Are you training you "abs" or your "core" to gain performance?
The truth about your actual core, may surprise you!
When it comes to core training for cyclists and triathletes, we often think about planks, side planks, crunches, things of that nature. But if we actually want to build strength and performance, we need to think about the core as more than just the stomach. Many well-meaning and some educated coaches and personal trainers think of the core as being the stomach or the midsection of the body. Unfortunately, this is selling short all of the muscles and the structures that need to have strength, stability, and endurance to allow you to perform. If we take a step back and look at what the core actually is, it should involve or include all of the muscles between the neck, the elbows and the knees. There’s a number of different reasons for this, first and foremost, the muscles of the torso act differently than those of the arms and legs. Think about your bicep and tricep for a minute.
If I curl my bicep, my tricep needs to lengthen. This is an agonist and antagonist style of relationship. However, when it comes to the muscles of the torso, it doesn’t work like that. Instead, the muscles deflect forces in and around the spine, depending on how you’re moving. Ideally, we want them to deflect the forces around the spine, not into the spine, but this takes skill and movement proficiency, something that needs to be taught and practiced for quite some time in order to become automatic. The jobs of the muscle of the torso are to help us to be able to produce what’s called proximal stiffness, or the ability to keep the spine in a neutral position and allow movement to happen at the shoulder and at the hip. However, many of us, especially those who sit on a bike for many long hours at a time, tend to learn how to move through the spine by flexing and extending as opposed to moving from the hip while keeping the spine nice and locked.
Now, this isn’t to say that the spine shouldn’t move, each segment of the spine is in fact made for different types of forces and ranges of motion. The upper back called the thorax is made for flection, extension and some rotation to happen side to side. The thorax also has the ribs attaching and joining or creating joints along the spine where the ribs sit adjacent to the vertebral bodies. Now, when it comes to being able to deflect forces, this means that each of the different muscles plays a role. At no point is a muscle going to be completely relaxed or necessarily completely tense in a healthy functioning core. However, many of us tend to develop, we’ll call them bad movement patterns or habits over time. For cyclists and triathletes, particularly the glutes and the obliques tend not to get as developed as they should due to our using them through a smaller range of motion then they’re actually designed to handle horde or to go through.
When we ride the bike, we’re in a closed hip position. That means that we are no longer able to actually extend the hip all the way through and this changes how the joint functions. This has big implications on the rest of the core, again, all of the muscles between the neck, elbow and knees, because the pelvic floor are also made up of the deep hip rotators. These muscles are responsible to help alongside the glute to pull the femur back into the hip socket, as well as to allow us to have a stable full range of motion. With cycling, we’re in a shortened range of motion in the front of the hip, which means that the muscles on the backside or the extensors of the hip are lengthened. This has negative implications for the rest of the muscles further up the chain, and can set us into a little bit of a trouble spot if we’re not careful and don’t train appropriately.
How Do You Train "The Core"?
When it comes to training the core, what we actually need to do is learn how to create proximal stiffness to get distal motion. This means that we’re going to need to train in optimal joint positions. Joint position dictates muscle function, or more simply put, how a joint is aligned with each other or those around it is going to affect how the muscles are going to be able to do or not do their job. Properly training the core is going to mean that we’ll have to look at posture, breathing, as well as your ability to get muscles to work in orchestra with one another. However, these exercises tend to be much more challenging from a technique standpoint than from a “can you feel the burn?” standpoint. For many people, this means that they’re going to stop trying to do the exercise because they’re not feeling it and thus think that they’re not getting any return. This is a massive mistake.
I cover how better technique outweighs more weight or more challenged increased performance in my most recent PezCycling News blog post, which was published on March 17th, 2021. This post has taken off and it’s had over 100,000 views from around the world already, and it’s only a few days old. Why is it that cyclists are coming around to this? Much of it has to do with what I’ve been teaching here at Human Vortex Training for the last 15 years. Strength is only going to come on top of a platform of high quality movement. Learning how to produce proximal stiffness to get distal motion is built on a platform of these exercises where technique matters more than “feeling the exercise”. But it’s not easy.
Three exercises you can try for yourself that, when done right and will help you be able to get far better movement from your core and better power are:
Side Plank Top Foot Forward
McGill Crunch/ McGill Curl-up
Each of these exercises is incredibly difficult to do with great technique. Pay attention to the cues and how the exercise is executed as well as the alignment. This is the beginning of a fantastic, true core strength that will allow you to be able to get more out of your already pent-up power, speed, and performance out on the bike or out on course.
If you’d like to learn more about how to properly strength train for cycling performance and to get far more out of your core, sign up for the HVTraining newsletter. And if you’re a coach or someone who’s serious about their training, sign up for the insiders list for the world’s first Strength Training for Cyclists Certification Course, which will teach you all the ins and outs of how to do strength training for actual on bike or in sport results. Not more weight on the bar, not more reps at a set weight.