Paul Gagné helps Dufour-Lapointe Sisters to Gold Medal Strength

By on April 7, 2014

Dufour-Lapointe Sisters after winning GoldUntil the 2014 Olympics the Dufour-Lapointe sisters were little known outside the world of skiing. That status changed, and changed big time, when Justine and Chloé earned Olympic gold and silver in moguls skiing.

One of the iconic moments of the Sochi Games was digitally captured for all time when these Canadian sisters held hands before stepping up to the medal podium. Adding to this unprecedented accomplishment was the performance of a third sister, 25-year-old Maxime, who also competed in the event and finished an impressive 12th in the world. Now the question remains, “How did they do it?” One person who has some of the answers is Paul Gagné, the trio’s long-time strength coach.

Maxime was introduced to Gagné when she was 14 by sports podiatrist Dr. Michel Joubert, which in turn led to Gagné working with Maxime’s two younger sisters, who were not yet teenagers. By working with these athletes so early in their youth, Gagné was able to take a long-term approach to training. Certainly, he wanted to improve their strength, power and overall athleticism to the highest level, but he didn’t have to do all these things at once. He started with a wide base to work all aspects of conditioning, building in pyramid style to a peak of sports-specific athletic ability.

Although Gagné’s methods were specific to the individual characteristics of these three young women and the requirements of their sport, his training methods are applicable to any athletes. In fact, these women often train alongside Gagné’s NHL players, sometimes even exceeding their performances in various benchmarks of strength and conditioning. With that background, let’s look at seven aspects of Gagné’s training system.

1. Build a Wide Base. The height of a pyramid is determined by the width of its base. As such, Gagné believes that the general conditioning base of an athlete must be extremely wide for an athlete to reach the highest levels of performance. Being able to coach the Dufour-Lapointe sisters at such a young age enabled Gagné to take his time and build that base, and the result is that these talented young women have stayed relatively injury-free.

2. Pump up the Posture. Gagné devotes a considerable amount of the sisters’ training to corrective exercises to improve posture, stretching those muscles that are tight and strengthening those that are weak. Gagné says that pelvic posture is especially important. “A skier with weak core muscles will bend more from their waist and shoot their hips back when they jump, a technique that will affect jumping ability and how they are scored. This is one aspect of mogul skiing that many people don’t understand – you’re judged not just on what you do on the snow that’s important, but how you look while doing it!”

3. Don’t Forget the Hamstrings. The powerhouse muscle of mogul skiing is the quads, but Gagné says mogul skiers should also perform specific exercises for the hamstrings to avoid muscle imbalances that can affect performance, especially for landing a jump, and reduce the risk of injury. One of his favorite exercises is the glute-ham raise because it works both the hip extension and knee flexion functions of the hamstrings.

4. Condition Like a Hockey Player. Gagné says he likes to have his mogul skiers reach the conditioning levels of his pro hockey players. “Most exercise scientists will say that a max V02 [a measure of aerobic endurance] of 52 is fine, but I want my skiers to be at 60,” says Gagné. “Although the actual event is only about 30 seconds per run, mogul skiers have to do many practice runs, sometimes a dozen a day, and be able to stabilize the heart rate throughout these runs. If your heart rate gets too high, your decision making ability will be affected, making you slower – and speed is one of the major aspects of the sport that is judged.”

5. Stay Strong In-Season. Gagné says it’s important to keep his skiers focused on eating well and maintaining their strength and conditioning levels during the season. “Eating clean and finding ways to get in a good workout can be a challenge during the season, especially when traveling, but it’s essential to perform at the highest levels.”

6. Test it and Fix It. Throughout the year Gagné continually monitors numerous performance tests to determine the strength and power levels of his skiers. Using a force plate that provides instant feedback on performance, Gagné tests single and double leg jumps, multiple jumps, and upper body power. He also does several specific tests to determine the abdominal coordination and abdominal strength, especially in lower portion (subumbilical) of the rectus abdominis. “All macro movements in sports depend on micro movement. If the subumbilical portion of the rectus abdominis is weak, this could cause the pelvis to rotate forward and put these muscles on stretch, thus interfering with their ability to function.”

7. Stay in Balance. Gagné uses a variety of high-tech tools to monitor the conditioning and performance levels of his athletes. One such tool is the OptoJump™, a computer-aided testing device that enables him to see asymmetries in balance and jumping performance that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Besides affecting performance, these asymmetries may be associated with the effects of concussions. “There is a high risk of concussions in mogul skiing, so it’s important to continually monitor these athletes for signs of brain trauma,” says Gagné. “If I find asymmetries during these tests, I can take the next step and refer the athlete to the appropriate medical staff for further evaluation and get the treatment they need to return to baseline.”

Although well-known in Canada before the Olympics, the Dufour-Lapointe sisters are now international celebrities. The most important lesson to be learned from their success is that they fulfilled their Olympic dream by not just training hard, but by training smart.