By Kim Duke, NETA & AFAA Certified Trainer
Your bulging quads and razor-cut calves are the envy of your pack, and you start every ride strong. As the ride progresses, though, your hips seesaw in the saddle, your lower back aches, and you slow in corners.
What’s the problem? Your core cries “Uncle” long before your legs wear out. Although a cyclist’s legs provide the most tangible source of power, the abs and lower back are the vital foundation from which all movement, including the pedal stroke, stems.
“You can have all the leg strength in the world, but without a stable core you won’t be able to use it efficiently,” says Graeme Street, founder of Cyclo-CORE, a DVD-based training program, and a personal trainer in Essex, Connecticut. “It’s like having the body of a Ferrari with a Fiat chassis underneath.”
Cyclists often complain of lower back pain, which is related to core strength, or lack thereof.
“In a leg press at the gym, you can press into the back pad to stabilize yourself,” says Andy Pruitt, Ed.D., director of Colorado’s Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, “but when you push on the pedal, there’s nothing to stabilize you except your core.”
If it’s weak, your back fatigues quickly. The pain could also stem from other sources, Pruitt notes, from your cycling shoes to bike fit. A good rule of thumb: Your handlebars shouldn’t be more than one fist-width lower than your saddle, says Pruitt, who suggests a bike fitting for those with chronic back pain. “If a fitter can’t solve your problem in two tries, see a doctor or physical therapist,” he says.
What’s more, a solid core will help eliminate unnecessary upper-body movement, so that all the energy you produce is delivered into a smooth pedal stroke.
The following are some of the reliable core exercises that, if done on a consistent basis, will strengthen your core and your overall enjoyment and performance while cycling.
Core Exercise #1: Boxer Ball Crunch
What It Works: Transverse abdominus, obliques, lower back
A. Lie with the middle of your back on a stability ball with your knees bent 90 degrees and your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands behind your head, but don’t pull on your neck.
B. Squeezing your belly button toward your spine, lift your upper back off the ball. Keeping your shoulders off the ball, trace a clockwise oval with your torso. Apply pressure with your lower back to keep the ball still through the entire motion. After 15 clockwise ovals, trace 15 counterclockwise.
Why It Works: Despite the straightforward motion of the bike, your body moves in three directions: forward as you head down the road, vertically as your legs pedal up and down, and laterally as your hips and upper body rock side to side.
“This fluid, circular exercise builds control,” says Street, and that helps you minimize lateral torsion and wasted motion.
Core Exercise #2: Power Bridge
What It Works: Hip flexors, glutes, lower back
A. Lying on your back, bend your knees and place your heels near your glutes. Arms are at your sides, palms down.
B. In one smooth motion, squeeze your glutes, raise your hips off the floor and push up from your heels to form a straight line from shoulders to knees; toes come off the floor slightly. Hold for two seconds. Keeping your toes raised, lower yourself three-quarters of the way to complete one rep. Do 20 repetitions.
Why It Works: In addition to stretching the hip flexors, often extremely stiff in cyclists, the bridge strengthens the link between your lower back and glutes.
Core Exercise #3: Hip Extension
What It Works: Lower back, hamstrings, glutes
A. Lying with your hips and stomach on the stability ball, put your hands on the floor directly under your shoulders, and extend your legs with toes resting on the floor.
B. With a straight spine and shoulder blades back, as if you’re trying to make them touch, lift both legs off the floor, keeping them straight. If possible, raise them slightly higher than parallel to the floor. Hold for two seconds and lower. Do 20 reps.
Why It Works: This movement builds backside strength for added efficiency on the second half of the pedal stroke.
Core Exercise #4: Plank
What It Works: Transverse abdominus, upper and lower back
A. Lying on your stomach, place your elbows under your shoulders with forearms and hands on the floor.
B. Lift your hips off the floor, keeping your back straight and abs tight, and rest on your toes. Aim for 60 seconds.
Why It Works: the plank builds the strength and muscular endurance you need to ride powerfully in the drops or in an aero position long after others have surrendered to the top of the handlebar.
Core Exercise #5: Transverse Plank
What It Works: Transverse abdominus and obliques
A. Lie on your right side, with your right elbow under your shoulder, forearm in front for stability, and stack your left foot on your right. Raise your left arm over your head.
B. In one motion, lift your hips to create a straight line down your left side. Lower your hips a few inches off the floor; do 10 to 15 reps, then switch sides.
Why It Works: Strong obliques improve your stability in the saddle, letting you take on hairpin corners with more control and speed.
Core Exercise #6: Scissors Kick
What It Works: Transverse abdominus, hip flexors, inner and outer thighs
A. Lying on your back with legs straight, place both hands palms down under your lower back.
B. Pushing your elbows down into the floor and pulling your belly button toward your spine, raise your shoulders off the floor and look toward the ceiling. Raise your legs four inches off the ground and scissor them: left leg over right, then right over left. That’s one rep. Work up to 100.
Why It Works: A comprehensive movement that connects key cycling muscles, the kick also builds inner-thigh muscles, which help you achieve hip, knee and forefoot alignment for a proper and efficient pedal stroke.
Core Exercise #7: Boat Pose
What It Works: Transverse abdominus, lower back
A. Sit, resting both hands lightly behind you, and lean back until your torso is at a 45-degree angle.
B. Keeping your legs together, lift them off the floor as you extend arms forward at shoulder height. Abs are tight, as thighs and torso form a 90-degree angle. If your hamstrings are tight, you’ll need to bend your knees a little. Work up to holding for 60 seconds.
Why It Works: As with the plank, the boat pose builds the lower-back stability and core strength needed to remain bent over the handlebar for hours, or to blast up hills without compromising power or speed.