By Fred Koch with Dr. Scott Howell
Norwegians are already the best in the world in the aerobic area of cross-country skiing. Just wait until they get as serious about strength training. Strength training is just popping up in Cross-Country skiing in Norway. As it gets more serious, you will see a new generation of skiers arise.
We all hear about how important “core” training is in all the literature you read. It is the center 3rd of the body; it is so important, blah, blah, blah. Unfortunately, no one ever defines exactly what “the core” is and MOST important how “the core” should be worked. Not just exercises, but the exact “progression” or weights to be used with these exercises. What I mean by this refers to the biggest mistake made in the use of strength training: That is training to failure in the weight room is a sure way to destroy your athletes. Look at it this way. Do you send a skier out to do intervals and tell them perform until they fall in the snow exhausted? Of course not. The equipment available today for aerobic training is so advanced we would never think of this old way of training. HOWEVER, isn’t that exactly what athletes are expected to do when strength training? Never again.
First, what I will cover in this series is a scientifically sound version of how the core works in cross-country skiing. Then, the core will be practically defined. Lastly, prescription and defining progression for core training exercises will be elaborated in a logical manner. This may take a several articles, but this is a worthy subject that demands attention. When you get to the end of this first article, I will give you a link to get a free copy of the book I authored on abdominal and lower back training. Hopefully, this will give you a short-term reason to read and internalize this article.
When I talk about the core, it is defined as the abdominals, hip flexors and lower back. Everyone knows about the abdominals and hip flexors, but not many think about the lower back. I intend to cover all these muscle groups in this series. In a future article, I will explain exactly how to put them in your program along with exact sets and reps to do and individual exercises for specific needs.
I first became involved with cross-country skiing through the Biathlon Federation in Norway. My form teachers were a group of top tier instructors for both the biathlon and cross-country world skiing. Between Torgeir Bjørn, Roger Grubben, and Arild Jorgensen I developed a unique and reasonable perspective of how strength training relates to these sports. At the time, Torgeir’s job was to work with each skier on form. One night we stayed up until 2:00 AM in the morning alone in a dining hall of an airport hotel. He taught me his version of exact form in cross-country skiing technique. I had the privilege to record what turned out to be one of the best lessons I ever had. See video here.
What I internalized was the base of the pyramid or foundation, so to speak. My interest in muscles and movement science lead me to the next step: To analyze videos on cross-country skiers to ascertain if they kept exact form, when they broke form and the causative factors involved in the breakdown. My analysis and logic led me to the notion that breaking form was caused by exhaustion in some part of the musculature involved with the movement pattern. This may seem predictable, but from the video analysis, affected muscle groups were not intuitively obvious. Why? These athletes were in such great cardiovascular shape that getting tired was not the issue. I was lucky at the time to have the ability to test some of Norway’s best biathlon skiers to further observe and gather further data.
As I researched and studied, it became obvious of areas involved with standard form breakdowns. After dissecting the movements numerous areas were identified throughout the entire kinetic chain. Of particular note was the core, which will be the first part I will discuss.
The core functions in skiing as the link between upper and lower body. Basically, the cross-country skiing movement consists of arm drive or the propelling of the upper body, arm drive and simultaneous leg drive alternating from one leg to the other, in the case of double dance or the one arm drive and leg drive in paddling or double poling. The drive from the abdominals and hip flexors appears similar from a core point of view, but the differences come out with a more focused analysis.
After watching various instructional and contest videos, I began to develop and refine my own ideas.
This is how I envision the involvement of the core in this movement.
After viewing the video many time I took note of some distinct observations. First, when starting in a fully extended position with the arms up ready to drive down, the spine is fully extended and the abdominals are fully stretched out. Next, the hip flexors, depending on the stroke are stretched, but more so in a ready, power position or position to explode. Further, the skier begins the core drive, but first transverse abdominus must contract, (The TA is a really tricky subject because it is the first muscle to contract in any movement and when it comes to training them this must be understood) before the various abdominal muscles, flex the spine. The movement continues down to the hip flexors, which finish the drive. Now, comes into play the rapid action of the transverse abdominus again, continued by contraction of the lower back muscles, to pull the torso and shoulder area up and back in preparation for the next repetition.
