Power on Ice

From youth leagues to college club teams, figure skating is a growing sport. Training programs must focus on core and unilateral strength in various vectors, as well as balance and stability.

By Brian Grasso

Brian Grasso is Director of Developing Athletics and author of the book and DVD series, Complete Functional Conditioning. He has trained numerous members of the figure skating and synchronized skating community including the Haydenettes (13-time United States National Champions) and Ice Infiniti (2000 International Champions).

Training & Conditioning, 13.5, July/August 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1305/ice.htm

Most of us are familiar with the elite level of figure skating. We’ve seen singles and pairs perform in Winter Olympics and other international competitions. But what you may be less familiar with is figure skating at the non-elite level.

More and more youth are getting involved in their local skating clubs and many colleges and universities now offer club figure skating teams on their campuses. Along with singles and pairs competitions, these clubs offer synchronized team skating, which could be described as synchronized swimming on ice: a team of 12 to 20 figure skaters perform as a group and are judged on technical merit and presentation.

Ice skating is a dynamic sport unlike any other, and developing a program is a challenge for two reasons. One, the sport combines the need for balance at high speeds with difficult body movements. Two, many in the youth figure skating world simply don’t know a lot about functional training and are resistant to its ideas. But these two challenges can be overcome with some education and a well thought-out program.

Multilateral Development
While many traditionalists in the sport still prescribe basic exercises such as the bench press, squat, and lat pulldown, supplemented with off-ice versions of on-ice skills, I believe a more functional program is the way to properly train figure skaters. The key to working with young athletes in any sport is to promote mobility, stability, and balance in conjunction with force. Especially with the demands of figure skating, young athletes need to have a virtual warehouse of athletic based skills in order to reach optimal levels. This is achieved by moving and stabilizing the body through various planes and producing force through various vectors.

If they are doing little more than basic fitness and on-ice type movements, they are not furthering their athletic growth. The nervous system of a young athlete is malleable and requires input to develop optimally. For example, two prominent figure skaters, Kurt Browning and Elvis Stoiko, played ice hockey and performed martial arts, respectively. I’ve found that diversity contributes to athletic success in skating. (This is a hard pill to swallow within the world of figure skating due to the fact that many coaches, parents, and trainers are interested in concentrating only on skating with young kids with the hopes of national and international success.)

Key Movements
During a program, skaters will be standing and in motion the entire time—at least that’s the hope! Thus, balance is very important. They also require a great degree of multiplanar support in order to stabilize themselves as they go from jumping to bending down to flexing from the waist in order to spin. The strength output is carried through a variety of vectors, and requires the upper and lower body to work together synergistically through the core.

Training the reflex profile is also very important in figure skating. As noted by Paul Chek in his book Movement That Matters, one of the characteristics that makes any exercise functional to a particular task or sport is the reflex profile involved. Reflexes are activated as a means of protecting ourselves from falling or being struck by an oncoming object and can be sub-grouped into righting reactions and equilibrium reactions.

Righting reactions serve the role of keeping the head in a biomechanically normal position, correcting the body to a normal position, and adjusting body parts in relation to the head. Equilibrium reactions, on the other hand, are intended to maintain or regain control of our center of gravity.

Righting reactions are often most dominant when we move across a fixed/stable surface. Equilibrium reactions are more involved when the surface we are on is moving (e.g., riding a horse or water skiing). Figure skaters are in need of both righting and equilibrium reactions in order to perform and train optimally.

Therefore, figure skaters need to be developed via multilateral disciplines. Everything from balance, to range of motion activities, to force production needs to occur in different planes, at different speeds and with varied stimuli.

Unilateral & Core Strength
While training balance and reactions, strength should not be forgotten. Two of the primary concerns with regards to a figure skater’s off-ice strength program are the development of unilateral strength and functional core stability.

While unilateral strength plays a role in most all sports, it is very dominant in figure skating since skating stride and on-ice power are produced unilaterally. A key element possessed by successful figure skaters is the ability to produce a great deal of force unilaterally while maintaining an ever-changing center of balance. Therefore, lower body strength drills programmed into the routine of a figure skater should be done as single leg activities. Two-footed strength exercises simply do not replicate the force production required by on-ice activities, nor do they promote any degree of balance, proprioception, or athletic development.

Of secondary importance when prescribing unilateral strengthening exercises is the positioning of the “free leg.” With single leg squats, for example, the free leg can be either held straight out in front, straight out to the side, or in a hip flexion/external rotation position. With the leg straight out in front, you are essentially stabilizing through a sagittal plane. Straight out to the side involves frontal stability, and the hip flexion/external rotation incorporates transverse stability. The ability to produce force and stability through all three planes is crucial to figure skaters. Each jump and spin within the context of on-ice skill involves mild to dramatic changes in plane.

Unilateral strength activities could include: single leg squats (with a ranging free leg and varied depth), step-ups (weighted or otherwise), lunge sequences and patterns (promoting different angles and involving locomotion) and single leg balance touches. With balance touches, it is important to vary the angle at which the athlete is performing the touch.

Core strength and stability must also be emphasized in the strength program. The core has obvious application to overall strength, providing stability to the body while the periphery is in motion. The core musculature is also the transfer point from force produced in the lower or upper body into actual movement. Simply stated, if you spend a great deal of time training the power and force capabilities of the lower or upper body, but significantly less time on the core, then the force you are able to create in either extremity cannot be transferred into optimal movement.

With jump take-offs, for example, the legs and arms are used to propel off the ice and initiate rotation of the jump. The core needs to be strong and efficient in order to combine efforts of the upper and lower extremities, control rotation during the jump, stop rotation at the appropriate time, and stabilize the arm and leg positions during the landing/check-out.

As with unilateral exercises, it’s important to train the core from several different vectors. As Juan Carlos Santana points out in his book, Functional Training, over 85 percent of the musculature in the core region is oriented either horizontally or diagonally. This means that these muscles are designed almost specifically for rotational strength and stability. If you examine the biomechanics of on-ice movements, you can see immediate application and need for rotational strength and stability—rotational jumps, rotational spins, skating on curves, and changing rapidly from one curve to the next all require functional rotational strength and stability.

Program Suggestions
The off-season for a figure skater is the best time to maximize their strength and conditioning needs. Alwyn Cosgrove, a conditioning expert and off-ice coach to Beebe Lang, who finished sixth at this past Junior World Championships, defines the proper sequence as: flexibility before stability, stability before strength, strength before power.

In developing programs for figure skaters, I normally start with ROM activities, progress to balance drills, and add in unstabling exercises. Next is core strength, then unilateral exercises, followed by upper body drills. Finally, I add dynamic flexibility. See Table One (below) for more details.

Whether you’re working one-on-one with an aspiring young figure skater or with a club team at your university, the key is using exercises that work in multiple planes at different speeds and with varied stimuli. With multilateral strength and balance, their on-ice practices will be much more effective and efficient, and their competitive scores will soar.

Table One: Offseason Program

1. ROM activities:
Hip flexion
Hip extension
Hip external rotation

2. Rapid ROM:
High knees
Butt kicks

3. Balance activities:
Scramble to balance
Toe walking
Single leg balance holds
Jump rope with movement
Somersault to jump

4. Unstabling exercises:
BOSU ball
Swiss ball
Wobble board

5. Core:
Medicine ball twists
Russian Twists

6. Unilateral exercises:
Single leg balance touch
Single leg squats
Romanian Deadlifts

7. Upper body strength:
Variation push-ups
Dive Bombers

8. Dynamic flexibility:
Speed based ROM
Leg swings