If you think strength training is just for "serious" skiers, think again. Strong muscles improve every skier's performance, whether beginner, intermediate or advanced. For those stuck in a skiing rut, strength training may be your ticket out.
Few sports are as physically demanding as skiing, but many skiers hit the hill having done little-to-no training. They pay for it with sore muscles, but that's only the beginning. Poor fitness also increases the potential for injury. The most common ski injuries are joint related, and the best way to protect joints is by building muscle. Strong muscles stabilize the joints and, in turn, enable you to control your skis.
Think of the last time you watched someone effortlessly weave through a mogul field and wondered, "How does she do that?" It's partly due to practice, and partly to the body awareness and balance that strength training provides. Skilled skiers intuitively cue every part of their bodies. They are aware of how weight is distributed over the soles of their feet. They angulate their knees according to the slope angle. They keep their hips centered and parallel with their ski tips, their torsos still and in sync with their hips. That's a lot to think about, and that's exactly the point: That bump skier isn't thinking about all that. A fit body is like a well-tuned sports car-it handles effortlessly, acting on subtle cues.
"The ability to stay in a balanced, athletic stance is really just the muscles firing to keep you in that balance," explains Ron Kipp, assistant director of coaches' education for the U.S. Ski Team. "Without that balance, skiers have to use more of their strength than is optimal." Kipp believes strength affects not only performance, but also endurance. "Without strength, skiers are probably only going to get $30 out of their $60 lift ticket, because they'll spend more time recovering than skiing."
There are no shortcuts to improving strength and endurance. Studies show that it takes six weeks to increase strength and double that to work up to more complex moves (such as squats) that use multiple muscle groups simultaneously (as needed in skiing). And you have to start slow. Even if you consider yourself fit and form-aware, let a certified trainer show you how to use weights correctly; lifting with incorrect form can lead to injury.
The first six weeks of a strength-training program (Stage 1) should be spent building a foundation. Start light and focus on proper form (see "Lifting Dos and Don'ts" on page 210). Lift twice per week, with 48 hours of rest in between each session. To see significant results, put in an hour per session, in which you do two sets of 12-15 repetitions each, resting only 45 seconds between each set.
Because skiing is a whole-body sport, you'll want to do whole-body strength workouts. Thinking of your body as a series of components simplifies planning a workout. Target the following muscle groups: legs (ankles, calves, quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes), torso (chest, back and abdominals) and arms (biceps, triceps and shoulders).
Also, keep in mind that muscles don't work independently. Each muscle group has an opposing group and can only lengthen when the other one contracts, so it's important to develop both equally. For example, the quadriceps extend the leg (straighten the knee), while the hamstrings flex it (bend the knee). If only one group is strengthened, the imbalance can lead to injury.
After six weeks, crank the workouts up a notch. During Stage 2, do three sets instead of two, start lifting to failure (the point at which you can't lift anymore) and incorporate eccentric lifting. Each weight-lifting move has two parts: the concentric (lifting and shortening) part of the motion and the eccentric (releasing and lengthening) component. In an eccentric move, you add 10 pounds to the maximum weight of which you can do 15 reps. A training partner helps you lift the weight, and then you slowly lower-or resist-itt on your own. Bode Miller, who won four World Cup races and two Olympic silver medals last season, is a big proponent of eccentric lifting. When you ski, Miller explains, "you're not so much pushing as resisting the forces that are created in the turn and balancing while you're doing it. So when you put on a huge amount of weight that you can't push, that you have to just resist, it trains the muscle and allows you to be so much more efficient that you don't get tired." Eccentric training will not only keep you from getting fatigued on the slopes, it can also help you avoid day-after muscle soreness.
After 10 weeks of lifting, add ski-specific exercises that demand not only strength, but balance and quick reflexes, too. Plyometrics (jumping exercises) are the method-and they're tough. If you have knee or ankle problems, skip them. For a primer on plyometrics, check out "If Kangaroos Could Ski," found in the related links to your right.
Sound like a lot of effort? At first, it will be. But when it comes time to make the first turns of the season, you'll be amazed at how much easier it is to link smooth arcs on top-to-bottom runs, all day long.