Cardio vs Weights: Which Is Best For Ski Fitness?

Both cardiovascular and resistance training are beneficial for total skiing fitness but what if you had to only choose one? Personal Trainer and keen skier, Steve Theunissen, weighs up the pros and cons...

Steve Theunissen joined his first gym at age 15 and, five years later, was managing his own studio. In 1987, he became the first personal fitness trainer in New Zealand. Over the past decade, he has built a freelance writing career to share his fitness passion with the world. He skis every year in Queenstown or Coronet Peak, NZ

Looking to take your skiing to another level? Then it’s important to pay attention to your fitness.

Both cardiovascular and resistance training are beneficial for total skiing fitness. If you only had to choose one, however, you should opt for weight training. That’s because you’re able to adapt your weights workouts to add a cardio element. In that way, you’re covering both your aerobic and anaerobic fitness needs in the one workout.

I’ve been both a passionate skier and a personal fitness trainer for more than three decades. Over that time, I’ve trained people of all ages, shapes, and sizes over the summer months to prepare them for the winter slopes.

In this article, I’ll bring together what I’ve learned about cardio and weight training for skiing. My goal is to give you the most important takeaways so that you can maximise your skiing fitness level.

The Physical Demands of Skiing

Darren Turner carving skier

Ski coach, Darren Turner

There are seven key things that your body has to do when skiing:

  1. Generate force
  2. Manage tension
  3. Maintain stamina
  4. Exert muscular endurance
  5. Maintain core control isometrically
  6. Maintain eccentric control of the core
  7. Breathe efficiently

How Cardio Helps Ski Fitness

Cardiovascular fitness is also known as aerobic fitness. It relates to the ability of the body to utilise oxygen when it is moving. The heart, lungs, muscles, and lungs must all work together to promote cardiovascular efficiency.

Cardiovascular endurance is a vital aspect of total fitness. It will help you to sustain aerobic exercise and is an indication of the health of your heart and lungs. The more cardiovascular endurance you have, the more efficiently your heart is able to pump oxygenated blood to your muscles.

Skiing puts large demands on your cardiovascular system. Blood circulation and cardiac function will be increased. However, the level of cardiac demand depends on the snowing conditions.

If you're simply gliding down a gentle slope, there won’t be too much aerobic demand. But when you’re having to contend with soft deep powder, your cardio demand is going to go way up.

skiing powder

Ski Editor, Bing in the pow

Regardless of the conditions, spending a day on the slopes will give you a good cardio workout. Skiing, though, usually represents what is known as interval cardio. That is when you do quick bursts at high intensity followed by rest periods.

Cardio Skiing Workout

Doing cardio training in the off or pre-season will prepare you for the cardiovascular demands you’ll encounter on the slopes. Performing high-intensity interval training has been my preferred method to prepare my personal training clients for the cardio demands of skiing. And, no, not every cardio workout has to involve running.

Here’s a sample cardio workout for skiers using a rowing machine:

rowing machine for skiing
  • 2-minute warm-up at moderate intensity
  • 30 seconds max intensity row
  • 30 seconds recovery row
  • Repeat for 8-10 rounds
  • 2-minute warm-down at moderate intensity

This is a demanding workout, even though it is quite short. Your body will take up to 24 hours for normal metabolic functioning to return. For that reason, you should leave a 48-hour minimum gap before repeating the workout.

Why Do Weight Training for Ski Fitness?

weight lifting for skiing

Weight training is a form of resistance exercise designed to strengthen and build muscles. It can also help to develop muscular endurance.

Muscular endurance is closely linked to the concept of physical stamina - the ability to sustain an activity for a prolonged period. The more stamina you have, the greater your ability for your muscles to handle a day on the slopes.

It is possible to lose weight without cardio, when you have the right weight training routine.

Skiing mainly works the lower body muscles. The following muscles will get a good workout when you ski:

  • Gluteus Maximus
  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps
  • Calves
  • Tibialis

Weight training can strengthen each of these muscles. This will improve their ability to meet the demands of skiing.

Your core muscles are also heavily involved in skiing. The core acts as the body’s stabilizer. It helps you to maintain your balance and agility as you move down the slopes. The stronger your abdominals, intercostals, obliques, and erector spinae muscles, the better they will be able to do this.

Your forearms will also get a good workout on the slopes, especially poling or cross-country skiing. The stronger they are, the less fatigued your lower arms will be after a skiing session.

If you're looking for the best adjustable dumbbells for your ski weights workout, then check out this thorough research.

