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USA Today

From USA Today

Olympic swimmer does key training on shore

By Mike Falcon, Spotlight Health with medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.


USA Olympic swimming gold medallist Lenny Krayzelburg is known for leaving competitors in his wake. But it's his unusual workouts on dry land that are leaving people gasping. Krayzelburg has cut down his time in the pool, instead substituting an exercise system that may revolutionize training for elite athletes, and general conditioning and fitness regimens for the rest of us.

Krayzelburg, who won three gold medals in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, goes to the VERT Velocity Enhanced Resistance Training Gym in Santa Monica, Calif., three times a week. There he straps into futuristic computer-monitored hydraulic weight-lifting machines for a 40-minute workout he says is the toughest thing I've ever done outside the water. But don't feel sorry for him, pity his competition.

It gives me a distinct edge I never had before, says the 26-year-old. After six months of VERT training, Krayzelburg has added 10 pounds of muscle in his back, shoulders, and arms. I'm stronger and the muscles I use in swimming move faster. VERT is big among U.S. Olympians: Womens basketball gold medalist and WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie, beach volleyball gold medallist Dain Blanton, and Olympic softball gold medalist Crystal Bustos are regulars. So are volleyball superstar Holly McPeak, sprinter Terry Edwards, and swimming legend Mark Spitz.

I only wish VERT technology was available when I was competing, Spitz says. Even elite athletes who are used to extreme training can find VERT a tough workout. It is truly brutal because no matter how quick or strong you are, the computers keep the speed and resistance just ahead of you, instantly, says Az Zakir Hakim, wide receiver and kick return specialist for the St. Louis Rams.

How it works
Hydraulic resistance machines are nothing new. Pistons pumping air and fluid have been used in weight-training apparatus for decades. They can provide a smooth and even lifting motion that rehabilitation physiologists find appealing for patients not used to the balance challenges of free weights.

The disadvantages of hydraulic machines usually center on their plodding mechanical actions. Although they are excellent for the careful, slow strengthening exercises traditionally performed in physical rehabilitation, they cannot be pushed quickly. The drawback for athletes who rely on quick explosive movements like swimmers, and volleyball, baseball, and football players is that the fast twitch muscle fibers essential in these sports are not recruited or utilized at anywhere near the speeds involved in the sport, says Dr. Walter Theis, VERT's medical director.

Free weights such as dumbbells, barbells and weight machines have other inherent limitations. They can be pushed quickly, but not over the full range of muscular motion. And when you push a barbell off your chest, you first have to overcome inertia as the weight picks up speed. But before your elbow snaps out at arms length, you have to slow the weight by stopping the bar's momentum.

Consequently, speed and strength over the full range of the movement are uneven. And usable force or power the result of strength multiplied by speed is compromised.

You just never are able to start and stop the weights quickly enough to really work the fast twitch muscles so necessary in explosive strength sports, says Krayzelburg.

While strength building machines such as the Nautilus system have devised ingenious methods of compensating for these limitations, momentum and inertia remain problematic.

VERT machines, on the other hand, have no inertia to overcome. Stop the bar during any exercise and it just sits there. Resistance is developed through powerful hydraulic pistons monitored by computer 16,000 times a second and is not influenced by gravity, so momentum is similarly absent. Stress on joints is markedly reduced, a valuable benefit for older and arthritic fitness enthusiasts.

Two other major differences separate VERT training from both free weight and typical machine resistance systems.

The computers that continually monitor how much speed, force, and power is being generated can be programmed to make instantaneous adjustments to the workout. They also provide real time readouts of every repetition in each exercise, detailing time, speed, and force. VERT machines cannot only be programmed for speed or resistance, but can alter speed and resistance within each movement to compensate for hitches in the explosive movements. For a volleyball or basketball player, these minute changes in speed in a jumping movement can be critical. Typically, someone begins a jump rapidly and then slows down before accelerating again, notes Sean Harrington, the former Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Kings trainer who combined the VERT components into an integrated system. If you change the speed or resistance during that period you can begin to eliminate that momentary slowdown and produce even, powerful acceleration. That translates into quicker and higher jumps.

VERT machines also combine opposing muscle group exercises. Rather than simply pressing a bar overhead, and then resisting gravity as it comes down, the athlete has to pull the bar down after they've pushed it. This assures that muscle groups are trained symmetrically. In effect, one exercise becomes two and training time is halved. Krayzelburg completes a set of 10-15 repetitions in each of two opposing exercises in a lightning-fast 8-12 seconds. For busy executives, this is a huge time boon. Krayzelburg's typical weight room workouts used to last hours now they average 40-60 minutes. General fitness goals for mere mortals can be done in half that time.

Not all convinced
Although VERT counts the most elite athletes in its membership, not everyone is convinced. Boyd Epley, assistant athletic director and strength and conditioning coach for the University of Nebraska, considered by many to be the dean of USA applied strength trainers, is one of them.

It's still a machine, and it takes away from the synergistic stabilization muscles required in real athletic movements, he observes.

Theis counters that VERT has an extensive supply of weights as well. "Athletes will still need them to produce the muscular mass and enormous strength needed in their chosen sport. Using both is fine. But there is simply no way you can push significant resistance at the speed, and over the range of motion VERT offers, he says.

That means that every athlete who uses these has a unique advantage because his force is generated at the repeating and extraordinarily rapid rates seen in his sport, Theis adds. You can have all the strength in the world, but if somebody has that strength and additional speed, you're going to be in for a long day.

The chances of that occurring are limited for the time being: VERT is currently confined to Santa Monica plus a few machines in Chicago that just happen to be owned by Michael Jordan's manager.

"It's good for me, though," laughs Krayzelburg. If anybody is going to come gunning for me, they'll have to keep up with my type of training. That means I'd have to see them here and so far that hasn't happened. My improvements since the Olympics have been far beyond what I expected, and I'm using VERT to help me stay as far in front as I can.

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