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Strengthening the Arms for Faster Pole Recovery

Mon, May  21, 2007 - By Craig Storey

The original version of Craig Storey articles appears on the excellent web site and is reprinted by permission. I think he makes a great point that many people miss: faster poling - and faster skiing - depends on the quickness of the recovery phase as well as the push phase.

Physiologists estimate that when skating uphill your upper body does 60-70% of the work. In classic skiing, the upper body/lower body workload ratio is a bit more balanced when diagonal striding uphill but the upper body carries the burden almost exclusively when the terrain flattens out and you double pole. So it's obviously very important for cross-country skiers to work on strengthening their upper bodies to be efficient poling machines.

The poling movement in skiing can be broken down into two separate phases: the PUSH and the RECOVERY. Quite simply, during the PUSH you apply force to your poles to propel yourself forward and during the recovery you stand up straight and get your hands back out in front of you to PUSH again.

Skiers must spend lots of time working the muscles of the shoulders, back, stomach and arms that power the PUSH phase. But you shouldn't forget to strengthen the RECOVERY phase too!

This may sound counter-intuitive; stronger recovery? Aren't you just resting during the recovery? No! You should be thinking about getting your hands back out in front of you as fast as possible. By doing so you can pole at a higher tempo, PUSH more often and go faster. It's the same as in a running sprint, your tempo and speed are controlled by how fast you RECOVER your hands. With that in mind here are a few drills that I find really help develop speedy hands.

Warm-up: Fast Arm Swings...
As a warm-up and to remind yourself of the movements you want to strengthen, I suggest you do some simulated classic arm swinging. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, just like skiing. Now swing your arms like you were classic skiing gradually building up speed until it's as fast as you can go while maintaining some control. Example? Watch the video.

A few technical points to keep in mind...

  • Try to lean forward as you do this.
  • Your hand shouldn't come any higher than your face.
  • Extend your arm. Start by rolling your shoulder forward and then reaching.
  • The arm doesn't swing forward straight but rather bends before it reaches.

Single Pole Weighted Arm Swings...
Now add light weights to the above arm swinging. Use 1, 2 or 5lbs weights depending on your strength. You can substitute weights for cans of soup or rocks. Holding the weights tightly in your hands, swing your arms forward quickly. You will need to stop the weights from going above your head and then PUSH through at your normal poling pace. Make the RECOVERY as quick as possible. Do 1 minute on, shake your arms out and repeat a few times. It's best to do this with nothing in front of you in case the weights slip out of your hands. See the video.

Single pole weighted arm swings

Single pole weighted arm swings

Double Pole Weighted Arm Swings...
Next simulate double poling. Again, you can start without weights just to get used to the movement. Try to bend your knees a bit at the end of the push, as you would if you were on skis. Bring your hands through fast on the RECOVERY as you stand up. Again, make sure you control the weight and stop your hands from going too high at the end of the RECOVERY. Likewise you shouldn't PUSH the weights past your hips, and try to stop them as soon as they go past. When you swing the weights you will notice they pull you into standing up straight, which is the correct body position. If you really go at this hard enough you will come off your feet, just like in a skiing sprint. Be careful you don't end up on your face or let go of those weights. Best to do these outdoors! Watch the video.

Double pole weighted arm swings

Double pole weighted arm swings

Inclined Bench Arm Raises, Single and Double...
These you can do in your weight program. Here you can use more weight than the swinging drills. Dumbbells are best here, and start with
5-10lbs and progress from there. Lying on your back on an inclined bench at 45° alternately, like classic skiing, raise each dumbbell to just over your face. Do 10-15 and then repeat lifting both dumbbells at once, like in double poling or skating.

Other ideas that you could incorporate sparingly into you program...

  • You can do the arm swinging with bungee cords attached to a wall behind you, but then you don't have to control the PUSH phase so I find weights are better.
  • If you have an old pair of Aluminum or heavier poles you could occasionally use them during part of a double poling ski. Concentrate on fast arm RECOVERY, not on PUSHing fast.
  • During the summer we sometimes rollerski using light weights on our wrists. Not more than 1-2lbs per arm. You can find these at second hand stores as leftovers from back when the aerobics fad was popular.
  • Opposite arm single poling on downhills. Here you use the motion your arms do when diagonal striding, while keeping your legs straight. Do this while RECOVERing the hands as quickly as you can down the hill. It's not technically strength, but it will get you used to RECOVERING the hands fast.


So have I beaten it into your head that you should work on RECOVERING your hands faster? Give these drills and strength exercises a try and watch how they help your poling. I'm not going to go as far as saying that you should exclusively work on RECOVERY muscles, but you should work a few of theses into your strength workouts. Now, the muscles used to RECOVER the poles aren't all that big (yet) so these exercises should be done with lighter weights, but at a quick tempo. As always, start light and ease into things or you'll be sore or get injured.

People have asked which weight training exercises they should do to really pump-up their poling. The fact is double poling isn't about pure strength unless you are doing it up a very steep hill. It's about everything working together to transfer momentum to your poles. In terms of improving your double pole, you might really want to consider doing double poling workouts on rollerskis and also using a roller board. You'll see bigger gains from these more specific training methods than weights alone.

Here are some reviews of good books that are related to skiing specific strength and core stability. There are lots more ideas in these books that you might incorporate into your poling (PUSH and RECOVERY) strength routines...

Armit: Power for Poling

The New Steady Ski for Nordic Athletes

Also, head over to XC Ottawa's Training section for other great training tips.