Here's why good core strength is essential for endurance athletes like cyclists — and how to get started with an exercise routine.
Years ago, I was out to dinner with a group of friends when an unassuming gentleman joined us. (I’m still embarrassed to admit that, at the time, I had no idea he was a two-time world mountain bike champion.) I eventually realized he was a cyclist when we began to discuss training. Everyone was sharing his or her secrets to success, something I was all too happy to listen to. When the champion was asked what was different about his two years on top, his answer was simple, and the best advice of the night: “I did four things — eat, sleep, ride my bike, and core.”
Fortunately, most cyclists today have heard about the benefits of core work.
“It’s tremendously important and incredibly underrated,” said Chris Baldwin, a past national road champion who now coaches alongside former pro Ben Day at Day by Day Coaching. Baldwin can tell when a rider has a strong core. “[It’s] style, smoothness.”
Joe Dombrowski (EF Education First-Drapac) echoed this sentiment, pointing to former teammate Bradley Wiggins as an example. “He’s so stable and solid on the bike, he almost looks awkward when he gets out of the saddle,” he said.
We all know we should do it, so perhaps the more important question is what we actually gain from it.
This is where the science gets … quiet.
Craig Abrams, founder of CADC Chiropractic in California, is currently working with a team from the University of New England to answer this exact question.
Abrams feels that core training has both performance and general health benefits. But the gains probably aren’t what you’d expect. Their study explores the effects of core work on VO2max.
“It has something to do with breathing,” Abrams said. Many of our inspiratory muscles, including the diaphragm, which is our largest “breathing” muscle, act as both respiratory and stabilizing muscles. In a 2007 study of runners, it was found that fatiguing the core hurt performance by causing more labored and perceptually harder breathing. Likewise, too much heavy breathing weakened the core.
“If you can breathe better and you can breathe better [for] longer,” Abrams said, “I’d say it’s like Viagra for your lungs.”
But breathing isn’t the only performance gain. The core provides stability that, according to Baldwin, allows riders to pedal from the center of their bodies, using every muscle from “neck to toe” instead of just their quads.
On the flip side, a weak core can hurt you. Literally.
Abrams doesn’t know a single cyclist “who hasn’t had a tight low back at some point.” Maintaining health might not be sexy, but missing a season due to back problems is even less appealing.
Ultimately, health and performance go hand-in-hand. In one of the few studies of core strength and cycling, it was found that as a cyclist’s core fatigued, lateral sway developed in the knees that could cause injury. Ultimately, the most attractive part of a strong core may be the ability to outperform your opponents late in the race.
“In the fifth hour on the final climb of the day, once you’re fatigued, that’s when the stability work really pays off,” Dombrowski said.
How to strengthen the core
Whether your focus is health, performance, or both, Abrams, Baldwin, and Dombrowski agreed that proper core training for cyclists is very different from what many think. Here are a few key principles to guide you.
FUNCTION AND ENDURANCE, NOT STRENGTH AND FLEXIBILITY
In multiple studies, Stuart McGill, one of the top experts on back stability and health, found that high-level athletic performance did not correlate with strength or back flexibility. However, core endurance and neuromuscular function told another story.
“The science about building stronger [leg] muscles to pedal a bike [faster] is scarce at best,” Baldwin said. “My experience backs that up.” Baldwin tries to help his athletes find a feeling of support and tension throughout their bodies by building neuromuscular stability.
McGill’s research warned about the dangers of applying the weight-lifting paradigm of muscle isolation and hypertrophy to a sports-performance setting. Baldwin agreed, pointing out that squats are one of his favorite core exercises. “[Doing things] simultaneously is the key; [squats] use your back muscles while working your quadriceps,” he said.
INCREASE REPETITIONS, NOT WEIGHT
When it comes to performance, core endurance is more important than strength. So, increase the number of repetitions or the length of your holds as you adapt, instead of adding weight.
TRAIN BACK MOMENTS, NOT MOVEMENTS
Abrams warned about the dangers of training movements of the back, especially rotations.
“Those movements themselves cause erosion of the spinal disks and irritate the spinal nerves,” Abrams said. “That’s why sit ups are the devil.”
The primary function of the lumbar region is to be stable. With all core work, Abrams recommended keeping the lower back locked in a neutral position. Avoid flexion or rotation. Instead, move from the hips.
NOT ALWAYS THE EXERCISES YOU’D THINK
Baldwin often prescribes different core exercises than many mainstream coaches. He focuses on basic routines that use a chain of muscles to activate in succession. His favorites are two of the most fundamental — squats and deadlifts. “I do no stability ball, no rocker ball that you stand on,” he said. He recommended core work up to five days per week.
Below is a routine to get you started. Seek a professional trainer for anything more complex. The exercises must be flawless, maintaining tension throughout the body, warned Baldwin. Keep the spine neutral and locked.
For more weight training advice, check out the VeloNews Fast Talk podcast, your source for the best advice and most interesting insight on what it takes to become a better cyclist. In the following episode, co-hosts Chris Case and Trevor Connor are joined by Jess Elliott, a sports performance coach and biomechanist at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center. Elliott helps us understand the fundamentals of strength workouts in the weight room: what to do, how to do it, and how many times to lift. Plus, we speak with pro rider Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) about how he fits weight lifting into his busy schedule.
Fast Talk is available on all your favorite podcast services, including iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, and Soundcloud. If you enjoy the podcast, please consider taking a moment to rate and comment on iTunes after listening. Also, check out the VeloNews Cycling Podcast, our weekly discussion of the sport’s hottest topics, trends, and controversies.