May 13, 2023

Skier injury prevention, muscle balance, hamstring strength,

What muscles do you use most when skiing?

Bending the knees and pulling the feet back underneath at the top of the turn is a combination of Stance, Balance & Fore Aft Moves that is essential for every type of terrain and turn shape on or off piste and takes several muscles including the hamstrings.

Check out Knees - Fore - Aft for some helpful visual cues. Dolphin Turns is a challenging drill that is excellent to finesse seamlessly connecting the pattern. Since this move in the sequence of Turn Phases follows just after the transition, at this point, the hamstrings are not resisting much force in this open chain move on the slippery snow. Beginning near the ischial tuberosity, commonly referred to as the sit bone, the hamstrings travel distally to attach near the knee. During concentric contraction their job as a muscle group is to extend the hip and flex the knee. The maximal eccentric hamstrings strength is seen near the fall line, as that load bearing outside knee is fully extended managing that built up pressure and stabilizing that knee. The majority of the quadriceps start from the proximal femur, but the rectus femoris does pitch in with some hip flexion by reaching up with multiple attachments on the pelvis. The quadriceps converge around the patella and attach onto the tibial tuberosity as the patellar tendon. The quadriceps main job during concentric contraction is knee extension. Between the constant battle with gravity of the skiers mass against the fall line and holding the skier up in the athletic stance, the quadriceps are often extremely strong in skiers. Typically the hamstrings take more intentional effort to strengthen. 

Mikaela Shiffrin

Mikaela Shiffrin, excellent demonstration of that long outside leg

How to get better at skiing in the off-season

To Stretch or Strengthen? It is common for skiers to think of stretching the quadriceps and ways to increase hip flexibility skiing. Targeting hamstring exercises, especially during the summer, will help to empower the entire body, especially the knees and back. The best ski workouts will help to prevent common injuries like Anterior Cruciate Ligament or Medial Collateral Ligament sprains, hamstring strains and tears, plus countless low back injuries. The timing of conditioning, what to do, what season to do what and how to build reps, sets, frequency etc can be really intimidating. Have no fear! We're here to help! Check the following out for more ideas...

Need more motivation?

Keep strong and injury free to join the shenanigans in some epic ski camps around the world 

Community is key

Come join the conversation in the forums. Every Thursday evening in the Weekly Ski Fitness Focus we put a challenge out there to add a practical plan for the week! In the Skier Injury Prevention forum we open up the discussion and chat about ideas and concepts that have proven to help skiers avoid injuries. Taking on technique and training tactics is way better while laughing with ski buddies both online and in person at ski camps. Which skiing stereotype are you?

Key Factors

Leading downhill with the head and neck seems like such a minor technical error that would make no difference to the overall musculature of an athlete. Actually, it can be a game changer to the health and coordination of the spine. Muscles default to the most practiced pattern. The head is quite heavy relative to the neck. As a result, constantly forcing muscles to hold it up slightly in front of the ideal stacked position can produce short, constricted neck flexors and long, weak neck extendors causing a domino effect to the lower back as well. It is common for core strength to be associated with the abdominals. It becomes infinitely more powerful when understood as the coordination of joints connecting the bones of the head, 33 vertebrae, ribs and pelvis. The advantage of having a massive amount of joints is the added potential for precise purposeful range of motion. The flip side, just like anything mechanical, more moving parts mean more pieces that could break or be recruited incorrectly. Dynamically maintaining that spine stack properly is like finding the sweet spot of balance on skis. It is an ongoing mission. One that is often underrated. The more successful at it you are, the more efficient power, agility and coordination you have access to for skiing and for life. Here are a few exercises to help empower that process. 

Bucket Handle 3D Breathing

Most of us end up doing a ton of auxiliary breathing up in our chests. Although, yes this can be handy for getting air into our lungs faster during high intensity exercises, it also has a tendency to reinforce negative neck muscle patterns.

Bucket handle breathing engages multiple muscles including the ones between our ribs called the intercostals, allowing our rib cage to expand in volume outward.

To practice this, place your hands on your lower ribs. Breathe and see what happens. If your hands barely move, put a hand up on your chest and fill how the chest expands. Now try to quiet the move there and allow it to fill your belly. As simple as it seems, practicing breathing like this in a quiet state can have a dramatic effect on your ability to coordinate muscles during skiing. 

Chin Tucks 

Especially for skiers, or any downhill athlete really reaching down the fall line, it is common for the head to rest forward of the C-spine. This disturbs the efficiency of the entire back. 

Chin tucks are pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Start standing or sitting a neutral spine. Then while holding the Thoracic and Lumbar spine steady push your head forward as far as you can, like a in a turtle. Then retract it back until your head is slightly behind your vertebral column. Repeat about 5 times in a row throughout the day. The goal is to reset and strengthen that neutral stacked C-spine. 

neutral extensor strength

Chin Tuck

Cat Cow

This exercise is known and widely used by many. There are several variations, here is what I find works as a solid starting point for most skiers.

