Shannon Bahrke knows a thing or two about being in shape. The three-time Olympic skier (and two-time Olympic medalist!) has made her career on the slopes. As a twelve-year member of the US National Freestyle Ski Team and winner of numerous titles at World and National Championships, Shannon is the model for what it means to be in exceptional shape and how to have a great time doing it.
Training to be an Olympian is no small feat, especially in a sport as demanding and technical as freestyle skiing. Imagine careening down a 275-meter mogul field (that’s about 2.5 football fields), performing tricks off two jumps and—on top of all of that—trying to do it as quickly as possible. An Olympic skier completes this run in about 30 seconds. It takes enormous strength, flexibility, anaerobic capacity and balance, not to mention a finely tuned fast-twitch muscle response.
So what does it take to achieve this level of fitness, apart from practice, practice, practice? We caught up with Shannon to find out how you can train like an Olympian and feel amazing, even if you’re not hitting the slopes. We’ve also compiled some of Classpass’ finest studios to help you in the right direction, combining their top-notch training methods with Shannon’s uber-professional wisdom.
What are the most important muscle groups to develop as a skier?
“This is the muscle group that works the most and fatigues first if not properly prepared,” Shannon told us. Just think of how much weight you put into your quads when you’re in a wall sit. Now imagine doing a wall sit while moving down a bumpy hill. “As skiers, we train for endurance, quickness and strength. All are integral parts of skiing fast over varied terrain for up to five minutes to get from the top of the run to the bottom.”
Shannon recommends a basic back squat, a seated leg press (using a machine) or a single-leg pistol squat to help build quad strength. If you’re not quite up to using an Olympic bar for your back squat, try dumbbells, and if the idea of a single-leg pistol squat is terrifying, consider incorporating a TRX.
Where to check out: Third Space in San Jose offers CrossFit and TRX programming, so you can work your quads and your balance in all kinds of different ways. Check out their TRX/HIIT combo or their multi-level CrossFit offerings.
Do you often neglect strengthening your hamstrings? You’re not alone.
“Hamstrings are the most overlooked muscle group for many people but they need to be as strong, if not stronger than the quad muscle group,” Shannon explains. “Your hamstrings provide overall leg stability and protect against knee injuries.”
She would know, too: Shannon has had three knee surgeries in her career and explains that injury to this particular joint is very common in skiers. “Not so much if, as when,” she says.
Working on your hamstring strength helps keep knees aligned and prevents torquing them the wrong way during quick movements or hard landings. Plus, hamstrings help to take some of the work from your glutes and quads, so you’ll fatigue less quickly.
Shannon recommends practicing regular deadlifts with an Olympic bar or dumbbells and using a stability ball or hamstring curl machine to perform hamstring curls, working on single leg and double leg movements.
Where to check out: The Training Lab in NYC offers athlete-inspired workouts with a barbell component. Their Training Day classes will have you sprinting, pushing sleds, lunging on a TRX and deadlifting. It’s a well-rounded workout that will definitely encourage hamstring strengthening.
According to Shannon, “your buns are certainly just as important as the other leg muscle groups. For ultimate knee stability, you must focus on developing these. You need strong glutes to be a great skier!”
“Skier booty” is a real thing. We checked.
To work them out (and get a skier booty of your own), weighted walking lunges and weighted curtsy squats, plus lateral side steps with a mini resistance band should be part of your training. Remember that your glutes are made of three distinct sections: you want to work all of these.
Where to check out: Elite Edge Functional Athletic Training in Chamblee, GA offers a lower body strength training class with a strict focus on biomechanic technical performance. Expect to build lean muscle mass in your lower body and increase the strength and power in your glutes.
4. Core: Abs and Back
“99% of a ski turn is initiated with the lower body; however, a strong core keeps our momentum moving down the hill and allows us to recover and respond to what terrain comes next,” says Shannon. A strong core keeps you balanced.
In everyday life, a strong core can help prevent injuries and falls and will help improve power and speed, no matter what activity you’re doing.
To improve your core—which includes the front, back and sides of your torso—Shannon recommends practicing hanging knee raises on a pull-up bar, engaging your core to pull your knees up as high as you can. Mix these up with some pull-ups to build your lats, then throw in some planks—high, low and side—to strengthen your abs. A bent-over row, using dumbbells or kettlebells, will help strengthen your back, while a kneeling cable crunch on a rope pulley machine will work your back, shoulders and abs altogether.
Where to check out: We love EVF Performance in New York City. Their 360 class is a strength and conditioning workout, often incorporating pull-up bars and bodyweight movements guaranteed to make magic happen everywhere in your core.
Skiing is like HIIT
Whereas cross-country skiing or long-course downhill skiing might be more of an endurance activity, freestyle moguls require tremendous anaerobic fitness.
As Shannon puts it, “the faster you go, the more anaerobic it is.”
The body uses oxygen differently in a workout like this than in a more low-intensity, steady-state, longer distance race. To develop your anaerobic capacity—how hard you can work for short bursts—interval training is your friend. You’ll push hard for short periods, usually under two minutes, with working rest or total rest in between each interval. With training, the body learns to work harder during work and recover faster during rest.
Where to check out: BodyFi in San Francisco offers a variety of high-intensity interval training classes using different equipment. These heart-pumping classes fly by and between the Tabata intervals and endless jumping lunges, you’ll increase your basal metabolic rate and build strength, speed and lung capacity. We love their full-body TRX class.
Cross-training is key
Unless you live in Park City, Utah and can train year-round at the Olympic freestyle ski facility (ski jumping into a pool, anyone?), training as a skier in the off-season requires being a bit creative. Luckily, there are tons of other sports and activities that help build and maintain the skills that are so essential to being a strong skier.
In addition to lifting weights and performing the bodyweight moves above, Shannon’s training incorporates a variety of non-skiing exercises.
“We do a lot of cardio work on the bike to increase our anaerobic capacity, as well as yoga to increase flexibility,” she explains. And to appease her inner daredevil, the one that was so integral to being a champion at flipping upside down at breakneck speed? “I love to mountain bike,” she says. “Going quickly down a mountainside helped increase my reaction time and ability to always be looking ahead.”
The most important thing about cross training outside your primary sport? Find other things that make you smile to keep fitness fresh and fun.
Where to check out: Work on your flexibility and alignment with one of the many expertly-taught classes at Portland’s Yoga Pearl, or hop on a bike at Vancouver’s Spin Society for a 50-minute signature ride to build your endurance over quick sprints and uphill climbs.