I saw a Tweet extoling the virtues of core exercises for cyclists suggesting planks, bridges and twists to ‘support the spine’ recently. This sounds good although it’s questionable whether the spine needs support in any meaningful context during cycling and further whether the exercises suggested would help if it did. It's hard not to think the writers of interminable articles in the cycling media haven't simply run out of ideas and reach for 'core training' when challenged to say something different from 'ride your bike more'. However, it prompts a question about how important a strong core is for cycling and, if it is important, how is it best trained?
It’s easy to slip into defining ‘the core’ as the abdominal muscles or that portion of the body where the ‘6 pack’ should be. However, the core is fully defined as what links the upper and lower body so the entire torso, back and front, between the neck and hips.
For cycling, received wisdom is the core keeps the body stable, improves efficiency by preventing side-to-side movement and gives a strong base for the legs to push against so the effort goes down on the pedals rather than up into the body. However consider: -
So, is time spent doing planks, roll outs, sit ups and twists wasted? Probably not, physical exercise is rarely a bad thing, but it is unlikely to improve efficiency and power delivery on the bike. I’m not saying don’t do it, just don’t expect it to make a detectable difference.
However, the development of a strong core remains relevant to cycling but perhaps not for the reasons of received wisdom. Truth is, much of benefit of having a trained core is a reduction in discomfort, particularly lower back pain on and off the bike through improved strength and range of movement.
To illustrate why, think of the bike as a resistance weight training machine. It isolates the leg muscles whilst the rider performs, say, 40 single leg presses per minute. A 2 hour ride would mean 2400 on each leg, or something like 15,000 in a 6 hour training week. This develops leg strength unmatched by the rest of the body resulting in a significant imbalance. Pain, discomfort and reduced mobility is caused by these disproportionately strong muscles pulling down on the upper body putting weaker core muscles are under strain. This can be made worse by the muscle imbalances inherent with being left or right handed/footed so the dominate side of the body is differentially stronger than the weaker side meaning pain is focused on one side of the lower back and hips. Stretching and rolling may help temporarily but the resilient resolution is to build the core to a level of strength that matches the legs.
To my knowledge, nobody has been mad enough to try 6 hours planking per week, if they had it wouldn’t be enough because planks, sit ups and the like use body weight and the legs muscles are built using a very efficient machine – the bike. As a cyclist you NEVER skipping leg day.
The solution, as you might expect, involves putting down the balance balls and rubber bands and picking up some heavy stuff. Weight training using the few exercises that are cycling specific is the way to build a strong core AND stronger legs. Whilst it may seem counter intuitive to do leg focused exercises to build a strong core, using squats and deadlifts, a rider has to control a weighted movement in contraction and extension with the torso. The effort taken to stabilise a heavy weight lifted infrequently, say, 10-25 times twice a week, contrasts with the strength built by pedalling characterised by very high repetition at low resistance.
Heavy weighted squats and deadlifts build leg strength at a neuromuscular level but because the weight needs to be controlled by the torso it strengthens the core to match the legs. This also helps the proprioceptive cells in the muscles, tendons and joints meaning the body is more ‘aware’ of it’s parameters with regards to position, movement and load meaning better control over the bike.
In order for it to be effective, the exercises need to be done with a barbell – a Smith machine won’t work on the core because it controls the travel of the bar. Training needs to be done with correct form and at the right weight considering age, base strength and injury history so it’s worth getting the advice of qualified strength & conditioning coach.
Getting the right range of leg movement during exercise dialled first is important because full range is never achieved when pedalling, the leg is never fully straight unless something is very wrong. A properly performed back or parallel squat (they are the same thing) will counteract this, increasing hip mobility facilitating more power to the pedals, particularly in more extreme in aero positions.
In terms of programming, late summer and autumn is a good time to start the journey if the plan is to be competitive during the cycling season. A few weeks of learning technique and getting used to lifting in time for winter will mean the core will be strong for the spring.
It’s NEVER too late to start strength training. The older athlete is likely to benefit proportionately more than the younger because it improves bone density. Also, resistance training is the only thing proven to be more effective than endurance training to improve mood so you’ll be stronger, with increased mobility, greater injury resilience AND happier. You'll also never have to do another sit up or plank in the rest of your life! What’s not to like?
Rich Smith is a psychology graduate and a British Cycling qualified Level 3 Road and TT coach supporting riders nationally and internationally and is coach to the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team. He grows increasingly impatient with the training guff spouted by the cycling press. He launched RideFast Coaching in 2015 to deliver one to one, rider centred training that is physiologically effective but also psychologically sustainable.
The ramblings of a cycling coach...