Set up on the floor on hands and knees. Stack your hands below your wrists, directly below your shoulders and your knees underneath your pelvis. Then start from the pelvis and flex your spine in a slow but gradual moving rhythm one vertebrae at a time if you can until your neck is flexed positioning your head tucked up under your belly. To uncoil from here, start with the head and neck extending until you are looking up at the sky or ceiling and your back is swayed like a cow. Move through this range 5-10 times ideally in the morning and notice what it feels like at mid range and try to recreate this neutral spine throughout the day and while skiing. 

The Extreme Hamstring Curl

The Written Step by Step

First, it is very important to emphasize that this is an advanced level demonstration and a significant amount of pre-existing core strength is required to attempt this safely. Variations are key, this one has tons of em! Scroll down for a couple ideas.

For this example, here is the set up...

  • Lay on your belly
  • Position your iliac crest or top of your pelvis just off the edge of a counter, table, or gym appartus  
  • Make sure your lower legs are securely anchored 
  • Begin by flexing your torso forward as far as possible, ideally until you are looking back towards your legs 
  •  Flex your neck a little further 
  • Then to move out of this position, first extend your neck to stack over for spine 
  • Then with a neutral spine extend your torso all the way up until you are kneeling
  • For the full range keep bending your knees until you are laying back over your legs 
  • This is one full rep, if this was not challenging enough, you can hold weight in front of your chest

Who is this exercise appropriate for?

This demo version is appropriate for someone currently in a consistent gym routine that has successfully mastered steps building up to this exercise.  

The Visual Step by Step

A Few Exercise Variations

The good news is this exercise can be broken down into stages which make it very achievable over time. 

Prone Basic Hamstring Curl

A good starting point is a prone hamstring curl, simply lay on your belly and kick your heel to your butt. To progress this, add some weight to that ankle. At the gym this is a common machine. Incorporating exercises that use the hamstrings as part of a functional move is a great way to build from this. 

prone easy hamstring curl
Hamstring and core strength

Stacked kneeling start position

Assisted Nordic Hamstring Curl

  • Secure your lower legs
  • Begin from a stacked kneeling position 
  • With your hands old a band from behind you to counterbalance some of the weight of the torso  
  • Lower the torso to a prone position 
  • Slow and controlled is key 

Nordic Hamstring Curl

Alright this one is for the ladies out there! Hey, come on, we deserve some eye candy too ;p. Marcus has some solid form here in this video. A few things to keep in mind...

  • Be careful not to arch your back. Achieve this by engaging those abdominals and focus on maintaining a neutral spine.
  • Don't forget to breathe, CONTINUOUSLY 🙂 it's super easy to get caught holding your breath. By focusing on continuing to breathe it also helps us continue to engage a dynamic core instead of a static one which is far more relevant to us as skiers 
  • If this is way too easy, go ahead and give the extreme hamstring curl variation a go

Thanks Adrian for volunteering this exercise for discussion!

Check out the previous blog, To Stretch or Strengthen? Here the challenge was raised to volunteer a treasured exercise used for skier strength and conditioning. Diving into this exercises will help to build an understanding of WHY an exercise is relevant.

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About the author 

Jessi Morris

Ski bum by day, Athletic Therapist by night, life is better in the mountains, that's why I hardly ever leave. I live full time in Bear Lodge on Mount Washington where I have my own clinic set up for injury prevention, injury management, and skier specific strength. I ski because I love it. Refining technique keeps me on my toes. Plus, it allows me to nerd out on the anatomy, physiology and overall biomechanics of it which is totally my jam! Cheers to new ski buddies and more ski stories! 

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1 year ago

I do a slightly different and less extreme version from a 90 degree kneeling position with heels anchored then slowly lowering gradually and as far as possible for a slow count of 5 until failure.
A good strength foundation would be essential for this exercise.
It trains the eccentric contraction of the posterior chain which is somewhat what we are asking our bodies to do, especially making long performance turns at higher speeds. This is my understanding at least.

1 year ago
Reply to  Jessi Morris

I’m not doing it currently until after my surgery as it creates a lot of pressure. It’s an exercise I’ve used on and off for a couple of years and incorporate it into at least one strength session per week. Warren Jobbitt also recommends it if I remember correctly. I usually stick with 3 x 5 reps. The changing parameters are how low and slow you can go. I use 2 variations, one where there’s genuine failure and you fall forward so have a mat to land on. The other is to go as far forward as you can while… Read more »

Matthew Bowes
Matthew Bowes
1 year ago

This is excellent Adrian – I don’t know if I could pull off the Sochi version, as demonstrated here, but I like your suggestion of a modified version. As someone who suffers from very tight hamstrings (like all my life), I am thinking about the relationship between strengthening and flexibility, both of which I have started to work on this season with Jessi. In less technical terms, I am thinking of skiing with a ‘long leg,’ particularly at hight speeds, as you suggest.

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