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Core and Strength Training: Your Guide to Creating a Personalised Programme

We spoke to an expert about the basic principles of flexibility, core and strength

Winter is the perfect time to pick up where you left off with core and strength training before summer riding got in the way. If you’ve never worked on these areas before, it’s the perfect time to start a brand new programme. So, we’ve enlisted the help of an expert to bring you a complete guide to creating your own strength training programme.

Jo McRae is a coach specialising in conditioning programs for cyclists. She has raced on the road, track and in time trials to a national level, has a first class degree in Sports Science, and qualifications in Strength and Conditioning, Pilates and more.

Jo recently published her first book – Ride Strong, Essential Conditioning for Cyclists – which is where most of the principles discussed here come from. The book contains basic guidance as well as hundreds of photographed exercises and templates at the back that can be used to design a programme.

Competition: We’re giving away one copy of the book! Just head over to our Twitter page and retweet our mention of this article for the chance to win

We made our way down to her Strawberry House Clinic in Hayes to ask for her guidance on why cyclists need to develop a core or strength programme, where they should start, and how they should adapt that programme throughout their cycling year, to match their goals.

Then we went into guinea pig mode and devised our own plan to provide an example…

Why do cyclists need to work on core and strength?

You can scroll down for our own personalised programme – but you need to read the theory first!

A large percentage of modern day amateur cyclists spend a notable chunk of their day sitting. Then they get on the bike – in a sitting position – and pedal, before wondering why they develop injuries.

  • Basic human movements:
  • squatting
  • lunging
  • bending
  • pushing
  • pulling
  • twisting

There are six basic primal human movements: squatting, lunging, bending, pushing, pulling and twisting. Modern day lifestyles don’t tend to promote these, and Jo explains: “There are areas of us that are tight, from not having that [basic primal] range of movement. Often you’re dealing with a muscle imbalance, where there’s a shortened tight muscle there will usually be a corresponding long and weak muscle.”

She adds: “In addition, there are areas that become weak because we’ve not used those movements or done any strength work in our daily lives. Then your stability is affected on the bike. Finally just that lack of strength means that you don’t have a great deal of power. At low intensities, on endurance rides, you probably wouldn’t notice it. But you come to ride a hill and stand up or sprint and you’re not going to have the potential strength and power you could have.”

What’s the relationship between flexibility, core stability and strength?

Stretch first to wake those muscles up

Jo is very clear that flexibility, core stability and strength need to be considered together. She explains: “If you pre-stretch the tight area, and then immediately strengthen the weaker area, you’ve got the best chance of bringing about a stronger, more balanced position quicker.”

Dani King Shares Key Stretches for Cyclists

  • SUCCESS FORMULA
  • Flexibility
  • + Core Stability
  • + Strength
  • = Power Potential

Women, as a generalisation, are usually more flexible than men so often don’t have to work as hard here. However, we naturally have lower muscle mass so core stability and strength work are much more crucial.

The divide between core and strength is blurry. Jo explains: “Of course you’re strengthening muscles in both cases, but the difference with the core exercises is that they work with the centre of the body – the back, hips, glute muscles, abdominals – and they work on alignment. You need to make sure you can hold good alignment before you add load, which is where we start to talk about strengthening work.  The strength exercises are primarily dealing with functional movements, and on your feet.”

For beginners to the core and strength world, she adds: “Definitely I would start with the core – to check that you can do those exercises well, because that gives you the foundation for then using those muscles when you go to the standing exercises of say squatting, lunging. If you’ve not worked on strength before, then for most women a good year spent on core exercises before moving onto strength would set you up with a good foundation.”

Planning a core and strength training schedule

So – we understand that we need to work on flexibility, and core stability, perhaps moving on to strength when we know we’re we’ll aligned and stable enough. So how do we actually plan how we’ll implement this over the course of a cycling year?

How to Actually Plan Training and Stick to It

Jo explains: “Fundamentally with periodisation [which means planning your year around peaks and troughs of performance], you start with your goal, and you work backwards. So you look at what month of the year you want to be doing your best on the bike and you might spread that to a three months of peak. That becomes your ‘in season’. Because you’re ‘in season’ you don’t overload your conditioning. During the opposite season you’re deliberately overloading your conditioning. Then you can split that up into quarters as well. [That gives you] the in season, off season, pre-season, post-season –  3 months blocks, so 12 weeks each.”

A typical road cyclist will work on rest and recovery on the bike during ‘post season’, looking at flexibility and core off the bike. In the off season, they’ll ride long aerobic base miles, adding strength training off the bike. Come spring they’ll back off the strength work a little, and on the bike will start to add event-specific efforts. In summer, they’ll be completing the events they have planned and just maintain some strength via core work. Each time you go back to strength training in your off season, you need to build up gradually to avoid injury – but Jo says if you’ve maintained core strength with some exercises over the on season this should take “two to four weeks”.

When you come to develop your own programme, Jo suggests you select a series of exercises, perform them for a period of 6-8 weeks, gradually increasing the weight if you’re loading. Then after that period, you’ll continue with those you’re still finding hard, and swap in new variations of those you feel you’ve outgrown.

“Most people are frightened of strength work because they think ‘I’m going to get big’ – but it’s not going to happen, you’re correcting muscle weakness, you do want development in some areas.”

