Hip abduction-rotation-extension (A-R-E)
Using the largest muscles in the body (gluteal muscles of the hips), the power for every skating stride (except cornering) begins with hip abduction-rotation-extension (A-R-E). In simpler terms, this means thrusting to the side while rotating toward the next stride, and finally extending almost straight back as you move past the ice. On the other hand, sprinting relies totally on hip extension; that is, thrusting straight back without abduction-rotation.
The twisting-thrusting hip motion in skating is coordinated with knee and ankle extension, an automatic (reflexive) kinetic chain. Without apology, I admit this is a mouthful of anatomical jargon, but the movement must be clearly understood if we are going to train players effectively off-ice to improve skating speed, acceleration and efficiency.
Warning: Kids learn this by feel, NEVER by a boring explanation (like this one) using technical words. However, they MUST LEARN to execute this movement well if they are ever to reach their potential for skating speed. During acceleration – in the first strides from a standstill – the abduction to the side is directed mostly straight back, because the pelvis faces to that side before the leg is rotated (from the ball-socket joint) and arms swing in the opposite direction, toward the next stride. At high speeds, the abduction force is directed almost straight to the side for a brief instant. As you leave the ice behind you, this quickly becomes hip extension. All the while the skate blade is at a perfect angle (determined by feel, not the conscious brain) like the angle of a sail as a sailboat moves cross wind.
Contrary to myths presented for years as skating rules (which defy physics and neuro-reflexes), youth coaches should understand that hip abduction requires the arms to swing opposite the legs – across the body. So, in my opinion, beginning skaters should exaggerate arm swing to promote wider strides. Limiting the arms restricts the width of strides at a crucial age for the Central Nervous System to establish efficient, powerful habits. I’ve seen the results of arm restriction advice in 40 years of testing 4,000 skaters. No one skates as fast with restricted arms as with natural free arm and shoulder swing.
If a gym doesn’t include explosive A-R-E hip movements, the gym is inadequate – not wrong, just incomplete. Furthermore – and quite astonishingly – we see that this same hip motion initiates ground reaction force for important skills in baseball (batting, pitching, throwing), football (passing), tennis and golf swings, plus hockey wrist and slap shots. Yet the motion is ignored in most weight rooms.
Throughout history, weight rooms have prioritized hip extension with no abduction-rotation (squats, cleans, step-ups, for example). These lifts are constructive, but inadequate without explosive A-R-E movements added to the workout. In fact, all upper- and lower-body barbell lifts are limited to one plane, but most joints rotate in an infinite range during play.
Traditional weight training should always be supplemented with functional athletic movements like those we see in dynamic sports. Hall of Famers Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe were the strongest of their era, and much of their strength was built doing things like baling hay, chopping wood, playing dynamic sports and shooting pucks.
With creative coaching, this will change in coming years, and I offer one of many dryland skating exercises that promotes strength and kinesthetic feeling of reflexive, natural, explosive A-R-E.