What Primary Muscles Are Used for Skiing? (More Than You Think)

by Simon Naylor | Updated: October 27th, 2022 |  Skiing Articles

If you've booked your ski holiday or feeling sore after a long day skiing, you might be wondering: what are the main muscles groups that are activated while you ski?

Skiing is a complete lower-body workout. The main muscles used while skiing are the core abdominal muscles which act as stabilizers and the gluteus maximus (in your buttocks and thigh) which supports your legs movements.

ski flex

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Full Body Workout

Skiing is a high-intensity full body motion and most of the body's muscles are activated at one time or another. Downhill skiing challenges the body with a much wider range of muscle activation and movement than most other types of exercise.

Your quadriceps work to extend the knee and flexing of the hip, the hamstring (back of the leg) for flexing your knee up and down, and the foot and ankles muscles for edging your skis during parallel turns.

How the main muscles groups work while your skiing

Abs & Core

Historically skis were much heavier and skiing relied on brute strength. Nowadays with modern skis, skiing has become a dynamic sport that relies more on balance at speed.

The main groups of muscles responsible for stabilizing the body during parallel skiing is the abdominals and obliques,  as well as the pelvic floor muscles.

Best exercises to strengthen your core
  • ✅Side plank
  • ✅Plank hold
  • ✅Hip lifts
  • ✅Kneeling extension
  • ✅Raised knee-In
core strength
Photo by Javi

Butt  (Gluteus Maximus)

The glutes are one of the strongest muscles in the human body and are heavily used to stabilize your body while your legs and knees are extended away from the center.

When skiing downhill, you would typically hold your body in a flexed position, with a forward lean over the hips. This stance requires strength from your glutes (and hamstrings) to maintain balance.

Best exercises to strengthen your Gluteus Maximus
  • ✅One-leg squat (aka pistol squat)
  • ✅Squat jump
  • ✅Forward and side lunges

More Exercises for strong glutes

Front thigh (Quadriceps)

The front of the thigh where the quadriceps sit is heavily activated during skiing as your rectus femoris extends the knee and flexes the hip.

Your thighs work hard to keep your skis together and your body stable as you parallel turn.

Best exercises to strengthen your quadriceps
  • ✅Run uphill
  • ✅Sit against the wall without a chair for 2 minutes, repeat till tired.

Back of your legs (Hamstrings)

The skier's stance is typically flexed at the legs and a slight forward lean from the hips. The back of your legs helps to power you throughout the day.

Best exercises to strengthen the back of your legs
  • ✅Deadlifts
    ✅Inner thigh squeezes

Feet and ankle

The feet need a solid range of motion and subtle control to edge the skis during a parallel turn. It's a good idea to warm up your feet before skiing, by rotating the foot round in circles around the ankle.

Off the slopes, yoga (Garland and Half Moon) will help stretch and strengthen ankles.

✅Hiking and hill walking

Downhill Orange Jacket

Arms (bicep and tricep)

While the arms aren't directly involved with downhill skiing, pushing off with your poles on the flats or carrying your skis through the resort is enough to activate them.

Best ways to physically prepare for skiing

  1. Lunges & squats are great for targeted muscle strength.
  2. Balancing moves: Stand on one leg, bend your free knee and hold it behind you. Switch legs and repeat.
  3. Hold a plank (a still press-up) to activate the core muscles.
  4. Stamina: Improve your endurance and stamina by running, cycling, bike riding, hiking, swimming or playing team sports like hockey or football.
  5. Play tennis, squash or badminton - great for building stamina, reaction time and focus.
  6. Plyometrics (Advanced): jumping onto and off boxes, jumping from side to side and other high-intensity movements that will build your skiing strength. 

Doing one or a combination above will go along way to making your ski trip more fun and enjoyable. The fitter you come ski season, the faster you'll pick up where you left off, develop new skills and grow in confidence as a skier.

You can still ski if you're overweight or very unfit, but you'll need to take more breaks and go steady.

Your risk of falling and injuring yourself is higher if you are less physically prepared to ski. While it may be easy to ignore pre-ski season training put in a bit of pre-season training and reap the rewards when you finally hit the slopes.

red jacket cat ski

How much calories does skiing burn?

In terms of working out, downhill skiing is equivalent to cycling or rowing in its level of intensity.

The exact amount of calories you burn depends on your size, gender, muscle to fat ratio and the intensity of skiing.

On average moderate downhill skiing burns around 400 calories per hour, while uphill cross-country skiing will burn up to 1,000 calories an hour.

Not only does skiing burn lots of calories, but staying warm in colder temperatures add to this.You can easily expect to burn 1-3,000 more calories per day skiing than you would on a normal sedentary day.

Remember to fuel up on hot nutritious meals throughout the day to keep you warm and ready to activate those skiing muscles!Although new skiers won't be skiing as fast as seasoned skiers making fast parallel turns down the mountain, new skiers still burn plenty of calories.

In fact over the same distance a new skier is likely to be much more tired than a regular skier, not because of fitness, but because of a less efficient technique.Snowplough or pizza for instance which is the first move you learn (to stop or control your speed on skis), is incredibly demanding and activates almost all the muscles in your leg.

Skiers with better technique and muscle memory still uses plenty of energy, but each movement is refined and more efficient, meaning they can ski faster and longer for the same amount of burned calories.

How to soothe achy ski muscles?

  • ✅Stretch before and after skiing.
  • ✅Drink plenty of water and eat nutritious food.
  • ✅Head to the sauna or steam room to heat and relax your muscles.

⚠️ If your muscles are painful or sore, then use ice ro relieve pain and swelling and consider consulting a doctor or taking a day off to relax. You can ski on achy muscles, but don't ski on painful ones. There is a difference between tired muscles (commonly called DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness ) and injured legs.

Health benefits of skiing

Skiing is a wonderful outdoor workout that improves your physical fitness and endurance.

Skiing is also a form of interval training as you push yourself in bursts of high activity punctuated by breaks & waiting for and riding on ski lift.

Not only does skiing have excellent exercise benefits, but your also breathing in the fresh mountain air and spending the entire day outside (a rarity in today's technology-focused culture) which is great for your mental health.

There is a reason most people are smiling on the slopes and willing to dole out lots of hard earned money for a weeks ski pass - skiing delivers a massive endorphin rush.

From the thrill of speeding down the slope to the burst of energy that comes with physical exercise, to the time outdoors to enjoying the views of the mountains - skiing is an incredible hobby with numerous positive, uplifting qualities.

Get ski fit 

If you're looking to build your strength and fitness for your upcoming ski trip, exercise scientist & skier Clayton Beaty has put together this cool skiing fitness program that you can do at home.