Weight transfer and balance
Ski drills to improve balance often challenge you to hold your balance on a single ski. A common example is to balance on one ski as you glide downhill.
We work on balance, in part, to improve weight transfer.
Weight transfer is an expression used in Nordic skiing to describe how a skier shifts her bodyweight from ski to ski.
[You have to manipulate your weight in all three dimensions: right-left, front-back and up-down, but for many skiers “weight transfer” is synonymous with a right-left shift.]
You already transfer your weight from foot to foot when you walk or run, but weight transfer is more pronounced in nordic skiing because getting more of your weight over each ski helps you carry momentum into your glide and allows you to power your kick with your bodyweight.
Weight transfer and balance are linked skills. We want to believe that balance exercises, like gliding on one ski, improve our weight transfer and help us get our weight more fully over each ski.
The thing about these extended gliding drills is they focus on the quantity of your balance – how long you are able to balance on a single ski. They don’t do much to develop the quality of your balance.
By quality of your balance, I’m talking about things like…
- Do you load your right and left skis equally?
- Are your hip, knee and ankles joints neatly stacked?
- Are your skis flat when they glide?
- Does your gliding ski run straight?
- Can you support your weight evenly across the bottom of one foot, with minimal muscular activity in the lower leg?
It’s possible to be “good” at balancing on your skis, but have poor quality balance. If that’s the case, it will likely affect your efficiency and may be a sign of trouble to come.
Test your “built-in” weight transfer
If you want to improve your balance and weight transfer, one thing to check is whether you already have a “built-in” weight shift.
A built-in weight shift is a sign your weight distribution is uneven in your everyday movements. If your everyday, off-snow movements are asymmetrical, it’s going to be harder to develop well balanced weight transfer on skis.
A bodyweight squat is a terrific self-assessment tool for learning more about how you naturally support and distribute your weight. Looking for evidence of weight shift during a bodyweight squat can help you understand your in-built weight distribution habits.
Hip shift in a bodyweight squat
For this, you’ll need a mirror and a floor with some sort of regular pattern for reference.
- Stand with your feet about hip width apart, toes turned out slightly. Use the landmarks on the floor to set yourself up as precisely as possible. Experiment with a variety of stance widths and toe angles.
- Close your eyes and flex at the hips and knees to squat down. It doesn’t matter how deep you go, so don’t worry if you are limited by knee pain.
- Once you are down, say with your hips just above your knees, hold your position and open your eyes. Use the floor pattern and the mirror to check whether your hips are centred between your feet and knees or shifted more to one side or the other.
If your hips shifted to one side, there’s a good chance your weight shifted to that side as you squatted. Try a variety of foot placements and squat depths to check if and when you shift your hips as you squat. Change up the distance between your feet and the direction your toes point.
It’s possible your hips move in more than one direction as you move through the full range of motion of the squat. How you move through the top of the squat is more relevant to skiing because we don’t often squat deeply in skiing, but it’s all interesting. The slower you move, the more you’ll be able to sense whether you veer off course.
Look at the position of your head and shoulders and feel your weight distribution across the bottom of your feet to learn more about your “built-in” weight shift and whether you can evenly balance your weight between your right and left feet.
If you try to correct your hip shift to straighten out your squat, you may find you’re unable to control how your hips move or that you compensate by moving somewhere else, like in the shoulders.
If you don’t squat on a regular basis, then your hips will probably wobble simply because it’s a new movement for you. You’ll need to practice for awhile before you can detect a pattern.
This happens when you ski too
This squat test is a window into your innate weight shift and gives you information about how you naturally organize your movements. This is what’s happening behind the scenes when you ski.
If you veered off the centreline, that will affect your weight transfer in skiing, regardless of how much time you invest in gliding on one ski.
The squat test is most relevant to Double Pole, One Skate (V2) and Two Skate (V2 Alternate) techniques because those have the most vertical hip movement.
For striding techniques, like Diagonal Stride and Kick Double Pole, you could look at your weight distribution in walking or running by checking the wear patterns of the bottom of your shoes.
Hidden behind your movement biases are imbalances in strength and mobility, which are symptoms of misalignment. If your movements are habitually asymmetrical, your muscles will be too.
Your centre of mass may not align with the central axis of your body and your movements won’t be balanced from that axis either.
Skiing Efficiency: Less is More
Do these movement asymmetries, these strength and mobility imbalances, matter?
A recent paper that looked at biomechanics in cross-country skiing found
[pullquote align=”normal”]Skiing skills and economy appeared to be related to a skier’s ability to simplify movement complexity, suggesting that an efficient skier is better able to reduce superfluous movement components during DP [double pole].* [/pullquote]
A lot goes into simplifying movement. Many hours of practice, for one thing. Consciously cleaning up movement helps too. Many people are simply inattentive to the quality of their movement and move better once they start to pay attention.
A built-in weight shift makes movement more complicated than need be. As you saw from the bodyweight squat test, the hips veer off course instead of following the most direct line of travel between the start position (standing) and the finish position (down in the squat).
The same thing happens when you bend and straighten your hips while skiing. Your hips will move more than they would if they followed a straighter path.
Why Symmetry Matters
If your weight shift is naturally uneven your movements will be more complex than they need to be, which will likely make your skiing less economical, but there are additional disadvantages:
- The workload isn’t evenly distributed across all the muscles of the body. Distributing the work of skiing across all the muscles in your body should slow your rate of fatigue.
- When movements are asymmetrical joints are unevenly loaded, which may lead to long term problems.
- I believe this is stressful for our muscles as well.
Certainly we are all asymmetrical, but “common” doesn’t mean OK. I’m firmly of the belief that more symmetry in our bodies and our movements is better.
Reducing imbalances in strength and mobility and balancing out our habitual movements is extremely challenging.
It’s tempting to think you can stretch and strengthen your way to better balance, but there may be underlying problems that defy that approach.
You could have underlying anatomical asymmetries that affect your movement. Another possibility is your brain is deliberately biasing your movement as a protective measure.
Our brains organize our movements for balance, so we don’t fall down, but also to manage how our weight distributes through our bodies.
Gravity has a powerful affect on our bodies. When we have vulnerable tissues or joints, our brains organize our posture and movements to keep our weight away from those areas. Sometimes we know about those vulnerabilities (e.g. sprained ankle), but sometimes they are hidden from our conscious selves.
There isn’t much you can do about it, until you can convince your brain it’s OK to let your weight go there. It’s difficult to out-exercise the effects of gravity on your posture.
Think about your movement and weight distribution from your brain’s point of view. (How’s that for meta?) There may be good reasons you don’t have as much conscious control over your movements as you’d like.
Working on weight distribution is a powerful way to learn more about your body and improve your balance both on and off snow.
Use the squat test to understand your “built-in” weight shift and then start to puzzle out why you might be moving that way. It may be more complicated than you realize.
Pellegrini B., Zoppirolli C., Boccia G., Bortolan L. & Schena F. Cross-country skiing movement factorization to explore relationships between skiing economy and athletes’ skills. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2017: 28(2):565-574