The fact that you’re reading this probably means you’ve had a cycling-related ache or pain. You’re not the only one. If you want to avoid injury on your bike, there are a few things to think about, and cycling physiotherapist Anne Dickins is at hand to help.
The set-up of your bike is an important element, which can help and hinder, but as important is having the requisite strength and flexibility to get into the right and comfortable position on the bike.
This time we’re looking at the strength part. Click through to discover the theory, the practice and a selection of exercises that will help strengthen your core and help you avoid cycle-related injuries.
Core strength - the theory
There are two basic types of muscles; the ones that hold you – the core – and the ones that move you – your arms and legs. In cycling, the core has to be able support your body whilst your leg muscles do the pedalling and, to a lesser degree, your arms do the steering. It’s your core strength we’re interested in here.
Pedalling is a movement that our bodies aren’t actually designed to do. It’s a movement of the legs where you are fixed via your feet and saddle, it’s repetitive and it’s only in a straight line, whereas even walking incorporates some rotation. As well as that, you’re torso is in a flexed position with your body-weight supported through your hands, pelvis and feet.
As our cores aren’t ‘designed’ to support us either in this position or to do these pedalling movements it means that cyclists typically have weak cores and imbalances between overly strong and weak muscles. It’s actually pretty unusual for cyclists to be able to activate their core muscles, breathe and move their arms and legs at the same time.
But so what? If our cores aren’t meant to work like this then why should we make them do any different? Well, at best a weaker core means that your leg strength is wasted as you don’t have something solid for them to push against, the equivalent of having a spongy pedal or flexible crank.
At worst a weaker core can lead to discomfort or injury – our article on how a lack of back and shoulder strength can lead to hand pain and a poorly functioning core explained how these cause commonly experienced knee, back and neck pain in cyclists too.
So a strong core is good – it will make us ride faster and hurt less.
[part title="Avoiding cycling injury: Core strength - the practice"]
Core strength - the practice
You can recognise a cyclist with a strong core as they look stable and still on their bike, whereas a cyclist with a weak core may rock side-to-side on the saddle, prop themselves up on their arms, or their knees will wobble in or out.
Your pedalling style will also probably change throughout a ride as you tire or hit a hill – I know that once I’ve ridden an hour or two and dragged myself through copious amounts of mud and brambles I take to leaning on my hands with my elbows locked out and staring down at my front tyre as my core takes a rest.
The muscles that are most often weak in cyclists (and actually lots of other people due to the time we spend sitting) are abdominals, outer glutes (bum muscles) and the stabilising back and shoulder muscles. But you don’t need to think about strengthening these muscles in the way you’d think about strengthening other muscles, through lots of reps and weights; it requires a bit more finesse and a lot less sweat than that.
For many people the start of a stronger core is making sure the muscle is ‘activated’ and working at the right time – think of your core as lazy rather than weak. Once you’ve got this bit you can move onto strengthening it by upping the resistance and repetitions or just to do this on the bike – a bit like choosing to do leg strengthening exercises or just going out and riding – it depends on what you want to achieve and how you like spending your time.
The other thing that’s important when strengthening your core for cycling is making any exercise specific to cycling; how many times have you needed to do a sit-up on your bike compared to the number of times you’ve needed to take a hand off the bars and look over your shoulder? So, although general abdominal workouts, gym classes or pilates videos will do you no harm, you can be more specific with certain exercises and have a greater impact on your cycling.
Core strength exercises
So, onto a few exercises to get started. Some of these you might find easier than others, as we’re all different after all, but if you try these and find them really easy you may not be doing them right.
Remember most cyclists don’t have a strong enough core to be able to support themselves, breathe and move properly all at the same time. When you’re doing these exercises you should be able to breathe normally and deeply, no holding your breath or just breathing with the tops of your lungs.
Do as many as you can (within reason!) before you start using your back, legs or shoulder muscles or hold your breath – carrying on once your core has tired will only force your body to do the exercise incorrectly by using other less tired/stronger muscles and you will just reinforce your existing muscle patterns.
Little and often is the way to go with these and be patient, it takes about 6 weeks for your body to learn how to do it.
Setting up a mirror or getting someone to video you can help you see if and where you’re going wrong. As you get the hang of things, you can progress each of these exercises by adding in moving your arms and legs in a way that mimics a cycling movement.
[part title="Avoiding injury: Core strength - The clam"]
This exercise activates your gluteus medius and can be challenging, as your stronger thigh muscles will want to take over. This exercise can prevent rocking hips and wobbling knees and is part of your hip and spinal support, as a working glute med really helps prevent knee pain.
Start with lying on your side with your knees bent up, bottom arm stretched out and a straight back with your shoulders, hips and heels in a line and ribs relaxed.
Tighten your stomach below your belly button to help stabilise your spine. As you breathe out lift your top knee up whilst keeping your feet together, you should feel the muscle working underneath where your back pocket would be. Return your knees together and then repeat.
Make sure your thigh and bottom leg remain relaxed, and don’t let yourself roll forwards or back, or let your back arch.
[part title="Avoiding cycling injury: Core strength - Bridging"]
This exercise works your spinal stabilising muscles, which helps you pedal smoothly, not slump down and helps prevents rocking hips by working your gluteal and oblique abdominal muscles.
Start by laying on your back with your knees bent up and your feet a crank’s width apart. Make sure your shoulders and neck are relaxed.
Lift your back from the floor starting at your tailbone and working up your back, concentrate on using your gluts and not arching up with your back. If you can maintain this position without gripping on with your back muscles then try and lift one leg then the other whilst keeping your back still and pelvis level. Lower down to the floor and repeat.
Make sure you keep breathing, your ribs, shoulders and neck are relaxed and your hips are level.
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This exercise targets spinal stability so you’re able support yourself without leaning heavily on your arms and take your hand off the bars. It also helps with rocking hips and glut muscles.
Start on all fours with hands under shoulders and knees under your hips. Relax your shoulders but don't sag between your shoulder blades and drop your shoulders away from your ears. Keep your back relaxed and level rather than arched or slumped.
Tighten your core by drawing your tummy button closer to your spine. Keep your back nice and level without bracing, breathe in and as you breathe out raise one arm so it is level with your head. Hold for three seconds then lower. Repeat on the other side.
Make sure you don’t brace your back, work your legs or move side to side as you lift your arm – this is a good one to check by having someone film you, or start just touching the wall to check if you are shifting over – it’s hard to look in the mirror and see what you’re doing.