In terms of repetitions, Jo says: “I suggest 8 to 12 reps per set of exercises – in that zone you’re going to get muscle development. Most people are frightened of strength work because they think ‘I’m going to get big’ – but it’s not going to happen, you’re correcting muscle weakness, you do want development in some areas. If you’re in your second year and have experience, you might want to go heavier and lower the reps. If you’re looking to develop explosive strength, I would encourage people to develop that on the bike, because then the biomechanics of the movement itself are so different, you just want that sport specific training.”

Putting it all into practice

That’s a lot of theory – so I’ve offered myself up as a guinea pig, with Jo looking at my own history and assessing what I need to work on. Reassuringly for readers at home who don’t have this luxury, most of the basic information actually comes from me – with a little probing from Jo to point me in the right direction.

Goals: Next year the plan is to continue riding crit races, a bit more track cycling, and maybe add in some road races.

Past experience: I do a bit of strength work most winters, but in the past few years that’s been mostly a series of ten exercises, repeated for one minute, three times. Jo says: “With your approach there’s no progression, and it’s more general conditioning – you’re not going to get stronger that way.”

Flexibility: Most physios I’ve seen have commented that I’m slightly hypermobile, so I shouldn’t work too much on stretching – but I do sit for large chunks of time during the day so need to work on hip flexor and hamstring stretching.

Core: I’ve struggled a lot on the past with sciatica – or more specifically piriformis syndrome. Jo tells me: “The piriformis normally tightens when the outer glutes are not as strong as they should be, so given what you’ve said about hypermobility I would concentrate on the pelvis and hips. We’ll also add a pre-stretch for the piriformis, with a tennis ball mobilisation. By pre stretching that you’ve got better chance of the main glutes firing in the exercises.”

Strength: I dated a rugby player for three years at uni, so I know my way around squats and deadlifts and used to do quite a bit of gym work – but it’s been a while! I’ve not really done what I’d call ‘heavy lifting’ for a few years. Jo says: “I’d expect you could include some core and strength work. You don’t need a lot of stretching so you might include 2-3 stretches, a couple of strength exercises, focusing on re-establishing form, and then add in some core focused exercises. We should make sure all primal the movements are in there – squat, lunge, push, pull, twist, bend.”

With this information, we create a plan. Jo suggests I divide the exercises into two halves – keeping the strength to core ratio equal – and increase the sets so that I get two 40 minute routines that work on similar principles.

Stretches

We start with a hamstring stretch at the knee, to loosen off those poor blighters that become tight from all my sitting

Hamstring stretch at knee

We then move on to a hip flexor stretch, using a swiss ball. Here I can work on improving my flexibility by ‘contracting and relaxing’ – pushing into the stretch, relaxing, and then trying to push a little further.

Hip flexor stretch with swiss ball

Then we do a little piriformis work – this means putting my weight on a tennis ball to ease out tension (more on this very effective massage/release technique here)

Piriformis release before strength work

Strengthening Exercises

Jo suggests the split squat for me. I’ve used goblet and barbell squats before, so she wants to shake up the routine to encourage my muscles to work. The single leg focus should also help develop outer glute strength, which my lazy rear muscles need. I do this with my back against the wall to help me get the technique right…

Split squat with dumbell

Next up is an overhead squat. This is the hardest squat variety you can do at home with a set of dumbells, and forces you to really work on your form – especially if you’ve become used to traditional back squats…

Overhead dumbell squat

Dumbell or Kettlebell deadlifts are the third strengthening exercises – Jo says these are great for getting the glutes to work. You can hold a dumbell in each hand, but having the weight in the centre forces the glutes to work harder. I’ll probably need to invest in a new set of dumbell plates or a heavier kettlebell to do this at home, having largely used deadlifts only in the gym where there are barbells available.

Deadlift with dumbell (or a kettlebell will do)

Core exercises

Next up, we move on to core stability exercises. The dumbell chest press might look to be targeted at improving my sideline hobby – swimming – but actually holding this position on the ball forces my glutes and abdominal muscles to work.

Chess press with dumbells

The side lean develops the muscles down one side of the body, and is particularly good for improving your endurance and power when standing to climb. It proves particularly difficult for me, which implies it’s an area I need to work on.

Side lean with swiss ball

We move on to a swiss ball hip extension with a knee bend, targeting the glutes, upper hamstrings and lower back.

Swiss ball extension with knee lift

Finally, we add a swiss ball forward roll. This seemingly simple exercise is actually quite technically difficult to get right, as you must push your hips back whilst you roll forwards. Jo explains that if you’ve not been shown proper technique, you could swap this for a plank.

Swiss ball forward roll

That’s it! I’ll split these exercises into ‘routine A’ and ‘routine B’, ensuring the spread between strength and core remains equal. I’ll complete around 5 sets of each exercise, and do each 40 minute routine once a week.

Adopting a programme like this could make all the difference come summer. As Jo says: “The benefits often begin to show six, nine or 12 months down the line – but they’re sustainable and lasting. You just need to be disciplined and stick to your plan.”

Of course, your own programme needs to be developed for your own strengths and weaknesses. You can source exercises suggestions online – but Jo’s book is incredibly useful and a really handy resource to have at home.

You might also like…

6 Strength Exercises for Cyclists 

Strength and Flexibility for Mountain Bikers

6 Squat Variations You Can Do at Home

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