Individualised vs Functional Weight Training for Skiers

Weight training will make you a better skier. But not all types of weight training are equally beneficial.

I see a lot of skiers hitting the gym during the off-season. Many of them follow a bodybuilder-type routine where they perform isolation exercises for their muscles. Their routine might include squats, leg extensions, leg curls, glute bridges and calf raises.

Those exercises will strengthen the individual lower body muscles. However, skiing does not work the muscles in isolation. They work together as a functional dynamic whole. So, your training should simulate that type of movement.

Doing individual strength exercises will get your leg muscles stronger for skiing. But working them as a cohesive unit with functional training will help you to develop more than strength. Your muscles will be primed to fire together and act as a holistic unit to carry you down the side of the mountain.

Which is Better for Ski Fitness: Cardio or Weights?

Weight training is better for ski fitness than cardio. It will allow you to develop the muscular strength and endurance to cope with the demands of skiing.

Also, there is a spill-over cardio benefit from weight training that does not work the other way. So, focusing on weight training will also help to improve your cardio fitness.

Skiing in itself will develop your cardiovascular fitness. It will not, though, improve your muscular strength or endurance very much. In other words, the activity of skiing itself will largely cover your aerobic fitness needs but not your anaerobic needs.

Combining Cardio and Weights for Ski Fitness

At the end of the day, the debate between cardio and weight training for skiing does not have to come down to a ‘this or that’ choice. You should be doing both. Fortunately, there is a way to combine them into a single workout.

Functional fitness training is the best way to combine cardio and weight training for skiers. It is the method that I have been using to get my personal training clients in top shape to take on the slopes for the last couple of decades.

Functional fitness involves working multiple joints and muscles at the same time. The exercises are designed to simulate real-world activity. They will develop strength, agility, balance, and endurance.

Functional fitness exercises are, also, more aerobically demanding than standard weight training exercises. These exercises will get you swinging, jumping, running, and pushing. That will have you puffing as your heart is forced to pump more oxygen around your body.

Here are three of my favourite functional training exercises for skiers.

Tyre Smash

The Tyre Smash is a great functional move that simulates chopping wood. As well as developing core strength, it will strengthen the entire posterior chain. It is also a very good way to burn calories. Try doing it for a minute straight, counting the number of times you hit the tyre. The next time you do it, strive to improve on that number.

  1. Position yourself a few feet away from a large tractor tyre and take hold of a sledgehammer with one hand towards the end of the handle and the other close to the hammer head.
  2. Swing the hammer around behind your head in an arcing move and then down to smash into the tyre. The power should come from your thighs and lats. Perform 12 reps on either side of the tyre.

Turkish Getup

The Turkish Getup is one of the best full-body functional moves I have ever come across. It combines, core arm and lower body’s strength with balance, coordination and agility.

This is a challenging exercise. Be patient with yourself as you work to improve your ability to perform it.

  1. Lie on the floor on your right side with a kettlebell alongside. Stack your knees and shoulders and bend your knees to a 90-degree angle.
  2. Take hold of the kettlebell with your right hand and pull it to your chest. Then hold it with the left hand also.
  3. Roll onto your back then straighten your left leg, keeping the right leg bent but driving the right foot into the floor.
  4. Press the kettlebell overhead so that it is above the right shoulder.
  5. Plant your left hand on the floor, palm down.
  6. Roll onto your left forearm. Straighten your left elbow to bring your body up. Simultaneously lift your hips off the floor.
  7. Bring your left knee under your left hip to come to a half-kneeling position.
  8. Bring the right leg forward to be in a bottom lunge position.
  9. Push through the front thigh and hip t rise to a standing position.
  10. Reverse your movements to return to the seated position.
  11. Do 3 sets of 5 reps.

Wall Balls

The Wall Ball is a plyometric functional exercise that will improve your lower body explosiveness while also providing an excellent cardio workout.

  1. Position yourself about four feet (a metre and half) from a wall and hold a medicine ball in your hands at chest level with a forward pass grip.
  2. Descend into a quarter squat to load the body. Now follow through to propel the ball toward the wall.
  3. Catch the ball on the rebound and move directly into the next rep.

Another way to combine cardio and weight training is with a kettlebell circuit.

Why Functional Training Works for Ski Fitness 

Weight training will provide you with the best bang for your buck in terms of ski fitness. However functional training, which combines the two, but still puts the emphasis on resistance training, effectively combines the two. Start with the three functional exercises described above, doing them as a circuit for 4-5 rounds.

Also, check out how to skip, squat, hula hoop or vibrate your way to ski and snowboard fitness and protection against injury.

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