By Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences
Alpine skiing depends upon a skier’s explosive power, speed of movement, muscle endurance, rapid recovery from fatigue and good balance, all of which can be substantially improved in the weight room. Without exception, strength conditioning is essential for achieving your peak potential in alpine skiing and avoiding injury.
Weight training is based on the overload principle, which means that it’s necessary to stress the muscles or the cardiovascular system to an extent greater than usual to achieve a higher level of strength or fitness. If you do not continue to stress your muscles to higher levels, for instance, they will become accustomed to the workload and will not noticeably increase in strength.
Hypertrophy (muscle enlargement) resulting from repetitive overload training occurs with the increased storage of the intramuscular proteins actin and myosin. Atrophy (muscle size reduction) due to the depletion of actin and myosin reserves develops when strength conditioning is reduced or terminated.
Periodization strength training is the systematic and progressive overloading of sport-specific muscle groups and their surrounding connective tissues. This type of training encourages maximum strength development with minimum overtraining that can cause muscular soreness or injury.
How to Perform Periodization Strength Training
To perform periodization strength training, alpine skiing competitors should divide a calendar year into several macro-cycles:
- Active rest (during the off-season)
- Basic strength (building a foundation)
- Hypertrophy (gaining power)
- Peaking (maintaining strength and endurance)
- In-season competition
Micro-cycles can be created within these macro-cycles after the weak areas of the Alpine skier are assessed. Active rest occurs the athlete’s off-season, and it should be a combination of whole-body rest and low-intensity activities to prevent muscular atrophy and maintain muscle tone.
The basic strength cycle involves gaining foundational muscle size and strength. This process prepares the muscle cells and connective tissue for conditioning of a heavier intensity.
The hypertrophy cycle builds on previously developed strength and prepares the Alpine skier for the stressors encountered during competition. The peaking period assists the Alpine skier in maintaining the previous gains in strength while cutting down on the amount of time spent in the weight room, which allows more workout time on the snow.
The competition cycle allows the skier to maintain strength throughout the competitive season. It also prevents an end-of-season drop-off in performance due to muscle atrophy and prolongs fatigue thresholds during in-season workouts.
Alpine Skiing Is Both Anaerobic and Aerobic
Alpine skiing is both an anaerobic and aerobic sport, meaning that both fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers are recruited. Strength and endurance sports like Alpine skiing are considered the most demanding because they require both anaerobic (without oxygen) and aerobic (with oxygen) energy metabolism.
Alpine skiing also requires both concentric and eccentric muscle contractions. Concentric contractions involve the normal shortening of a muscle during contraction. Eccentric contractions control and absorb shock while a muscle is lengthening under tension (especially when a skier is going downhill and turning corners).
Slow-speed eccentric contraction can be simulated during your workouts by conducting slow “negative” sets in combination with your concentric workout. For example, if you’re performing leg extensions, lower the weight very slowly after a full knee extension. This technique requires your muscles to control the weight against gravity and provides an eccentric workout to the quadriceps.
Fast-speed eccentric contractions (that create considerably more stress for muscle cells and cause more soreness after a workout) occur during the stretch-shortening cycle immediately prior to the concentric contraction that propels the body forward. Competitive athletes often use plyometrics (involving bounding and hopping) within the sport-specific range of motion to supplement their strength training.
Improving Periodization Training
There are nine main training variables that can be manipulated in periodization training. Changing these training variables will provide maximum conditioning with a minimal chance of excessive soreness or injury:
- Type of lifts
- Length of training periods
- Number of workouts per week
- Order of exercises
- Number of sets per lift
- Exercise tempo
- Number of repetitions per set
- The amount of weight to be lifted per set
- The amount of recovery time between sets
These exercises are recommended for strengthening the muscles involved in alpine skiing:
1. Leg press – This exercise strengthens the quadriceps, gluteals and hamstrings.
2. Heel raises – Calf extensions can be combined with leg press exercises by locking the knees at the end of each repetition. Training both the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles can also be performed one leg at a time; you should hold a dumbbell on the same side (right or left) as the calf you’re extending. Stand with your foot on a stationary block or stair to get a more complete range of motion.
3. Half-squats – This exercise strengthens the quadriceps, hip flexors and gluteals. Squats also condition the stabilizing muscles of the abdomen and back and they assist in the improvement of balance.
To perform this exercise, a weighted bar supported by the hands should rest on the shoulders, the feet should be shoulder width apart, the heels should rest on two-inch-high blocks and the toes should be pointed slightly outward. During this exercise, always keep your back straight, look up toward the ceiling to maintain good technique and use a spotter when you’re squatting.
As a rule, do not lower the buttocks past the point where the thighs are parallel to the ground. Many advanced alpine racers may squat down further, but they should only do this type of squat after building adequate strength and developing proper technique.
4. Leg curls – This exercise works out the hamstrings and gluteals. The hamstrings are the most injured muscles in sports, so it’s important to perform the lifts slowly and avoid overtraining.
5. Leg extensions – Leg extensions exercise the quadricep muscles. A proper strength relationship between the hamstrings and quadriceps is important, so train them both for proper balance. The ratio of hamstring to quadriceps strength is about 0.6, which means that hamstrings generally have about 60% of the strength of the quadriceps. Quadricep strength is generally about 60% greater than hamstring strength.
6. Lunges – Lunges work out the the quadricep, hamstring, abdominal, back and calf muscles. This exercise is performed by balancing a free-weight bar on your shoulders, striding forward with one leg and bending your front knee downward in a controlled manner until you are in a deep front split. After you reach bottom, push back with the front leg, return to your starting position and repeat the exercise with the other leg. Many advanced Alpine skiers substitute lunges for squats later in the season.
7. Hip and back machine exercises – Many health clubs and university weight rooms have a hip and back machine that jointly strengthens all major muscles of the hip and back. However, consult a weight room supervisor for instructions on proper technique before using this machine.
8. Bent-knee sit-ups – Bent-knee sit-ups work out the abdominals, hip flexors and quadriceps. For this exercise, bend your knees until they are 12 to 18 inches from your buttocks, cross your arms in front of your chest and bring your upper body forward.
Adding a side twist during the sit-up stresses the supporting muscles of the lower back and sides. Performing sit-ups on an incline or adding weights as strength increases is also recommended rather than increasing repetitions.
9. Back hyperextensions – This exercise strengthens the erector spinae of the back, posterior neck and obliques when the hyperextension is combined with twisting the upper body. It also works out the abdominals and gluteals, which act as stabilizing muscles.
Most universal weight machines have a back hyper-extension apparatus that involves lowering and elevating the upper body from a horizontal hanging position. Resistance can be added by holding a weight or dumbbell behind your head.
Alpine skiing is a highly challenging and demanding sport. But with a proper weight training regimen, it is possible to improve your performance as a skier.