In part one we looked at why you should try and build your core strength to improve power and posture on the bike, and how to become flexible enough to reap the benefits. Now, here’s the crucial bit: exercises to improve your core strength.
Core strength: abdominal exercises
Probably the most well-known abdominal exercise is the over-worked crunch or sit up, but this is one of the least effective for most cyclists because it can worsen an already slumped posture.
Another common exercise is the plank which is a better option because the spine is held in a neutral position when it is done well (rather than being rounded or tucked at the tail).
I have seen many a plank that falls short of the mark though, and the clue is in the name of the exercise – a plank should look solid as though you could walk across it, not as though it is bending in the middle.
Including core exercises in all planes of movement is the best way to train your middle including side bending and rotational exercises, often neglected but actually more relevant for a cyclist.
A kneeling cable wood chop – an example of a rotational core exercise
Inner vs outer
Another important distinction with abdominal exercises is whether you are targeting the inner muscles on their own, or all the muscles including the outer ones. There are four layers of abdominal muscle, the deepest of which is the important stabiliser the transversus abdominis or TVA.
Some rehab or Pilates exercises target this deep muscle in isolation in order to develop its endurance in stabilising your spine. Exercises which focus on drawing your belly button in, or hollowing are targeting this deep engagement.
This type of exercise can be really beneficial for many women whose inner abdominals are often more inclined to switch off or be down regulated by the nervous system. If you have back pain or have had children, this type of exercise should be a priority.
Pilates style exercises on all fours target deeper stabiliser muscles
Hormonal and organ influence
Your menstrual cycle and digestive system can influence your core control by way of reflexive inhibition. That is to say that if an organ is irritated or unhappy, your brain and nervous system will not let you contract muscles that might squash the already unhappy organs. This is why women more than men can experience difficulty with bloating or engaging their core.
For example some women experience back pain the first day or two of their period and this is because inflammation in their uterus causes the reflexive inhibition of the deep and lower abdominal muscles; they will not engage and contract effectively no matter how hard you try.
This is your body’s natural protective mechanism at work so ideally a day with a painful period is not one for heavy training as your core will not be at its best, and you are more likely to injure your back, knees or any of the other joints that may be affected.
Core strength: back exercises
Core strength is not just about the abdominals of course but also about the back. For cyclists back extension exercises off the floor are a good option as they reverse the cycling posture and help you maintain upper and lower back strength.
However, if you are hypermobile and bend backwards really well, you may do better with more whole body strengthening exercises with your back in a more neutral or straight spine position. Examples might include sumo dead lifts and bent over rows.