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Fit to Curl: Maximizing Strength Training in the Off-Season

The summer months are my favourite time of year to train.  Not only can I vary my workouts to include a lot of outdoor activities — hello Vitamin D! — but I also don’t have to worry about cutting my weekly training short because I have to get on a plane and fly to a spiel.

John Morris at the 2009 Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings in Edmonton, Alberta (Photo: CCA/Michael Burns Photography)

While I am in the gym on a regular basis throughout the curling season, my objectives are quite a bit different than they are at this time of year.  When my primary focus is competing, my in-season workouts are mainly about maintaining my strength and overall fitness levels. That changes, however, during the spring and summer. Following the several week break I like to give myself when the season ends — see my June blog entry — I ease back into a summer routine by gradually moving to more challenging workouts.  After a couple of weeks to shake off the rust, I begin to work out in a way that will produce significant gains in my overall strength.

At this time of year, I’m working hard to increase the lean muscle mass that will carry me through next season. Not only does my off-season calendar call for more days of strength training each week, it’s also a very good time to really challenge my body. I don’t risk injury but I do want to make sure that I’m doing more than simply maintaining my current strength.

My circuits, for instance, call for more exercises in each session. Rather than completing, say, two circuits of six exercises each, I’m now doing three circuits of eight exercises each. And my workouts are more specific than they are during the season — each session is focused on a particular muscle group. I can be more specific since I’m not on the practice ice and, as a result, I’m in the gym on more days for longer periods of time. I can really tax my body because I have recovery time built into my schedule — I’ll be working an entirely different muscle group the following day and I won’t have to worry about playing Team Howard in a cash spiel on the weekend.

To really see gains in strength, I also need to increase the amount of weight I’m loading up. So when I find myself completing my typical number of repetitions (8-20 depending upon the exercise) without much difficulty, I add weight to the dumbbell, barbell or apparatus. I want to be able to complete the appropriate number of repetitions but I don’t want to feel like I have much left in the tank when I’m done.

To avoid injury, I increase the weight in reasonable increments — five or ten pounds at a time. The key is that I want to make sure that I’m seriously challenging my muscles. Basically, I’m not afraid to wake up sore when I’m doing off-season training because while the old No Pain-No Gain mantra isn’t always correct, it does have some merit.

Something else to consider when you are pushing yourself toward gains in strength: it’s especially valuable to have a training partner in the gym. Whether it’s working with a certified trainer or convincing a friend or teammate to join you, exercising with someone improves safety and helps you stay motivated. I’m lucky enough to work with a six-man crew at the fire hall so I’m usually never short of able-bodied training partners while I’m on a shift.  And it’s definitely nice to show some of my fellow firefighters how challenging training for a sport like curling can actually be.

Outside of my strength training, I also like to incorporate some creative ways to keep my workouts fresh and fun at this time of year, adding activities that I typically can’t do during the colder months. For my cardio sessions, I enjoy mountain biking, swimming, and running outdoors.  When I really want to challenge myself, I head up to Canmore or Banff, working out way above sea level on different mountain ranges. Although it can be quite the shock to my system, the view from the top of the Three Sisters makes it all worthwhile.

One reason my team has been successful is that we haven’t grown complacent — each year, we look for small ways to improve that will allow us to have an edge on our opponents. Off-season workouts are no different. Make the changes in your strength training routine that produce real gains and you’ll find it pays off when you’re on the ice next winter.