Are you watching the Olympics? I certainly am. One of the marquee sports of every Winter Olympic Games is figure skating. As a student of the human body and the ways it moves, I’ve come to appreciate just how difficult it really is.
The technical demands of the art are one aspect, like any sort of dancing or performance art; the athleticism required for the jumps and spins of the sport is another. Try jumping as high as you can, spinning as fast as you can, and landing with grace and precision, on one foot attached to a razor-thin blade time after time—that’s hard.
Figure skaters truly are athletes, and the sport itself has nail-biting and intense moments. Just a few days ago, the pair of Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot won the pairs competition by just 0.53 of a point. It was the first gold medal for Savchenko, who has been going to the Olympics for 16 years! You can’t tell me that the moments before they found out they clinched the gold wasn’t nerve-wracking; it was on full display for an international audience to see. It only added to the elation of the winning pair; if you’re looking for athleticism, drama, and spectacle, figure skating’s got it.
The training required of an elite figure skater probably rivals that of any professional athlete in any of the more popular sports like baseball, basketball, football, etc. Early mornings and late nights practicing on the ice. Lots of time spent in the gym. And the nutrition of champions to support those demands.
Training like a figure skater or any athlete, for that matter, can transform your body, fitness, and physical condition. What you might not understand is the other ways that figure skating can transform your body, for better or worse. These transformations can directly affect the way that skaters should train for their sport off the ice.
Figure skating requires a litany of extreme positions, akin to those of dancers and gymnasts. It’s common to see skaters hyperextend their backs for Biellmann spins or layback spins. The ability to do splits are a must, as in “I” spins. Skaters will regularly bring their non-skating leg over their hips or even their head. This is just scratching the surface of the mobility requirements for skaters!
These positions don’t just occur naturally, although having a predisposition for hypermobility, or being “naturally flexible”, does help. You will typically find that skaters can demonstrate extreme hip flexion (lifting up the leg), external rotation (turning out the toes), and abduction (lifting up the leg to the side). Soft tissue laxity, or “flexibility”, can also be acquired by starting at a young age. Skating can actually morph bone and connective tissue, especially of the hip, spine, and pelvis. This natural and acquired flexibility makes these positions easier for seasoned skaters to achieve. You just don’t see high-level figure skaters who picked up the sport later in life; by then, it’s already too late to acquire the mobility you would need.
There’s also a reason why so many skaters retire from the sport early. Besides the intense dedication it would take over a lifetime to be successful, figure skating and the extreme positions required for it wear you down and leave you more prone to injury.
Being flexible enough to be a figure skater is both a blessing and a curse. It makes it easier to achieve the positions necessary for the sport. However, it is common to have little control over your joints in these extreme ranges of motion. This results in instability, impingement, and at worst, injury. Ligament and labrum tears are common, necessitating surgery of the hips, knees, or ankles.
The summary from this study says it best:
“…Flexibility athletes with hip pain are a challenging population because of the extreme ROM requirements for their sports and compensatory soft tissue laxity. As a result, they are able to place their hips in impinging positions even in the setting of normal osseous anatomy and often have combinations of impingement and instability. These hips are complex, and decision making is challenging; however, if these athletes are appropriately evaluated and treated, return to play at a high frequency can be expected.”
That’s why it’s important to have seamless integration between training, sports medicine, and physical therapy if you want to be a high-level figure skater. High performance means high injury risk, and a training model that links all those elements up can decrease the time spent in rehab, increase the chance of returning to full force after injury, and even prevent these injuries in the first place through proper fitness traning. This is the exact model that we have here at Halevy Life.
Of course, let’s not forget about how the training (in the gym) to be a figure skater can transform your body, either. The good news is that you don’t need to be remarkably flexible to do it!
When it comes to training, we can learn a lot from how ice hockey athletes train and apply them to figure skating. The physical demands of skating on ice are obviously similar for both. So are the injury risks. Generally speaking, as hockey players age, they become more and more likely to develop femoral-acetabular impingement (FAI) and hip labral tears.
FAI causes anterior hip pain, or pain in the front of the hip. It’s when there’s an overgrowth of bone in the hip joint, either in the femur (thigh bone), the hip socket, or both. This can cause pain in the hip, limit hip flexion beyond 90 degrees, and cause wear and tear of the hip labrum, leading to labral tears. Not fun.
Thus, when it comes to training for figure skaters (and hockey players), there are some general rules to follow:
- Focus more on deadlifting (hip-dominant movement) over squatting (quad-dominant movement). Squatting will be limited by FAI, making it different for skaters to flex their hips past 90 degrees. There’s also perhaps no better way to build explosive and healthy hips than deadlifts!
- More emphasis on glute strength. The glutes will aid in hip extension, which contributes to the explosiveness needed for the big jumps and spins that are paramount to the sport.
- More emphasis on single-leg work. Lunges, 1-leg RDLs, Bulgarian Split-squats, you name it. Skating on one leg and landing on one foot is mandatory for the sport. Single-leg work is also friendlier on the spine, as lower loads are typically used. It also helps skaters develop the ankle stability and control necessary to land from big jumps and spins without toppling over.
At Halevy Life, we’re big believers that proper exercise technique can help to prevent injury. It’s something we see time and time again: being strong injury-proofs the body. This applies to both figure skaters and the general population.
The good news is that for those of us in the general population, this sort of approach can provide ANYONE with a proper foundation in their strength and fitness pursuits. Many of these exercises are compound movements that work through multiple joints. If you want to transform your body, training like a figure skater is not a bad way to start!
Wrapping it up
Figure skating can transform the body in ways that may not be desirable for long-term health, particularly when it comes to flexibility. However, proper training specific to the demands of skating can also transform the body, even helping figure skaters stay on the ice for longer by making them stronger and preventing injury. This robust training approach can be applied to other athletes as well, or even those of us who don’t skate, resulting in positive health, fitness, and physique changes.
- Weber, Alexander E. et al. “The Hyperflexible Hip: Managing Hip Pain in the Dancer and Gymnast.” Sports Health 7.4 (2015): 346–358. PMC. Web. 17 Feb. 2018.
by Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach and Metabolic Lab Manager at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.