. This means that because of the imbalances that are caused by losing functional movement you have set yourself up for a series of injuries down the road, hardly a fair trade off in my opinion.

Let me give you an example – let’s say that a high school athlete can properly maintain functional movement throughout the entire range of motion of a 135 pound squat. As a quick refresher, functional movement for a squat consists of keeping strong foot contact with the ground, keeping their knees over their feet, being able to keep their lumbar spine straight and strong and able to keep their chest puffed out.

Now, let’s say that they add another 10 pounds to the bar. They are able to squat pretty good but this time they let their heels come off the ground slightly as they lower themselves down. This break in functional movement means that they are shifting a lot of shearing force to their knees and that they are dominating the movement with their quads instead of using the hips to help. These two things will lead to knee issues as the stress on the knees mounts and the dysfunction of having overly dominant quads adds to the injury potential at the knees.

In my opinion, unless that athlete is made aware of and can correct that small break in their functional movement they have not really gained anything except an increase in their injury potential. And in no way should they be allowed to add even more weight. Sure, they could probably add another 20-50 pounds before their form got so bad that even they realize they should stop but allowing an athlete to continue to add weight at the expense of form should be avoided like the plague considering the long term ramifications

The above scenario is a simple example from the weight room, but this principle applies to every facet of training for your sport. For example, consider the example of a rider who takes the “ride to get better at riding” approach. Sure, this will get them some fitness gains and they may even become a very good rider, however that performance is built on a very shaky foundation.

Like every other sport, mountain biking will emphasize certain muscles and movement patterns and rarely use others. Because of this imbalance dysfunctions will occur, such as developing overly strong and tight quads and hip flexors and weak glutes and hamstrings. This common cycling dysfunction will cause knee and lower back pain. If the imbalances developed by cycling are left unchecked they will lead to injuries down the road as your body tries to sustain its unsustainable performance levels.

This is a tough one to internalize because we are such a “right now” society. Gaining 50 pounds on your squat or being able to increase your cycling endurance is great for any athlete, but without thinking about the ultimate costs of those gains you will set yourself up for a lot of pain in the future. Sometimes it can take decades for the pain to get really bad but trust me, it will catch up with you.

To wrap up, training for your sport can cause imbalances that will lead to injuries. In fact, most sport related injuries are completely avoidable if the principle of seeking sustainable gains is applied. In most cases strength and mobility training are the only ways to efficiently and effectively maintain the balance our body needs to sustain its performance levels. All it will take is applying a little bit of our appreciation for sustainable resources to our most precious natural resource of all – our own bodies.

-James Wilson-

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James Wilson
Author and Professional
Mountain Bike Coach
James Wilson