Core Principles of Strong Skiing (core strength training)

Strengthening your core is essential if you want to ski well and reduce your chance of injury.

Strong Core for Strong Skiing: And it looks good on the beachStrong Core for Strong Skiing: And it looks good on the beachThe legs are important, but core strengthening is also essential to strong and injury-free skiing. According to Raphael Brandon,

EMG studies have shown that, as you would expect, all the major leg muscles are working hard during ski turns. In addition the abdominal and erector spinae muscles are also working very hard. The function of these muscles is to maintain a good position on the skis, leaning forward from the hips" [Reference 1].

If you want to carve hard and fast and want your back to be ready for the punishment that moguls or even unexpected bumps that spills can bring, you need to focus on core strength. The old school approach is to do a zillion situps and leg lifts. The problem is that these exercises often strengthen the wrong muscles (e.g. hip flexors rather than transverse abdominals). Training is not about competition, it's about smart preparation for competition, even if the competition involves just having more fun than the next guy. If you are stronger and get less sore, you will have more fun.

So let's look at some basic principles of core training and then a few good, safe and effective core exercises.

Basic principles of core training for skiing

Isometric endurance of the low back and abdominal muscles is more important than the overall strength of those muscles in terms of preventing low back pain. Let's let that sink in:

Isometric
In other words, the best exercises are static and don't involve a lot of motion. Note that this therefore does not include situps and leg lifts (not that you shouldn't do them, but they're not the best exercises).
Endurance
Again, it's not about cranking out situps quickly, it's about being able to maintain that core tension over longer periods of time.

Implications

In short, you're better off holding a back extension, a crunch or whatever in a static position for a longer period than to do either more reps or more weight. Of course, as you get stronger, adding weight is essential to getting really strong, but first increase the time.

Core exercises for skiing (and life!)

Back Extensions (aka Roman Chair or Superman Table Extensions)
Back Extension on Roman Chair: You don't have to dress like that thoughBack Extension on Roman Chair: You don't have to dress like that thoughThis one is basically the outgrowth of Scandanvian research on back injury. Researchers found that the best predictor of back injury (from all causes, not just skiing) was how long one could maintain an isometric back extension. It was a better predictor than the number of crunches, leg lifts or other exercises tested. It doesn't necessarily follow that it is the best exercise for your back, but it's a good place to start. It's also a good way to measure your risk. The exercise is simple: basically, lie on a table or bench with your hips at the edge and have someone hold your legs while you keep your body horizontal. You can also do this on the top of a stairway with someone holding your legs or feet. In the gym, you would use the Roman Chair machine as shown in the photo. My current gym doesn't actually have one of these, so I lie across a stability ball and put my feet under either the sofa or the dumbbell rack, depending on where I am.
If you can do it for 58 seconds or more, you are supposed to be relatively unlikely to suffer back pain in the next year [Reference 2]. Do sets of 90 seconds though just to be sure!
Plain Old Superman
What's plain about superman? Nothing, but the plain old superman is a lot like the previous exercise, except that you simply lie on the floor on your stomach and lift your knees and shoulders off the ground, with your hands out in front of you like Superman in flying position.

Alternate Superman
The first two exercises, especially the Superman Table Extensions, place a lot of stress on the back and is not appropriate for those with back injuries. A safer alternative is the Alternate Superman (sometimes called a Bird Dog). Get down on all fours and lift the left leg and the right arm so that they form a nice straight line, or lie on your stomach and lift them off the ground. Hold for thirty seconds and then switch sides. Repeat three repetitions and build up to holding for sixty seconds [Reference 3]
Alternate SupermanAlternate Superman
Plank
Switching sides here. This is Ed Viesturs' core exercise of preference according to one article I read. This is sort of like holding a pushup in the halfway position. Lie down on the floor on your stomach and pull your elbows under your shoulders, with your forearms on the ground. Then tighten your abs so that your body is straight as a board, supported by your toes and your elbows. You'll notice that this is harder than doing it with your arms at full extension. If this is too hard, you can put your knees on the ground. If it's two easy, you can push your elbows out a bit farther.
Now hold this position for 60 seconds. According to the article, Ed Viesturs can hold it for four minutes. The most I've managed was three minutes and it was tough! It's a great ab exercise though.
You can also do this on a stability ball and do some side planks as well. When you feel stronger, do planks on a stability ball with one leg held out perfectly flat to the side (no cocking the hips!). That's a killer exercise.
Stability Ball PlankStability Ball Plank
Side PlankSide Plank
TVA Baby!
Until about 1999, I had never even heard of the Transverse Abdominals. Then Hugo, a personal trainer and complete training fanatic, opened my eyes to the importance of TVA strengthening. This was a weak point for me and nothing has been as important to my general back health as learning these exercise.
The TVA is basically a band in your abdomen that wraps the midriff and provides essential core stability. Strengthen it and you will be much less likely to hurt your back. So how do you target the TVA? Here are some possibilities:
  • Standing with good posture, pull your navel as close to the spine as possible. Now try to keep breathing and carrying on a conversation. Harder than it sounds at first, and it will teach you how to recognize when you are activating the TVA. This is not exactly an intense exercise, but you can do it while at a party, so you'll be improving your skiing even as you suffer through yet another person asking you what you do for a living.
  • This one is tougher, but remember, with TVA exercises form is all important. This isn't about showing how strong you are, it's about getting truly strong. Lie down on your back on a firm surface (carpeted floor, for example). You'll basically be supported by your head, shoulders, butt and legs. The small of your back has a small space under it usually. This may not be true for some folks, especially if you have a few extra pounds. In any case, you next want to push the small of your back down until it is firmly pressed against the floor. Professional trainers will put a blood pressure cuff under the back to make sure that you keep pushing hard enough. That is essential. Never let the pressure off your back. If you do you risk injury and get little benefit. What you do next depends on how strong you are.
    • Start by trying to lift one bent leg (so in other words, concentrating on the knee, rather than the foot) off the ground and back down again, never letting up on the pressure the small of your back exerts on the floor.
    • If you can do that, try both legs, again bending them as much as necessary to keep steady pressure between the floor and the small of your back. As you get stronger, you can straighten your legs more and more until they are totally straight. I know some really strong people, but I have to say that I've never met anyone who could really do this with straight legs. KEEP GOOD FORM. Otherwise you're just wasting your time.
Good New Crunches
Stability Ball CrunchesStability Ball CrunchesWhat about good old crunches? Sure, nothing wrong with that, but do yourself a favor. Get a stability ball (Swiss ball, Pilates ball, whatever you want to call it). Now do your crunches while lying on the stability ball. This will increase your range of motion and activate more muscles. Recent definitive studies have shown this isn't just some guy in a gym making that up. It really is a better exercise. Maybe add some light weight if you need to, but better to do a few slow, weighted reps than to just crank out hundreds mindlessly.

A Warning

If you are doing this as part of a longer workout, always do exercises like squats and deadlifts first. If you do your core exercises first, you will weaken essential stabilizing muscles and increase the risk of back injury. That's not the point of this!

Okay, so now if you still want to go do your old-fashioned situps and leg lifts, go right ahead. It's your right.

References

  1. R. Brandon, "Skiers injuries avoidance exercises", from Sports Injury Bulletin, link.
  2. Owen Anderson, "The Truth About Low-Back Pain", from Sports Injury Bulletin, link.
  3. Raphael Brandon, "Back strengthening exercises for back injury prevention", Sports Injury Bulletin, link.

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