Why planking alone will NOT work for cyclists & triathletes seeking performance improvements
The Fitness Industry storage locker/dungeon is chalk-full of many “core strength programs” that have promised thinner waists, a rippling 6-pack, or a “bikini perfect waistline”. These programs were no good for the general population (except to be a first step to get people MOVING, in which case they DO work!), and certainly don’t do us much good in the cycling & triathlon worlds.
Almost as useless as these infomercial products are the standard front plank. So why is it that so many cyclists and triathletes are spending so much time doing planks to try to get them better for their chosen sport?
Triathlon & Cycling's Love Affair with the Front Plank
As endurance athletes, we tend to gravitate towards pretty much anything that involves long periods of effort. The front plank (and side plank) fall under this category.
While this is certainly a good thought as it DOES fall into the “specific adaptation to imposed demands”, it doesn’t really address our actual performance needs.
Let’s take a little bit of a deeper dive into why that is, and how we can do better with our core training so we can meet the performance demands that cycling and triathlon place on our bodies.
Planking for core strength?
While you may think that I am “against” the front plank as an exercise for core training, that’s not true. I’m not saying that at all. What I am saying is that we as cyclists and triathletes have turned to the front plank, and bicycle crunches, and side planks as “the only core strength training I need”, which has led us down a path to continued dysfunction and lack of improvements in our on-bike and in-sport performances.
It’s like the “When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” kinda conundrum.
Here’s a tool that we know can work in some degree, so, what the heck, let’s just use it and see what happens!?!?
Certainly, planking can serve a role in a program. In fact, those of you who have come to me for back or hip pain will be quick to point out that the side plank, done with the top foot forward, is often found in your routine.
You would be 100% correct.
However, while the side planks are in fact used, in the above fashion, what you’ll also quickly realize, is that we never go above 60-75 seconds in total length, nor we perform more than 2-3 sets of these.
This is in large part due to not being any support (from research) that doing a plank longer than this duration of 60-75 seconds gives you any more of a benefit.
The other challenge we face is that many of us perform the plank with poor technique, leaving the muscles intended to be strengthened still weak, and needing much work. Meanwhile we are reinforcing crappy movement patterns.
For many cyclists this would look like the hip flexors taking on the task, while the upper back is rounded, and shoulder blades pushed up towards the ears. While Triathletes will often overuse their lats and quads.
Add to this the fact that it is far from only the transeverse abdominus that is doing the work to support our midsection and movements in our sport, and you begin to realize we’re taking a piece of chewing gum and trying to use it to keep the bumper on the ’72 El Dorado from falling off…
In fact, ALL of the muscles between your neck, elbows, and knees, make up your “core”, and must work TOGETHER to help you working properly and performing well.
Thus, just doing planks, and poorly at that, leaves much to be desired (and gained) to improve your cycling or triathlon performance.
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What is cycling or triathlon performance?
Before giving you a few exercises and ideas to take your cycling or triathlon performance up a few levels, we have to first define “Cycling performance” and “Triathlon performance”.
For a lot of people, the first thing that comes to mind is RACING! Performance is for those who have a podium or a win in their sites!
While we can all agree Leonard Hofstetter deserved to get that victory over Sheldon, when it comes to core training for performance, racing is actually the LAST thing we are thinking about.
Instead, we are thinking about how to help you ride, run, or swim more efficiently and more economically.
We do this by helping you be able to create proximal stiffness, for distal motion, or in other words: keep your ribs and hips locked together so you stop wasting energy.
It is important for anyone who is riding, running, or swimming- especially those who are doing it for fun!
This is in large part because those who are racing for podiums competitively, are more frequently looking for legal advantages that they can find, which often times leads them to better training and strength training approaches.
…But those of us who just love being out on the bike, riding with our friends, or training for a triathlon in a place that we enjoy or our team/club are going, tend to focus only on the sport side of things.
The great part about all this?
If you’re one of those cyclists or triathletes NOT racing or training for a podium, you’re in for a few very big quick wins that can help you ride stronger, decrease or get rid of common aches, and help you move better on and off the bike, and throughout your regular day.
Improving your core strength for triathlon and cycling
Let’s get you a significantly upgraded core strength program to boost your cycling or triathlon performances. The following exercises can be added to your strength training or weekly training regimen however you like.
But keep in mind that HOW you do it (technique) is far more important that just rattling through them mindlessly.
Give yourself 2 weeks of performing these exercises 2-4 days a week, never more than 2 days in a row (and ideally every other day), to begin to see or feel improvements in your posture, riding, or running.
Keep the difficulty LOW (except as you learn the technique). We’re looking fro 5’s, 6’s, and 7’s on the Perceived Exertion scale, NOT 9’s and 10’s!
1. Suitcase Deadlift
This one is a 3 for 1 special deal!
- Rotary Stability
- Full 360 degree core activation (everything between your neck, knees, and elbows)
Be sure to start with a weight that is 5-10# LESS than you think you can handle here. Pay attention to the Nose, Chest, Zipper line, and work to keep everything braced.
2. Chin-Tuck Head Lift
Think you’ve got great core strength? Prove it!
The Chin-Tuck Head lift will challenge you to provide full 360 degree core stiffness, while you move that big ol’ noggin of yours off the ground by about 2 inches.
Pay special attention to your rib+ hips connection here, as many think they can do this well, only to find when they look at the video of themselves (taken from ground level from the side), that their rib cage and hips quickly become disconnected.
3. The Static Bear Crawl
This has recently become one of my favorites/go-to for those who “can plank for 8+ minutes, no sweat”, as it quickly exposes cycling and triathlon specific weaknesses, and why your planks haven’t helped you see any improvements in your swim/bike/run, or getting rid of that dull ache in your back/hips/knees/neck after your longer or more intense training sessions.
Take your time with these, as they are deceptively hard!
4. Wall Scapular Slides
A deep abdominal and full-on core exercise, the Wall Scapular slides, aka “Wall angels”, are a fantastic core training exercise for nearly any athlete. This is due to the fact that they are completely unforgiving!
If you dont have the ability to fire your deep core, adductors, and get movement from only your shoulders, well, then we need to take a step back and seriously reevaluate where you are, and what you’ve been doing.
The vast majority of road cyclists and age group triathletes will find these to be extremely challenging to do even 80% correctly.
Take that as a challenge to improve your posture, strength balance, and riding/running technique, so you can stay fitter, fast, and healthy for many more years to come.
For many years planking, crunching, and even pilates + TRX “core exercises” have been popular in the cycling and triathlon worlds. Today we challenged those norms and showed you 4 exercises that can, and will, significantly improve not only your performance in your cycling or triathlon endeavors, but also help your body function better.
We spoke about how the core is not just your stomach or midsection, but ALL the muscles from your neck, to your elbows, to your knees, and that getting these muscles to work together to lock together your ribs and pelvis while supporting your spine, will allow you to get stronger, move better, and improve your function.
Lastly, we spoke about how age groupers and non-competitive cyclists need better core training far more than racers do. While surprising to some, I know you’ll find that your enjoyment level of your cycling or training for your triathlon will go way up, when you have fewer aches, pains, or discomforts in and out of training.
If you are a triathlete and you’d like a program that will improve your core strength, and boost your performances, my Strength Training for Triathlon Team is now live on Train Heroic. For just $1 a day, you get world-class strength training programming, and a community of like minded triathletes from around the world who are going through the same program you are!
I’d love to see you in there!
Until next time, Train Smarter, Not Harder, because it is all about YOU!