Five ways to diversify your core training

Ari Baquet /
Shedding the notion that core work must be done on your back opens up new exercise possibilities; Logan VonBokel demonstrates strengthening of the obliques and mid to upper transverse abdominis. Photo: Ari Baquet | VeloNews.com

Picture core training in your mind, and the motions that you visualize likely involve some form of crunches or sit-ups.

Static planks, the gym’s answer to the stationary trainer, may also come to mind. Limited to these exercises, core training may feel repetitive — and hardly sustainable throughout the pre-season.

“When people think of core work, even when they’re thinking of a variety of exercises, they’re all somehow just a variation on the theme of crunches,” Allison Westfahl, director of personal training at Flatiron Athletic Club in Boulder, Colorado, and strength coach to Garmin-Sharp’s Tom Danielson, told VeloNews.

Adding variety to core training is not just a matter of new exercises, but a new approach as well. As an added bonus, varying the routine will target new and, possibly, under-developed muscle groups of the core, making the training even more effective.

Get off your back

All variations on crunches and sit-ups require you to be supine, or on your back, limiting the number of exercises possible, and, by extension, the variety of muscle groups the exercises can target.

“To keep core work interesting, or varied… get off your back,” Westfahl said.

In addition to adding variety, changing positions can make core work more applicable to cycling.

“You would never lay on your back to ride a bike,” she said. “There are a lot of exercises… that actually have you in what’s called a prone position, which is face-down, because that’s typically how one would ride a bike.”

Westfahl recommends taking advantage of getting off of your back by recognizing that the core encompasses muscles on all sides of the body, not just the commonly-trained abdominal muscles on the front.

“When you think of the core as incorporating all of those muscles on the front, the back, [and] the side of the body, then the possibilities for exercise are limitless,” she said.

This, she added, means including multiple directions of motion — pushing, pulling, and twisting — to target different muscle groups within the core.

For example, working to keep the torso stable in a prone position while making movements from the shoulders or pelvis, “is a great foundation from which to work in order to build core strength for the bike,” she said.

“Static is fine, but movement is even better,” added Richii Koshari, senior instructor at Core Power Yoga in Boulder, advising “drawing knee to elbow or knee to shoulder, knee to nose, any of those ranges.”

Develop the lumbar muscles

Activities of daily life, especially in the workplace, can lead to underdevelopment of core muscles on the back of the body, particularly the muscles of the lumbar region (lower back) — cycling does little to correct this imbalance.

“If you’re just the average Joe, which most of us are, you probably already have an over-developed front part of your core, or abs,” Westfahl said. “I would say that goal No. 1, if you’re just starting out, is to focus on the muscles on the back side of the body.”

As a starting point, she recommends an exercise known in yoga as the “locust pose,” which helps to strengthen the lumbar muscles of the lower back. This is the muscle group that can become over-stressed and painful — more painful, even, than the leg muscles — on steep climbs; strengthening it can stave off and, eventually, eliminate that pain.

Beginning face-down in a prone position, “practice lifting your legs off the ground behind you, or [your] chest off the ground in front of you,” Westfahl said. Work toward elevating the legs and chest simultaneously.

However, the supine, or face-up, position still has its place: the supine bridge targets muscles of the lumbar region, and, as an added bonus, trains the hamstrings and glutes — a muscle group Westfahl cited as a weakness of Danielson’s when they first consulted in February 2008.

Begin practicing the supine bridge with both feet on the ground, and work up to elevating one leg — the thighs should always remain parallel.

Train the transverse abdominis

Stability on the bike, according to Koshari, who also races BMX, involves use of the transverse abdominis (TVA), one of the deepest layers of abdominal muscle that aids in stability of the pelvis.

The lower-most section of the often-overlooked TVA, Koshari said, is “tricky” to target, and isolation exercises are the most effective way to train it.

He recommends beginning by “laying on [your] back with the feet straight up, and you can hold something between your feet.”

A yoga block, water bottle, or even a sheet of paper are all suitable, as the goal is to use tension in the hip adductors of the inner thigh to keep the legs aligned along the body’s center-line.

“With an exhale, push your heels up one inch. That will lift your tailbone off of the mat one inch,” Koshari said. “If you go higher, then you’re using your mid and upper TVA. So you want to isolate the lower TVA by barely lifting your tailbone off the floor.”

He recommends beginning with 10 controlled repetitions, working up to static holds “three to five breaths” in duration.

As a benchmark, Koshari said that he has performed up to 110 continuous repetitions in a given set.

Use movements of daily life

Westfahl advises that eliminating crunches should not require the development of complex new movements to train the core; rather, it is an opportunity to further simplify core training.

As a starting point to this approach, she recommends “trying to mimic motions that you do in daily life. So that might be a motion that you would do to pick up a bag of groceries.”

To turn that into an introductory lower-back exercise, Westfahl suggests beginning in a standing position; twist to one side and bend down to the toes, then return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

“Another one that people can resonate with is how many times they squat throughout the day,” she said. “You get in and out of your car, you get out of a chair, use the restroom… there are tons of different ways that you can potentially squat throughout the day.”

To take advantage of motions of daily life, Westfahl recommends focusing on using the core to stabilize the spine during such common motions as squatting or bending; Koshari adds lifting, as well.

“Recognize that pretty much any movement you could do in daily life is using your core, whether you realize it or not,” she said. “In order to make [core strength] functional, the goal is to become better at the movements you’re already doing throughout the day.”

Incorporate Instability

Trading the floor or a weighted core training machine for a Swiss ball can add the element of balance to your core routine — something missing entirely from traditional crunches and sit-ups.

An August 2012 study in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy examined the basic crunch and found that, despite a machine’s supposed advantage of adding load to the exercise, performing crunches on a Swiss ball can “improve joint position, posture, balance, and neural feedback.”

Additionally, the study (“Swiss Ball Abdominal Crunch with Added Elastic Resistance is an Effective Alternative to Training Machines,” Sundstrup, Jakobsen, et al.) showed greater muscle activation in the rectus abdominis on the Swiss ball than on the machine, with lower activation of the hip flexors as well.

According to the authors, reducing hip flexor activation during abdominal training can reduce lower back pain, a benefit which applies regardless of age, gender, or pre-existing levels of pain.

The authors hypothesized that “the unstable surface provided by the ball alters proprioceptive demands, thereby stimulating the core muscles to a greater extent than stable surfaces.”

Furthermore, the authors noted, “As strong abdominal muscles provide support for the lumbar spine during everyday movements, strengthening the abdominal muscles may decrease the occurrence of low back pain.”

The take-home message, then, is two-fold: strengthening the abdominal muscles — although not to the point of creating an imbalance with the muscles of the lower back — can improve spinal stability, reducing the likelihood of lower back pain; doing so on a Swiss ball or other unstable surface can make the training even more effective.