Strong like Bull-Specific Strength Training
By Pete Vordenberg; Reprint from 2001
Elite, recreational and novice skiers alike can increase their enjoyment and performance this winter by working on ski specific upper-body strength and strength endurance. Whether you are racing, touring or backcountry skiing, arm, back and stomach (core) strength are essential to making the most of your outing, avoiding bogging down on steep sections or with slick wax, and gaining considerable time on your opponents (who aren't as well prepared as you). At the same time, while there is a place for beach muscles, that place is not at km 40 of the Birkie. Here are a few methods to gain strength that is specific to cross-country skiing.
Novice and Recreational skiers: folks just getting into cross-country skiing and those who ski recreationally - even those blessed with bulging biceps, can struggle on skis simply because they haven't built up the proper muscle groups in the proper way. The key is doing many repetitions using ski specific muscle groups. This doesn't require a trip to the weight room, or any equipment, or for that mater much an investment in time. Some favorite skier exercises are dips, crunches and sit-ups, pushups and, (gulp) pull-ups. Dips can be performed with a chair or, if you're strong, two chairs. Simply sit on the chair normally and grip the chair's seat on either side of your rear with your hands (so the heels of your hands sit flush on the chair). Stretch your legs out before you or prop them up in front of you on another chair (makes dips harder). Slide your butt off the chair so that your arms support the bulk of your weight. Bend your arms at the elbows as if you were lowering yourself timidly into a hot tub. Rapidly straighten your arms, as if the tub is too hot - and repeat. To make dips easier pull your legs in so that they support more of your weight.
With pushups, keep your hands and elbows narrow to focus on the back and triceps rather than the chest. With both exercises, go from a near straight arm to a 90degree bend. To make pushups easier support your weight on your knees rather than your toes, or do pushups against a wall instead of the floor. Pull-ups can be done in any playground, on a laundry pole, a stout tree limb, etc... to make pull-ups easier, put your feet on a chair to support some of your weight. In general you want to be quick on the up motion and slower on the lowering motion. Do one to three sets of 20 to 40 repetitions of each exercise. Stomach work is quite important and doing a variety of crunches and sit-ups in a virtually non-stop and varied routine of 5 to 10 minutes will yield big results in only a few weeks (Barb Jones, 4th on the current Olympic selection list, does an 8 minute routine of 8 exercises of a minute each, almost every morning. The routine includes a variety of stomach crunches and leg lifts). The whole workout can take as little as 10 to 20 minutes - and, done 2 to 5 times a week will really make skiing easier and more enjoyable.
Recreational skiers (as well as racers) will also benefit by using ski poles for hiking and running in the weeks before skiing. Kayaking and other upper-body intensive work is also recommended, but don't forget to try to combine upper and lower-body work in a ski specific fashion for maximum crossover effect.
Racers: Racers can incorporate all of the above into a circuit routine and will benefit by visiting a weight room 2 to 3 times a week and working on a more balanced selection of muscle groups as well as including a few power and maximum strength exercises into the routine - in addition to doing ski specific, endurance oriented lifts and exercises.
The area where most racers can make grand strength gains is in specific strength. Specific strength is carried out on rollerskis and on skis. It is doing long distance efforts as well as shorter (interval like) repeats using the upper-body only. Classical distance workouts of 30mins to 2+ hours where one double-poles only or double-poles with a kick only are very important to developing upper-body strength (Every Thursday leading up to the 2002 Olympics Barb Jones did a 20 mile double-pole only workout - ten miles all up hill with some very steep sections and then 10 miles back down.) Skate distance workouts where one uses only the V2 technique accomplishes a similar thing.
It is best to take on challenging terrain so that a variety of tempos, and techniques (within double-poling, V2, etc) can be used, even if that means struggling over the tops of a few hills here and there.
Shorter, repetitious sessions are also very important, and for most skiers who are comfortable at a medium intensity, doing harder repetitions will absolutely help increase speed as well as strength.
There are a number of on ski/rollerski exercises to practice in a specific strength session. The first is double-pole sprints of 15seconds to 2minutes. Use both flat terrain and gradual to very steep up-hills. The second is single-pole drills where one uses the arms much as one would while classical striding, only using the trunk a bit more actively and not using the legs at all. As with double-poling, efforts can range from an all out 15seconds to a more race like 2-3minutes. The third is simple double-pole with a kick for sprints and longer intervals as well as distance sessions.
Other exercises are Nerds (standing stalk-up right, locking the elbows at the side and using the triceps only - so called because they look nerdy). Stomach only (double-pole, but lock your arms next to your body and crunch down with your stomach - only really good on a very steep up-hill - and even nerdier looking than nerds). Back only (stay up-right, lock your arms out fairly straight and push the arms through, in a stiff double-pole motion, without compressing with the upper-body at all). Personally I only do double-pole, single-pole, double-pole with a kick, some classical sprints and perhaps a few nerds - the other exercises are not to my liking, but some people do them.
In Sweden (I trained in Sweden for a year after high school) all we did for specific strength was double-pole sprints and distance double-pole sessions - 15 x 15second all out double-pole sprints and then an hour hard, fast double pole home - and that seemed to do the trick.
An example specific strength workout: warm up for 20 minutes classical rollerskiing. Pick a long gradual hill; do 5x 15seconds double-pole only, then 5x 15second single-pole, then 5x 15 double-pole w/kick - all of them with the throttle wide open. Follow that with 5x 1-2min of each exercise. Recovery between repetitions should allow you to go full out on the 15second sprints and faster than race pace on 1 to 2 minute repetitions on all repetitions. This is only an example and as is the case with all training start with a manageable, but challenging quantity and build from there.
At Northern Michigan University, a school that turns out fast ski racers year after year, they do a program like the example above. In the early fall they start with about 4km total work and built to 9km total work by snowfall, and continue with specific strength into the winter until a week or two before the big races rolled around.
Pete Vordenberg circa 2001
but always on point