Learn about your core and how strengthening it will improve your cycling performance.
When describing the importance of Core Training to his athletes, the late Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin said, “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.” Perhaps more appropriate for your cycling coach to say is, ”You can’t pedal on a pillow.” The magnitude of the analogy remains the same.
What is Your Core?
The core consists of the muscles of our midsection, which surround and attach to the spine and pelvis. Not considered influential, the core muscles play a fundamental role in stabilizing the spine and pelvis and maintaining proper posture.
A recent study published in the Journal Current Sports Medicine Reports states, “core stability and its motor control have been shown to be imperative for initiation of functional limb movements, as needed in athletics. Therefore, sports medicine practitioners use core strengthening techniques to improve performance and prevent injury.”
In addition to providing stability to maintain proper posture and prevent spinal injury, core muscle strengthening is often a key aspect of the multifaceted approach to spinal rehabilitation and recovery from back injury. In a study entitled Core strengthening exercises for low back pain the authors offer that “the best available evidence suggests that a core strengthening program may be beneficial in reducing pain scores, functional disability, and recurrences of acute low back pain episodes.”
The importance is emphasized in a 2017 study entitled Effectiveness of core stabilization exercises and routine exercise therapy in management of pain in chronic non-specific low back pain: A randomized controlled clinical trial which simply concludes “Core stabilization exercise is more effective than routine physical therapy exercise in terms of greater reduction in pain in patients with non-specific low back pain.”
The Core Muscles Include:
Are Your Glutes Part of Your Core?
The glute muscles are a frequent topic of interest on this site because of their importance in multiple aspects of cycling performance. The dependence upon glute muscle strength and flexibility is essential to optimal cycling performance and decreasing injury risk.
While the glutes aren’t technically considered a core muscle, they act to control the pelvis. Their interdependence with other traditional core muscles has a significant effect on trunk stability and postural control.
A persistent bent-over cycling posture causes a shortening of the muscles on the front of the thigh (the hip flexors), which attach to the pelvis, causing it to tilt forward, creating an excessive arch in the lower back. Strengthening the glutes will correct this potential pain-causing condition, which through their attachment to the pelvis, will tilt it back to where it belongs.
The Importance of Core Strengthening for Cyclists
By its very nature, cycling predominantly involves the leg musculature. Proper cycling posture, where the saddle, pedals, and handlebar support your weight, relies on core strength but doesn’t provide the stimulus required to strengthen it. In addition, untrained core muscles rapidly fatigue when riding, causing progressive deterioration in form and power-producing efficiency.
“The core, more often than not, functions to prevent motion rather than initiating it,” cites a recent Core Training Study, and also reports that “the core makes the rest of the body more capable.”
A solid core eliminates unnecessary translation of the body on the saddle, delivering all the energy you produce into a smooth pedal stroke. The core provides stability that allows riders to pedal from a centralized base, using every muscle supporting their spinal column instead of just their quads.
Unfortunately, despite having all the leg strength in the world, you won’t use it effectively without a stable core. A strong core allows you to transfer more power through the pedals while reducing the risk of injury and improving posture.
Isolation Versus Integration Exercises for Core Strengthening
When creating a core strengthening program that will most effectively and efficiently target the intended musculature for the proper purpose, there are a few key aspects to consider.
In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers at Penn State University evaluated 16 different core exercises to learn which activated the most muscle and therefore “maximized functional gains and peak performance.”
The researchers determined that “isolation” exercises designed to target the abdominals specifically weren’t as effective as “integration” exercises.
Isolation exercises are simple, localized movements that target only one muscle group (e.g., the abdominal crunch).
Integration exercises are complex, multi-joint activities that combine trunk muscle activation with contractions of the limb muscles (e.g., the hover or plank).
The study found that abdominal and lumbar muscle activity was greatest when these muscles worked together in conjunction with the limb muscles. In short, incorporating activity at the shoulder and hip resulted in the need for greater activation of the primary abdominal and back muscles, as well as activating the distal limb musculature.
Further evidence for the implications of glute and core strengthening as integral to cycling performance and injury prevention.
Conclusion: What’s Next?
A solid understanding of our core and its importance in cycling is key to optimizing performance and injury prevention. Applying that knowledge to formulate an effective and efficient core strengthening program and integrate it into your training is the next pivotal step.
In a series of future articles on this topic, we will explore which core strengthening exercises are most effective in working our core muscles the hardest and had the best carryover to performance gains.
With the help of several highly experienced cycling fitness performance professionals, we will take you through a cycling-specific core strengthening program and explain how to progress it to maximize your gains while eliminating the risk of injury in the process.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!