Call it skinning, skimo, or uphilling—whatever the term, it’s a doozy of a workout. It’s skiing’s latest, perhaps greatest, fad: alpine touring, a backcountry offshoot that employs new boot and binding technology to access remote stashes of endless powder.
“You’re essentially skiing uphill as well as down,” says Dan Sherman of the travel site Ski.com. This feat of antigravity is accomplished with removable climbing “skins” that have bristles which allow skis to glide up the hill and bite back into the snow to keep you from slipping down. The sport has exploded in the last few years as the boots have gotten more comfortable and the gear lighter.
Skinning’s big draw is unfettered access to backcountry. But these days it’s not just on uncontrolled terrain, where avalanche danger is high. It’s become a staple at big mountain resorts. Those who uphill do it for the first run of the day, then use the lifts after that.
And it’s an intense workout, like cross-country turned up to 11. Consider that the average black diamond run has a 40-degree (or greater) slope. Add to that fresh powder, 15 pounds of gear, and the stress that lungs undergo at a few thousand feet of elevation. “It’s an intense, full-body activity that places high demands on both your strength and endurance,” says Miles Havlick, head nordic-ski coach at the University of Utah.
Havlick designed a simple, effective workout to strengthen your core and lower body for skinning (or any wintertime activity), while acclimating your lungs to the work. Plus, we’ve got essential gear, premier mountain destinations, and expert recommendations to ensure you’re ready to traipse up the slopes all season long.
Do the strength circuit two to three times a week, beginning at least six weeks before you plan to strap on skins. Do each cardio workout (moose hoofs and track intervals) once a week.
Since you’re basically embarking on an intense hike that may last an hour or two, you’ll need some nutrition. That means filling a slim backpack (that has a waist strap) with water or an energy drink, plus easy-to-digest snacks like pretzels or a bar (we like the Perfect Bar). You can bring a CamelBak, but fill it with lukewarm water so that it doesn’t freeze during the ascent. By the midway point, the H20 will be nicely chilled.
Legs & Core Circuit
Warm up for 10 minutes, stretch for five, then cycle once through this 40-minute workout. As you get stronger, add weight and keep reps constant.
1. Dumbbell Box Stepups
Why it works: Weighted stepups strengthen your glutes and hamstrings—the major muscles that propel you up the hill. They’ll also improve hip mobility and stability.
How to do it: Hold dumbbells in either hand. Brace your core as you step one foot onto the platform, driving through your heel to bring your other leg onto the box. Slowly lower one leg at a time back to the start position. Do 3 sets of 5 reps per leg with heavy weights, focusing on explosive upward movements
2. Barbell Deadlift
Why it works: Barbell deadlifts flip the emphasis to the posterior (backside) muscles of your legs, which is needed for the descent down the mountain. These will also strengthen the glutes, back, neck, and inner thighs.
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Hinge your hips back as you reach down and grab the bar. Keep the natural arch in your lower back as you drive your heels into the ground and pull the bar along your shins. Fully extend through your hips so the bar is in front of your thighs. Do 3 sets of 5 reps with a heavy barbell. *If you’re just beginning, use an empty bar to nail down the form first.
3. Barbell Front Squats
Why it works: Barbell front squats target the glutes, thighs, hips, and calves with added emphasis placed on the anterior (front) side of the body, which you’ll use most during your ascent.
How to do it: Set a barbell on a power rack at or near shoulder height. Grasp the bar with hands shoulder-width apart, raising your elbows so your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Unrack the bar, letting it rest on your fingertips, keeping your elbows up so it’s resting on your shoulders, just under your chin. Step back and stand with toes turned slightly out. Squat until you can’t maintain the natural arch in your lower back, then drive through your heels to stand. Do 3 sets of 5 reps.
4. Elevated Split Squat With Dumbbell
Why it works: Elevated split squats strengthen the stabilizing muscles in your hips and butt, and builds hamstring and quad power.
How to do it: Stand lunge-length in front of a bench, holding a dumbbell under your chin. Rest the top of your left foot on the bench behind you. Lower your body until your rear knee almost touches the floor. Your front thigh should be parallel and making a 90-degree angle. Do 3 sets of 8 reps per leg.
Why it works: V-Ups target the core and trains your full range of ab muscles, which helps you maintain form on the mountain and reduces injury risks.
How to do it: Lie on your back with legs extended and arms overhead. Brace your abs as you raise your arms and legs simultaneously, reaching for your toes. Your body should resemble a V shape at the top. Slowly lower back down and repeat. Do 3 sets of 15 reps (or as many as you can manage).
6. Hanging Windshield Wipers
Why it works: Hanging windshield wipers improve core stability and flexibility, as well as augment hip rotation.
How to do it: Hang from a bar overhead, pulling your lats down. Squeeze your abs to bring your toes up toward the bar in a pike position. Slowly, with control from your obliques, move your legs side-to-side, holding them together like they’re one windshield wiper. Only lower to one side as far as you can control without twisting your hips—or losing your hold entirely. Do 3 sets of 15 reps (or whatever you can manage). These can also be done on the floor.
From the Norwegian elghufs, this is an intense uphill run in the snow, which can be done in parks or on trails. Using ski poles, employ short strides to climb and focus on landing on your forefoot. Go at about 90 percent of your max capacity (can’t hold a conversation) for 4 minutes, then walk for 4 minutes. Do this 4 times. No access to a snowy gradient? Train on a treadmill set to at least 10 percent incline.
The goal is to raise blood lactate levels, a marker of exercise-induced muscle stress. That will translate to faster recovery as you encounter difficult parts of the mountain climb. Run outdoors, to mimic conditions, at 80 percent of your maximum intensity for 10 minutes—not totally breathless, but you can just spit out words, Havlick says. Rest 2 minutes, then repeat. Aim for 2 to 4 intervals.