We have to critically, analyze this movement to see weak links and determine what will happen when these weak links appear. First, let us look at the stretched position of the abdominals. Since abdominals have such a short range of motion, they are usually one of the most misunderstood muscles. As you see in the diagram, fully stretched abdominals must be worked from that position. When we talk about strength training, we have to use weight because we are developing muscle endurance and power for the abdominals. It is a well-established principle that maximum strength is developed before conversion of strength to muscular endurance or power. Strength x speed = force. Another way to view this is speed and endurance are functions of maximal strength. See this article, Strength Training the forgotten element 2016.
The abdominals eccentrically move into a stretched position with the arm up, shoulders back, to prepare for the drive. The abdominals concentrically contract as the arms and shoulders begin their movement. The forceful contraction of the abdominals builds up momentum that flows into the much stronger hip flexors.
Now comes the interesting part that no has addressed. How does the athlete’s body return into position to begin another rep? Of course, the muscle of the lower back contract and the arms come up in such a forceful way that the skier is ready for another rep. This motion is relatively the same in all the motions in cross-country skiing.
Look closer at these movements. First the abdominals. They start their contraction when the spine is fully extended. Since they are fully extended, we must work them from that position. The problem with the abdominals and their relationship to the spinal vertebrae is each vertebra has such a short a range of motion relative to the abdominal segments (6 pack). The vertebrae have more movement capacity at the top and endure less movement at the lower section where the spine moves into the pelvic. Each one of these segments of abdominals must be worked create a chain that has no weak links. Next, the movement moves into the hip flexors that attach from the spine to the thighs. They are so strong that they often dominate the movement. The issue here is not about hip flexors, but how they cannot be allowed to take over the “entire “movement. Many years of this improper technique with dominate hip flexors has adverse effects on the entire motor program. Often it takes a long time to unlearn and replace the wrong motor program.
Lower back: How fast you can return to the drive position?
The lower back muscles, specifically those that run from the pelvis to the lower back (see diagram) are attached to the top of the pelvis and go all the way up to the neck. As you begin to understand the process of the human body in this movement, you might ask…What have we done to work the lower back muscles? They are the antagonist of the abs and drive the body back to the starting position. This is another important aspect to remember.
Now that we have taken a look at the biomechanics of the core in cross-country skiing I want to discuss what happens when one of the links in this chain are tired or weak.
- The number one weakness is the abdominals are not trained like any other muscle and consequently, become the weak link. (3 or 4 sets of crunches, 10-20 reps with body weight surely wouldn’t get any muscle in shape)? Unfortunately, this is the standard for abdominal training.
Lower back, how fast you can return to the drive position.
The lower back muscles, specifically the ones that go from the pelvic up the lower back (see diagram) are attached to the top of the pelvic and go all the way up to the neck. As you begin to understand the process of the human body in this movement you will start to ask…What have we done to work this lower back muscles? They are the antagonist of the abs and drive the body back to the starting position. Another important thing to remember.
Now that we have taken a look at the bio-mechanics of the core in cross country skiing I want to look at what happens when one of the links in this chain are tired or weaker than they could be.
- The number one weakness that we see is the abdominals are not trained like any other muscle is they become the weak link. (3 or 4 sets of crunches, 10-20 reps with body weight surely wouldn’t get any muscle in shape)? Unfortunately, this is the standard for abdominal training.
When the brain engrains a neural program to guide the body, associated movement will occur. What happens when the body reads the abdominals are weak? It will counter that weak link by changing factors involved with compensation. In the case of weak abdominals, the body will lock the abdominals in place and pass the work to the much stronger hip flexors to perform the movement. This transfer can cause a neurological adaptation to using the hip flexors to perform the movement even further interfering with proper technique. The body is taught improperly to use the hip flexors and leave out the abdominal part.
To allow this to happen, the body will make even more adjustments by moving the center of gravity forward, thus transferring the work to the hip flexors. The body will do this by bending over at the waist. We see this so often in cross-county skiing and in 2015 many coaches almost took this for normal.
If I go back to my expert that is totally, wrong. Look at the video and see the late night meeting.
Before we give some suggestions for exercises, we have to impress upon people the importance of not being misled by the lack of knowledge or curiosity by many coaches that are afraid to say there may be more information out there that has not been considered.
Next comes the” big one”, which we hear all the time.
Well such and such does this and he is a world champion. There is no argument that the human body is so adaptable that somewhere out there is a freak of nature that no matter what he or she did they would be great. The question we would ask is how much better, this person would have been if this weakness was found earlier and corrected? Or better yet. How many young athletes had this weakness and just fell out of the sport because they could not adapt to the weakness. Attached is a sit-up test Fred did on one of these champions (that no matter what they do they succeed). It was a simple full range of motion test on an ab mat device for full range of motion for 2 minute. This champion could not even complete the 2-minute test; his abs were so weak. He went up a few reps because, as his coach said, he did it once in a while. The Gluteus medius test will be covered in another article.
