The weathered mountain jocks of Jackson, Wyoming, enjoy a backyard brimming with the jagged Tetons and are perhaps the last folks you’d expect to find in a gym. But at the moment they’re all but flocking indoors. Indeed, it’s standing room only at the town’s two health clubs, and for good reason: Running, hiking, and cycling do not winter athletes make, and what does create them — primarily increased strength — can’t be gotten overnight. So with the season just a cold front or two away, the cram sessions have begun.
Now’s the time to scurry under the barbells, since expert advice suggests that appreciable weight-room results require a good six weeks of dedication. Our cherished winter sports of downhill skiing, snowboarding, telemark skiing, and ice skating rely heavily on strength training because they all demand quick bursts of effort. We spend eight months focusing on endurance, giving strength training short shrift, but come winter, power is central to our efforts on snow and ice.
You’ll need three nonconsecutive days a week in the gym to prep your muscles. We’ve boiled down exercises for each of these sports to their essentials so that you can pick and choose according to your winter plans. Of course, you can always complement these sport-specific routines with your standard moves for a full-body workout. At the very least, you’ll want to maintain an aerobic regimen. We recommend running, cycling, in-line skating, or if the white stuff is already piling up, snowshoeing, all at about 65 percent of your maximum heart rate, on three of your days off from the gym. Keep on top of this plan, and when you do finally set eyes on the mountains, they won’t be such a sight for sore muscles.
Dr. Peter Rork has a mantra. In his 13 years as a U.S. Ski Team orthopedist, during which he’s also treated many a recreational skier, he’s often reminded of the so-called Rule of Threes: Trouble sets in for those skiing above 3,000 meters (9,900 feet) past 3 p.m. on their third consecutive day. What typically gives way is the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, which connects your tibia to your femur. “Tears like a mop end,” Rork explains cheerfully. “The explosive ‘pop’ makes you sick to your stomach.” The best defense? Alternate hard and easy days on the slopes, build a strong torso for your extremities to work from, and bulk up your leg muscles around your ACL to stabilize your knee, since you can’t do anything for the ligament itself.
Calf raise (strengthens lower legs). Stand on the lip of a step with your heels protruding, and hold onto something to steady yourself. Slowly rise up on your tiptoes, and then drop your heels below the starting point. Eventually add resistance by using a squat machine’s shoulder platform. Do three sets of 25.
Leg raise (torso and legs). Sit on a Gymnastikball ($24; 800-243-9232), an ottoman-size rubber ball that you can find in many health clubs, with your back straight. Straighten your legs and slowly slide your feet away from the ball, rolling down it onto your back but keeping your body extended like a plank; stop when only your upper back and shoulders are resting on the ball. Keeping the pelvis in line with your body, raise your right leg as high as you can and hold it for one count. Balancing is tricky: The ball will want to squirt to the right; tighten your stomach muscles to prevent this. Alternate legs until you’re fatigued.
Leg press (legs, buttocks, and hips). Seated in a leg press machine, with your back flattened against the rest, position your feet hip-width apart in the center of the platform. Lift and lower the weight slowly. Push up until just short of locking your legs. In ensuing sets, reposition your feet to emphasize different muscles: Higher on the platform works the hamstrings, lower works the quads, wider works your hip adductors. Do ten reps for each set.
“It’s the adductors that get so darn tender,” says Ken Rundell, senior sports physiologist at Lake Placid’s Olympic Training Center. “The first two weeks of practice, you can’t touch them.” These inner thigh muscles are employed with every stroke, and unless you’ve dedicated the off-season to in-line skating, they’ve probably been ignored. Work the adductors with plyometrics like step-ups and lifts like hang-cleans. Then work the rotator cuffs. “You’re going to get bounced around, even in a no-check hockey league,” he says. “Besides, what’s a slap shot with a bad shoulder?”
Hang-clean (strengthens most everything between knees and ribs). Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, squat to lift a barbell (practice with a weightless one), keeping your back slightly arched and looking forward. Grasp the bar overhanded at shoulder width, rise into a half-squat, and rest it low on your quads, arms straight. Now heave the bar straight up by exploding upward with the hips, knees, and ankles, and finally, forcefully shrugging your shoulders. When the bar reaches its apex, pivot your elbows under the weight, and recoil into a squat. The weight will settle atop your shoulders, elbows jutting forward. Have spotters remove the barbell. Do six reps.
