At this time of year, we’re all thinking about ways to keep our waistlines trim – whether we need to fit into a cocktail dress for a holiday party or we want to get a jump start on our New Year’s resolution. Our resident fitness expert, Joy Sherrick, hates to break it to you but all those sit-up and crunches won’t do the trick.
That doesn’t mean to forgo exercises for your middle section. In fact, what is often referred to as the “core muscle group” or “core” are muscles that are very important to every day function – for cyclists, other endurance athletes and, well, anyone who moves.
The “core” refers to muscles that stabilize the spine and pelvis. In cyclists, a weak core can translate into inefficiency which results in slower times and possibly discomfort on the bike. When core muscles fatigue, cycling mechanics break down, leading to poor performance and injury.
Efficient cycling requires stability. (For more on stability, see Strength Training for Cyclists.) A cyclist should be able to generate power from his lower body without extraneous movement which is indicative of weakness or laziness – which, either way, can be fixed with some simple exercises.
So what about that sit-up that we learned in grade school or its younger relative, the crunch? While they have their place in a balanced and progressive training plan, they are movement-based exercises. We’re going to focus on exercises that directly contribute toward stability and stability of the core through cycling-related movement.
The plank is an exercise that is helpful for anyone. It works those muscles that stabilize the spine. The progressions are designed with a cyclist in mind, requiring spinal stabilization with simultaneous movement at the hips. With all of these exercises, it’s important to keep your body in a straight line, without allowing a sag in your low back or lifting your backside too high.
Hold a push-up position – either from your toes or your knees and either at your hands or elbows, from whichever position you can keep your back in a straight line – for as long as you can. This is an exercise you can do daily, with the goal of increasing your time as the weeks pass.
Plank with Alternating Knee Drop
It’s recommended to do this on a yoga mat or to have a towel or blanket below your knees. Starting from the same plank position, slowly allow your right knee to drop to the floor. Then return to plank position and repeat with your left knee. Sounds easy, right? Aha! The catch is to be sure there is no movement other than your knee dropping to the floor. Your opposite hip shouldn’t drop toward the floor, nor should it counterbalance by swinging out the side. It can be helpful to have somebody watch you or to do the exercise up against a wall to be sure there is no swaying in your hips. When you’re ready to progress, try dropping one knee while the other is coming up, so both legs are moving at once – again, without any other movement going on.
To advance the plank even further, begin in the same position. Without any movement above the waist, bring your right foot next to your right hand or as close to it as you can reach – without shifting from your plank position. Hips should stay low, in line with your back and your stable leg. You’ll feel a nice stretch here in your hamstring. Return your right leg, as always without wavering from that plank position and repeat the movement with your left leg.
While the plank and its progressions are about keeping the spine stable through the exercise, the very act of extension is movement. The importance of back extension is to counteract all the spinal flexion we do throughout the day – whether sitting at a desk, on a couch, in a car or, you guessed it, on a bike. Unless you’re highly attuned to your posture and constantly correcting it, it’s likely you’re spending a good chunk of your day with your spine flexed. The act of riding a bike aerodynamically requires spinal flexion. That’s why we want to strengthen the muscles that work counter to those flexor muscles..
Begin lying prone, or on your stomach, with you arms reaching above your head. Simultaneously lift your right arm and your left leg off the ground. Hold for a few seconds and then alternate to lift your left arm and right leg off the ground. A progression from this exercise, when you’re ready, would then be to lift all four limbs simultaneously.
Another great way to combat all the flexion we do in daily life and in cycling is to borrow the cobra pose from yoga. Again begin by lying prone. With your hands under your ribs, use the strength in your low back to lift your upper body off the ground, beginning with your shoulders. At first only rise up a little bit off the ground. After getting stronger, work to lift more of your upper body off the floor while keeping your hip bones securely on the floor. Focus on using the muscles in your low back to lift you up versus pushing up with your hands. (If you need to, lift your hands up off the floor to be sure.)
The last exercise we’re going to focus on again helps with stabilization but it also works on some key muscles. The bridge helps stretch the hip flexors, muscles that are frequently tight in cyclists. It also works muscles in the posterior chain, from the low back, through the gluteus maximus, and down to the hamstrings.
Lie on your back with your knees bent so that your feet can be flat on the floor, approximately hip width apart. In one smooth motion, lift your buttocks off the ground so that your body is in a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Hold this position for several seconds. Work up to holding this position for 30 seconds at a time.
A progression of the bridge is to place a ball in between your knees. Squeeze the ball tightly while squeezing your glutes and lifting your buttocks off the floor as in above.
A very advanced progression of the bridge – that should only be done when the bridge has been mastered – is to perform it from one leg.
Because the core muscles are used for stabilization, these exercises are all designed to build endurance. Begin with holding each exercise for a short amount of time and work to building up that time every few weeks. Try to implement these exercises three times a week. Bonus: try adding this routine at the end of a ride. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research cited that cyclists who used a core workout to cool down had significantly better lactate clearance, which helps reduce muscle fatigue, versus those who did nothing.
Core Training on the Bike
Core training doesn’t begin when you get off the bike. I like to tell my clients to think of cycling as a core training exercise. While riding – and this is particularly important at the end of a ride – concentrate on sucking your navel in towards your spine. When you do this, you’ll feel the pedaling motion beginning at your hips. Keep this feeling throughout the ride, ideally all the way through until the end.
Here’s an exercise you can do on your bike – whether you’re riding outdoors and even when you’re cycling indoors this winter season. Begin as above, sucking in your navel tightly. Put your bike into a very easy gear so that you can spin at a very high cadence. Unclip and dangle one foot down so that you are only pedaling with one foot. Concentrate on keeping your core tight so that all your movement is taking place from your hip down. Keep your cadence high. This takes a lot of concentration so begin by spinning with one leg for 15 seconds before switching legs. Over time work on increasing this gradually to reach up to two minutes per leg.
Now, what about that waistline? You ride. You may even run and do yoga. Staying fit is only part of the weight loss formula. The other factor, and the bigger factor is what you’re putting in. (See Computraining for Weight Loss for more on this.) Keep in mind that the holidays are typically the time when pounds are added. Keep up your cycling this winter but also be sure to not overindulge too frequently.
Another trick to keeping that waistline in is to remember that core training throughout the day. Sit up straight at your desk. Suck in your navel while you’re sitting in your car. Sit on an exercise ball while watching television. Hunching over allows those core muscles to slack off and, oh my!, exacerbates a “pooch.”
As with all physical exercise, a degree of common sense is required. It’s always recommended to talk to your doctor before beginning a new exercise program. Because proper form is important as is understanding how to best implement strength training, those with training in anatomy, physiology and kinesiology should be consulted.
Special thanks to Precision Multisport for use of their beautiful training facility.
Our resident fitness guru, Joy Sherrick, shares with us the wisdom of her years of experience working with people to meet their fitness goals.