Core workouts are so often at the. . . ummmm, core, of what we do as cyclists and triathletes. But we need to ask the critical question:
Are your core workouts actually serving their purpose of boosting your performances?
For the vast majority of you, the answer is a resounding NO!
Your “core workouts” haven’t done much, if anything, to help you feel and move better in your cycling or triathlon.
You’re still holding planks for longer periods of time, doing more crunches and mountain climbers, and “feeling the burn” more, but still haven’t seen much, if any, improvement in your on-bike or running performance:
- Your back still bothers you at the end of long rides
- Your power numbers may be improving, but not a whole lot
- You still get back and neck pain on the bike
- Your hips are doing a hule-hoop after a few miles into your run
- Your back feels awful after your long runs
- Your stomach still isn’t quite as flat and toned as you’d like it to be
- You still get “butt wink” at the bottom of your squats
- Your deadlifts still don’t look great
Across the board, your “core training” program has failed you in every way possible…. Except that you’re now able to “do more reps” at the very same exercises, or to go longer.
The fitness worlds false g-d’s have pulled the wool over your eyes, and gotten you to believe that “feeling the burn” and getting in more reps is improving your bike, swim, or running performance.
I’ve been there. I know how frustrating it can be.
Let’s take a look at what you actually need out of your core work, in order to improve your performance.
Lock it in
The mass media may have you fooled into thinking that your core means your stomach, but this definition falls very short of what “the core” actually is.
The core, actually includes EVERYTHING between your neck, elbows, and knees.
You read that correctly.
And in Christoph’s case, he’s reminded his girlfriend of this as well:
When you begin to understand “the core” in this fashion, it becomes much clearer what it’s role really is: To create stiffness at the spine and trunk, in order to allow movement to happen from the hip and the shoulder.
Not Russian twists
A little like a plank, but only when done properly
While we’re on the bike, we have the challenge that we are not in a straight-spine posture, but while the joints are not in idea position to allow the muscles to do their jobs, this doesn’t change how we challenge the muscles in your strength training. This is because in order to get the muscles to better do their jobs, we need to train them in the positions and postures they were designed to work in.
Sure, eventually we can add some variations and get a little “fancy” with our training, but only after the foundation is deep and strong. . . which for many takes a few years.
The basics may be boring, but they sure as hell work!
Foundations of a strong “Core”
I despise the word “Core” being used for the torso and midsection, as this term has become synonymous with the stomach, and nothing else, which sells very short what you actually need to train in order to see performance gains.
There are a few important pillars in order to train the entire 360 degree midsection in order to see performance gain, let alone feel and move better, that don’t have a whole lot to do with the stomach.
First, is learning how to fire the glutes by themselves.
Two of the glutes (medius and minimus) help the upper leg bone (femur) to sit properly in the hip socket (acetabulum) through normal range of motion.
The other glute, helps extend the hip and knee, as well as externally rotates the hip. For cyclists, this poses a challenge, as we’re crammed onto the bike, which doesn’t put the glute through it’s full range of motion. So, the genius body, recruits the hamstrings to the job instead.
But this is a problem, as the hamstrings are not designed for this, and this leads to a cascade of changes in how the body tries to keep stability in the midsection:
- The Quadriceps tighten
- The Obliques lose some of their tuning
- The Adductors (inner thigh) tighten
These are just three of those changes, but they affect your ability to fire “your core” quite a bit.
Two exercises you can use to train your body to relearn/ retain the ability to keep your midsection firing properly are the Shielded breath and the Side Plank with your top foot forward.
The shielded breath helps you learn how to fire the entire 360 degree abdominal hoop together to create a locking together of the ribs and hips. But take your time! Many people overuse their six pack, and do not get the deeper muscles to fire.
- If you have high blood pressure, dizziness, or have been told by your doctor not to “bear down” or hold your breath, this exercise is not for you.
Start with 1 round of 3 breaths as shown in the video
Side plank top foot forward
The way you do side planks is leaving us short of reaping 80% of the gains they have to offer you!
By taking the top foot forward we’re activating both the internal and external obliques, as well as the adductors (inner thigh) of the upper leg, the glute medius and minimus of the lower leg, and a whole host of muscles along the spine that help it stay strong and rigid.
Start with 3 sets of 10-20 seconds each side but be sure to keep the alignment as noted in the video!
Next up, we have the next to impossible exercise, one which many people are “doing”, but whom are not getting what they need out of it, due to extremely poor technique:
This exercise is designed to be a spine-sparing, and movement bolstering exercise, yet the vast majority of folks out there performing this exercise do so by flexing and extending from their spine. This renders the Bird-Dog exercise useless for improving performance.
Read that again.
Doing the bird dog while getting movement from your spine (back), makes the exercise useless.
Pay attention to the cues, and progress through the exercise levels SLOWLY, taking you time at each level, making it so nothing else in your body moves:
- No swaying of the hips when you lift up the hand and knee off the ground
- No movement from the back as you go to extend the leg back
- Only the glute and mid-back are working, not the hamstring and shoulder
Paying attention to these details is incredibly important, as this is what will bear fruits for better performance.
There is no “prize” for zipping through the levels, unless you consider skipping out on over 50% of the benefits you could have gained a prize…
Moving Up To "Core Training" For Performance
Once you mastered these exercises, and are able to do each with impeccable technique each and every repetition of every set, you’ll be ready to add some performance oriented moves, which begin to add on stages of complexity and difficulty, by changing how forces are acting on your body, and the number of muscles that need to be involved.
One of the most power-boosting variations we’ve used over the years for cyclists and triathletes, is the Bird-Dog Top of Box.
While many will think “This doesn’t have ANY power at all in it! There’s no fast or quick moving parts to it, and it looks pretty easy!”
In fact, this move is power-boosting, as it challenges you maintain a solid, stiff trunk, or “core” if you will, while getting the arm and leg to move away from the midline of the body, while keeping the hips and ribs square to the floor.
This challenge makes it so that we are mimicking the forces on the body during running and biking:
As you pedal or run, the muscles of the outer hip (glute medius and minimus) as well as the muscles of the mid-back (trapezius, rhomboids) need to work together to allow movement to happen THROUGH the torso, not AT the torso.
AKA you’re getting power down to the road or pedal through your hip and leg, while the shoulder blade is moving on the rib cage, without losing stiffness through the entire spine.
It’s an incredibly hard task to carry out, as it requires the two biggest weak points for cyclists and triathletes to work, and work TOGETHER.
Core training for performance for cyclists and triathletes starts with the fundamentals of learning how to create stiffness through the entire torso, and only get movement through the hip and shoulder. But the vast majority of “core training for cyclsits” and “core training for triathletes” programs out there have you crunching, sitting up, and otherwise flexing your spine and torso, in an effort to copy “sport specific” movements, and have you feeling the burn. While these programs mean well, they miss the foundational principle of resistance training that we must put the muscles and joints into high-functioning positions, aka using the muscles as they are designed to work best, and solidify that platform, before we mimic sport-specific movements.
In fact, for many cyclists and triathletes, mimicking sport movements will only push you faster and further along to an overuse injury, as the muscles, joints, and tissues will break down due to their being pushed and used in way which they are not designed to handle.
In order to build to true peak performances, take the time to master the fundamentals. Once there, don’t get suckered in to thinking that in order to build power that you need to do fast, explosive movements. Rather, understanding how power is developed and transferred will allow you to take advantage of training the steps between the fundamentals and those fancy high-speed movements, thus reaping huge benefits along the way by training smarter, not harder.