Once a week last summer, the Alkalign studio in Irvine was filled with men learning about alignment and body awareness and improving their fitness through Alkalign’s signature functional fitness formats. But these were not regular clients.
Studio owner Kate Biber was working with elite athletes trying out for a Southern California semi-pro soccer team. The team’s coach had her train his players to improve their body control and agility — key skills required in soccer. He also wanted to improve his team’s game fitness and recovery time. Kate’s training was also meant to evaluate the players in a new way and assist in the team’s selection process. She began their training with a Cardio Align class to assess the players’ fitness and to understand what education was required.
“It was really interesting to me that these top athletes didn’t know what they had, bodywise,” Kate says. “I spent a lot of time training alignment of feet, knees, hips and spine for them to find their best position. I wanted to help them understand that they’re in charge. It’s not simply momentum, which is what they were used to depending on to perform. Their mentality was: Just run faster!”
Kate observed the players in practices to identify areas where her expertise could be helpful. One of the things she noticed was that everyone looked at the ground when they ran, whether going for the ball or not, and, subsequently, their shoulders were significantly rounded. So she worked on posture and form and guided them to understand the bigger picture through strengthening the whole body and bringing more focus to their core stability and strength.
“I tried to empower them to be aware of the relationship of the abdominals and the legs,” Kate says. “You can’t run unless you have a strong core and know how to use it.”
Kate also noticed the players running with what she calls “kipper feet.” They ran with their legs in a turned-out position so the inner edges of the feet would be in the position to receive the ball. Positioning feet forward and knees over toes provides more power, which helps players run faster and change direction more easily. So Kate helped reset their ready stance: feet forward; abdominals engaged; strong, tall posture; and chin parallel to the ground.
At first, the players were skeptical of Kate’s methods.
“I could tell that they didn’t really think it was going to work,” Kate says. “So I said: ‘I know this works. I know I’m the only girl among 30 guys, but this is going to work!’”
And the players were surprised when low-impact training did work. They were used to shuttle runs and burpees and cranking out push-ups with terrible form. They didn’t realize that training doesn’t have to impact the joints to be effective.
“It’s not harder; it’s better and smarter,” Kate says. “That’s what I kept telling them. There’s no point in doing anything unless you position the body correctly. Just doing it and sweating is not enough.”
After a few weeks, Kate focused the training on the functional movements of soccer players. They move in all planes, so the Cardio Align class was ideal because the format balances symmetric/asymmetric movement in all planes of motion with exercises such as lunges, pendulums, and single-leg squats.
“Those workouts were so much fun,” Kate says. “These guys would be yelling at me to be done, and I would say: ‘If you want it, work harder!’ The players progressed above and beyond what I expected. I worked so hard to motivate them and give them attention to detail they had never seen before. And those who were selected for the team were the ones who used everything I gave them to their advantage. I definitely grew as a teacher having this experience.”
The players also learned that more running is not the solution to better fitness. Some players were running 10 miles a day in addition to training at Alkalign, and Kate and their coach had to beg them not to run beyond what was needed in games and practices.
“I would say, ‘Please don’t run. You’re just wearing everything out!’’’ Kate says.
When the players stopped the extra running and continued to put in a lot of effort in Kate’s training, they started to be able to do more and move better. Some of them lost weight, which improved their speed, and they reported sleeping better, standing taller and being free of aches and pains.
“Every class was totally kicking their butts,” Kate says. “Once I started to see them strengthen, I changed some of the exercises and brought them away from the barre as there’s no barre on the field! For example, we moved between a wide-turned-out position and a traditional lunge, which means pivoting on both feet, a very functional movement for soccer players. Lateral explosion comes from this as well — moving from the center line to the lateral side really quickly and having the confidence that your body is going where you want it to, without getting injured all the time.”
As the training progressed, Kate began to include more stretching and Recharge in her classes and was once again surprised that most of the players didn’t expect that they needed to look after their bodies or tune them up in any way. In conjunction with the team’s chiropractor, Kate also worked with the players on getting to areas of tension in their bodies so they could know their limitations and help prevent injuries.
Some of the players had existing injuries, but they showed up to every session. Kate worked one on one with these players to give advice on ways to work around their injuries and to teach them modifications to assist in recovery and continue to build strength. Kate says many of their foot and knee issues resolved over time because of the gluteus medius strengthening they did in her workouts. The players also had fewer instances of strain/tear to the groin, the No. 1 injury in soccer, because Alkalign’s back-body strengthening provided support to prevent this issue.
“Most of the guys were between 20 and 30, and at that age, their plan is to just to keep going and muscle it out,” Kate says. “And that’s fine if you’re in good health and don’t have any issues. But if you do, you have to be more thoughtful about it. Part of body awareness is knowing when to scale it back a little bit. So they got to know their limitations, especially when we rolled on the therapy balls. Recharge was a really eye-opening experience for them.”
It was after a month of Alkalign training that the team selected their players. According to Kate, the guys who “mastered” the alignment principles and were the most body aware were those who ended up making the team.
“I went to their games and saw these guys improve even beyond what they thought they were capable of,” Kate says. “They ran so fast!”
The coach was really happy with the results. It was easier for him to select players for the team and to identify who should play what position. Alkalign training showed which players were ready and able to perform and yielded information on who was physically best suited to perform some movements versus others.
Says Kate: “I was pretty sure my training was going to get them where they wanted to go, but I wasn’t 100 percent as I don’t know anything about soccer! But this experience really proved that you can transfer what we do in the studio to anything. If you put in the work at Alkalign, you get results whatever the sport.”