But, he was a champion!
Even worse, is that actually trainers see this weak link and design an exercise around it or fall victim to the latest fad or “that’s how we always did it” rut. Planking is the one exercise that comes to mind. Rarely, in the movement of sports are the abdominal muscles in an isometric contraction and locked in. See Torgeir’s video lesson again, the abdominals have such a short range of motion it may look that way, but if you look closer you will see the movement. Even if this were true, then one has to ask does planking (isometrics) on the ground put the spine in the same position as when standing up? So, if you stand up from a plank you would see this relationship. Why planking ? You get a burn and this is that an indicator of what? Nothing else in sports. Do you go out and ski and until you get a burn in your legs then consider that a good training method? Not from my professional experience. In other movements that is considered over reaching.
The “we have always done it that way” mistake is from trainers that really do not understand the abdominal movements and live on this “feel the burn” illusion. They train the hip flexors so much with the uniformed information that the hip flexors, as mentioned before, dominate the movement.
The best example of this is the hanging bench. They call this an abdominal exercise, but it is clearly a hip flexor movement and called an abdominal exercise because of “the Burn”. Maybe it has been passed down, from one coach to another and no one had the interest to ask why.
You can clearly see here that the hip flexors do the work.
Another “feel the Burn” exercise with abs is the classic leg lift in a bench. Or hanging leg lift. The story behind this is the, “I have great abs so train like me syndrome”!
The most import thing we can tell you in the article is “The abdominals BEND the spine”. This is the basis of whether or not and exercise works the abs. The lower back bends the spine in the opposite direction. This has nothing to do with the BURN.
Looking further into the hip flexors, as with the leg lifts shown. These can be the most dangerous exercise you can do if not done correctly. Why? The hip flexors attach to the legs so they do pick the legs up, BUT they also attach to the spine at the other end. this is where the problem comes. This constant pressure on the spine can be dangerous.
The drawing clearly shows the attachment of the hip flexor muscles to the lower spine. (Rectus Femoris, Psoas Major, and Illiacus)
Why? Add the length of the legs and the force that all these crazy exercises produce and keep in mind this force is transferred right to the spine. This is why doctors and trainers discouraged their use years ago. Now when most people do the exercises they are bouncing and this adds even more pressure on the spine.
In skiing should you do hip flexor exercises? Of course, but the entire biomechanics of the movement must be understood and the weak links determined. When doing hip flexors while skiing at least one leg is on the ground forming a base. The opposite of how these exercises are done in the gym. Too many hip flexor movements will make your body “think” about this when you ski, thus nerve-muscular pathways are being programmed wrong.
The lower back is the next issue to be discussed. As you see in the drawing of the back muscles and having an understanding of the lower back relationship in cross-country skiing, you can see the movement required by these muscles. Being the antagonist (opposite) to the abdominal muscles puts an important part of the movement in these muscles. Now when we look closer you can see how they run all the way up the spine. This now adds to their assistance in bringing the arms and shoulders up in cross-country skiing form. As the arm/shoulders are driven up these lower back muscles extend the spine to prepare for the forward drive.
If you have come this far in the article you first must understand the incorrect way coaches strength train skiers to muscle failure. Here is a couple of links that you have to take the time and look “Defining progressive resistance” at before we continue in the next article on the exercises done for perfect core balance.
Before I give you the exercises for the lower back you must ask yourself as an amateur skier or competitive skier, have you ever worked this “exact motion” with resistance (weights)?
If you are a recreational skier, you know how your back hurts after being out all day. If you are a competitive skier, you must realize the added power and muscle endurance you will get from properly working these muscles.
In the next article in this series I will begin to show you some exercises and continue to explain my ideas how strength training relates to cross country skiing.
Some final thoughts on strength training for the core:
How many times do you contract the core in one round of skiing? 10-20 or more like somewhere over 100? Then this is the number I will show you can to go in your training.
Crunches, which really become rock and roll crunches do very little for your abdominals.
Training to Muscle Failure. Do you train anything in skiing to you fail? Why do this with strength training.
Improper placement of strength training in your weekly plan can have an extreme negative effect on your technique training.
In the next article I will begin to show you the latest exercises for Cross-country skiing.
As I promised in the beginning of this article, you can download my book Abdominal Training-Myths Debunked- The Science Behind the Ab Mat.