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.