Step-up (upper legs and hips). Standing with a light dumbbell in each hand, step your right foot onto a 12-inch-high bench positioned just in front of your toes. Follow with the trailing leg, until your thigh is parallel to the floor, and hold it for one count. Step down with your left leg first. Alternate legs; do three sets of ten for each.
Internal/external rotation (shoulders). Lie on your left side and hold a light dumbbell in your left hand, resting on the floor. Slowly lift the weight toward your torso and lower it. For external rotations, switch the weight to your right hand and hold it across your stomach, keeping that elbow pinned to your side. Now slowly swing your forearm away from your body, pivoting at the shoulder, as far as possible. Complete three sets of 15 reps of each exercise for each shoulder.
Shoulders and ankles are the snowboarder’s blessing and curse. They rotate every which way to help you maneuver; they strain every which way, too. “When snowboarders fall, they use their shoulders like brakes — translating into dislocations,” says Heath Van Aken, conditioning coach for the U.S. Snowboarding Team. Since we have precious little control over crashing, Van Aken recommends strengthening the more than a dozen muscles of the shoulder with arm raises. The ankles present a different problem: little muscle, lots of vulnerable ligaments and tendons. The solution? Strengthening the anchors of that connective tissue — the lower leg muscles — with a rubber strap. “Work those ankles in every direction,” he says.
Frontal and lateral arm raise (strengthens shoulders). Standing relaxed with a light dumbbell in each hand, lift your right arm straight ahead of you over a three count until it’s parallel to the floor, palm down. Return it to your side over a five count. Do three sets of 15 with each arm. Perform equal sets of lateral arm raises, in which you lift the dumbbells straight-armed to each side.
Ankle flex (lower legs). Sit in a chair, loop one end of a four-foot length of surgical tubing around your right forefoot, and anchor the other to a fixed object at your side — a table leg will do. With the band taut, simply work your right ankle by moving the forefoot away from the anchor point like a wiper blade. Do 20 reps. In subsequent sets, reposition the chair so you can flex your ankle from each side, up and down (sit and hold your leg straight out for this one), and on the diagonal. Then switch ankles.
V-up (entire torso). Lie flat on your back, with your legs straight and arms extended overhead. With equal effort from the lower and upper torso, smoothly lift both halves of your body until your palms and feet touch — or at least come close. You’ve arrived when you can balance like a jackknife. Do two sets of 20.
“Whenever I start doing lunges again, I think about my competition and say to myself, ‘I’m going to kick some butt,'” says two-time U.S. national telemark champ Jennifer Ledger. Her preparation for such promising feats is the same each fall because a certain exercise — the lunge — all but replicates the telly turn. Consequently, Ledger performs some 80 lunges per session. They’ll not only work your major leg muscles, but also improve balance and strengthen the hip flexors, which help you switch feet in each turn. For those who also ski up the slopes, biceps curls will give you a stronger pole-push. Crunches, too, will improve your ascending.
Curl (strengthens biceps). Sitting bolt upright in a chair, hold a dumbbell at each side. Without compromising your posture, and without swinging the weights, slowly curl one barbell toward your shoulder; alternate sides. Do three sets of ten.
Walking lunge (legs, butt, and hips). Hold five-pound dumbbells with your arms dangling at each side and, walking from one end of a large room, dip into a lunge on each stride. Keep your torso upright, bring your hips up and forward, and tense the hamstring on your trailing leg for a sturdy stance. Ultimately, your leading leg should bend 90 degrees at the knee, ideally with the knee directly above your toes. Do three sets of twenty paces each.
Crunch (torso and hips). Lying on your back with your feet flat on the floor and shoulder-width apart, fold your arms across your chest. Leading with the stomach muscles — not the neck or thighs — slowly bring your nose and knees toward each other. Repeat without resting your feet on the ground — it’s OK to touch your shoulder blades. Do three sets of 15.
Andrew Tilin is a former senior editor of Outside.