FeatureResourcesTechniqueTrainingWorkoutsSkiErg Training: Training Considerations and Technique

Ned DowlingApril 4, 2022

I hate rollerskiing. As much as I try to be a good Nordie, I just can’t get over my fear of hitting the pavement. Between a history of bike racing and the rollerski learning curve, I’ve already lost enough skin. I know it’s good for me and might make me faster on snow, but I’m too old to put up with my heart rate being affected more by fear-induced adrenaline than by quality training.

My legs and lungs get plenty of work all summer from running, cycling, and strength training, but my typical dryland routine does little for the arms. I’ve tried to swim, but I haven’t progressed past drinking half the pool. 

A few years ago, I set up some resistance bands to train the arms for double poling. After developing triceps tendinopathy, taking a snapped band to the crotch, and generally finding the bands to be either too hard or too easy, I realized my workouts were far from ideal. 

(Photo: Concept2.com)

What the bands gain from their price-point, they yield in utility. By their nature, the more you stretch a band, the more resistance it provides. This is the opposite of what happens with poling on snow, where the greatest resistance (or force requirement) takes place near the beginning of the pushing phase and decreases through the end of each cycle. 

Staring in the face of another hot (and smoky) summer, I splurged on a Concept2 SkiErg last spring. Thus, I was immediately able to avoid rollerskiing (without feeling guilty) while simultaneously shielding myself from the heat and poor air quality. Solved were the resistance bands’ problems of poor adjustability and inverse force curve. This utility continued during the purgatory of shoulder season in the fall, and carried me through the local trails’ annual mid-season melt out here in Salt Lake City. 

Cool tool. What do I do with it?

For some expert information, I asked Miles Havlick, head Nordic coach for the reigning NCAA national champion University of Utah Ski Team, some questions about how they incorporate the SkiErg into their training. 

What are your typical resistance settings? What’s the max you’ll use?

We almost always use the max resistance setting of 10 during SkiErg workouts. The majority of the time we do sprint type workouts on the SkiErg machines with interval lengths of less than 5-minutes in duration. However, during longer sessions we will lower the resistance in order to keep the intensity lower.

Author’s comment: 10 is hard! Keep in mind these are elite skiers. In a video blog from Jens Burman, he notes that his max resistance is 7. 

Better for easy, Z1-2 endurance or higher intensity intervals?

In my opinion, it is better for high intensity sessions targeting more anaerobic or strength training. Although the muscles are fairly similar to actually double poling, we prefer to perform longer L1 sessions on rollerskis which offers more variety in terrain and more closely resembles double poling on snow.

Author’s comment: In my opinion, pavement hurts more than snow and I haven’t lost any skin to L1 sessions on the SkiErg.

Head coach of the University of Utah nordic team, Miles Havlick (far right), was named RMISA coach of the year in 2021 following a record setting season for the Utes. (Photo: utahutes.com)

Do you cue or work on technique during SkiErg sessions?

We certainly do. It is easy to get higher power numbers when using techniques that are not as effective on snow, however, we are training to be better on snow. Therefore, we are always trying to emulate the most effective on-snow double pole technique on the SkiErg machines.

Author’s comment: more on this below.

Do you incorporate drills like balancing on one leg or BOSU?

We have played around with it but we do not regularly utilize this. It is effective for making L1 workouts more interesting, however during higher intensity bouts, it seems to detract from the quality and focus of the on-snow movements that we are trying to emulate.

Training sessions on the SkiErg can cover both ends of polarized training with the capacity for both longer duration, low intensity workouts with emphasis on metabolic efficiency and for shorter, high intensity intervals to work power. 

SkiErg Technique

While perhaps the best indoor replacement, pulling on the SkiErg is definitely not the same as poling on snow or rollerskis. The notable difference is the lack of balance with a forward trunk lean. Without bindings and the ski to counterbalance, there is much more tendency to fall forward on your face. Or, perhaps, more tendency to sit back so you don’t fall on your face. This is a likely reason why coaches can be critical of spending too much time on a SkiErg, with a nod toward the potential non-ski-specific movements Havlick alluded to when he commented that they are always attentive to form.  

With that in mind, there are absolutely some technique fundamentals that can be reinforced on the SkiErg. 

A pair of Craftsbury Green Racing Project athletes complete a 1k time trial on the SkiErg in November, 2014. (Photo: GreenRacingProject.com)
The Arms

The monotony repetition of the poling motion creates a great opportunity to reinforce some key components:

  • Hands high: don’t be lazy, get those hands up
  • Elbows fairly fixed with short swings under higher resistance (think uphill double pole or V1)
  • Elbows extend with long swings under lower resistance (think fast V2 or V2 alternate)
  • Smooth on the power: like starting a car from a dead stop but getting up to speed quickly – if you just stomp on it, the wheels will spin. With poling, we want to achieve peak force quickly but smoothly; setting the poles, then delivering power to them as the upper body drops powerfully onto the poles and the pole angle decreases to deliver the force behind the skier as a push off, versus just stabbing the poles as hard as we can into snow. The latter strategy does not propel forward motion as the peak force is directed into the ground, which incurs vibrational losses in the pole shaft, and robs the system of energy before the pole angle changes toward one more effective for force delivery. 

 

The Hips

“Hips high” might be one of the more overused and less understood cues in Nordic skiing. Without digging too deeply here, the basic premise while on the SkiErg is starting the poling motion from a tall position. As the body compresses with the arm pull, hinge at the hips and ankles. Then, focus on quickly getting back to the tall start position by extending the hips via contraction of the glutes (aka “squeeze your butt cheeks”). Your knees should be relaxed and bend slightly on each cycle, but you’ll want to avoid significant knee bending as it likely indicates that you are sitting back too much. I’ve personally found that one of the biggest gains I’ve found on snow is through focusing on quickly returning to the high hands and hips start position, over and over and over on the Erg.

As much as high intensity double poling is a full body effort (not just the arms), in skiing it is more about movement across the hips and ankles vs the knees. In CrossFit gyms, this is not necessarily the case. They are after maximum generation of force, not skiing efficiently. Please don’t do this.

Balance

While Havlick mentioned that they rarely incorporate balance drills into SkiErg sessions, I think they can be very useful for reinforcing single leg stability, especially if there is a specific component to address like foot pressure distribution, ankle dorsiflexion, or lateral weight shifts from the hips. As with any balance exercise, it is generally more beneficial to work on consistently accomplishing appropriate balance on the floor before moving on to an unstable surface like a BOSU or Dynadisc.

Visual learner? Here’s a helpful video on the CXC Facebook page with Eliska Albrigtsen, former CXC head coach who now leads the University of Alaska Fairbanks team

Looking for more? Find a 2017 Wednesday Workout with Sadie Bjornsen here, featuring 30 minutes of 30/30’s on the SkiErg.

Doublepole form on display at the start of the 4×5-kilometer relay in Lillehammer. Hailey Swirbul (bib 3) skis the scramble leg for the U.S. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Author’s Disclosure: Concept 2, manufacturers of the SkiErg, is a sponsor of FasterSkier; however, I purchased mine at full price before I was affiliated with this fine website. In addition to the SkiErg, Abilica makes a very similar device. The Italian company Ercolina makes an upper body ergometer that has the advantage of being much more compact and portable, but it is also more expensive and very hard to find in the US.  

Ned Dowling

Ned lives in Salt Lake City, UT where his motto has become, “Came for the powder skiing, stayed for the Nordic.” He is a Physical Therapist at the University of Utah and a member of the US Ski Team medical pool. He can be contacted at ned.dowling@hsc.utah.edu.

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