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30 Mar 2010

Figure Skating and the Glut Medius Muscle

Lauren Downes MSPT

Many people ask me "What are the most important muscles for a figure skater to strengthen?".  Some obvious answers to people would be the abdominals and quadriceps, which both contribute to a skaters' strength and performance.   As a physical therapist, I tend to view the body with more scrutiny, and my answer would be the gluteus medius muscle.  The gluteus (glut) medius is one of the primary stabilizers of the hip joint, and connects the pelvis to the hip joint. (see picture)

Figure skating is mainly done on one leg, and involves a significant amount of weight transfer from one lower extremity to the other.  To maintain proper balance and stability over a single leg, several muscle groups activate to create the proper lower extremity alignment, from the hip to the foot.  The main muscle responsible for controlling the alignment and stability is the glut medius.  When a person is balancing on one leg and bends the knee, the knee should remain in alignment over the toe.  It is quite common to see the knee turn inwards and create what is called a 'valgus' angle at the knee joint. (see far right in picture)

The increase in this valgus angle will affect both a skater's balance and ability to appropriately use the muscles in the lower extremity for power development.  If the glut medius muscle cannot sufficiently stabilize the hip joint, the femur bone (which begins at the hip joint socket and forms the top of the knee joint) will turn inward.  It will also cause the contralateral side of the pelvis to drop.  After picturing this position, picture a skater completing a simple turn such as a bracket.  During the turn, a skater needs to stay balanced over the foot.  As the knee bends, the hips must stay level to maintain balance through the turn, and to control the entrance and exit edges.  If the hip drops, a skater will not be able to create the proper shape of the curve in and out of the turn.   This principle can apply to every turn: three, rocker, and counter.  Think to yourself how many jumps begin with a three turn entrance....

Now that you've learned how the glut medius can affect a basic move as a turn, we can apply the effect of muscular weakness to a jump.  We will use the lutz jump takeoff (counterclockwise rotation) as an example:

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In preparation for a lutz, a skater is riding on a backward outside edge on the left foot.  In this position, a skater's hips should remain level to control the edge.  A hip drop will result in a flat or change onto an inside edge.  As the skater reaches back to pick with the right foot, the hips should continue to remain level, and the alignment of the left foot, knee, and hip is very important.  Weakness in the glut medius will cause a skater to transfer too much weight to the right side, as the muscle cannot support the skater's weight over the left side.  The right hip will most likely drop, the skater will change to an inside edge, and the right hip will rotate inward.  This should result in an improper toe pick position.  As you can see in lutz picture #1 (Paul Wylie possibly?) the skater is balanced directly over the left hip and is on a secure outside edge.  He is able the reach straight back  and maintain proper alignment.  In picture # 2, the skater has already switched to an inside edge, and the right hip is open.  It is difficult for her to maintain square hips to continue on a solid outside edge.  There are other muscular issues that contribute to improper alignment, such as a tight psoas (hip flexor) muscle, yet the glut medius plays a major role in this jump entry.

As a coach or a skater, one must be aware of the importance of strength in this muscle.  If a skater is having trouble controlling body alignment and maintaining positions, it may be improved by simply evaluating and increasing strength of this muscle.  About 80% of the skaters I have evaluated have shown significant weakness in the glut medius, and their skating technique has greatly improved with consistent strengthening and awareness of body alignment.