2018 Epic Winner Kate Courtney Shares 11 Killer Core Strength Moves
If you follow Kate Courtney on Instagram (and if you don’t, you should), then you’ve seen how much hard work the mountain bike world champion puts in at the gym. Aside from Olympic lifts and plyometric moves, Courtney also shares some seriously badass balance and core strength exercises. “Cross-country mountain biking involves a lot of strength, coordination, and balance,” she says. Though cycling is primarily an endurance sport, Courtney believes every rider can benefit from building a stronger core.
Why? A strong core translates to better bike handling, especially over technical terrain, and you’ll ride better even when you’re fatigued. Improving your upper body strength and flexibility also helps prevent injuries. “If you’re really pushing it and really training your technical skills, you’re eventually going to hit the ground,” says Courtney. Training for that makes your body more resilient to mountain biking’s demands.
But it’s not just mountain bikers that can benefit. No matter what type of cycling you prefer – from road, to gravel, to cruising around town – better balance and a stronger core is essential for everything you do, both on and off the bike.
So we caught up with Courtney to learn more about her core strength-training routine. She likes to create combination moves that challenge both your balance and your upper body or lower body at the same time, which makes them pretty difficult, so we offer ways you can modify each move and build up to it to find success. Here’s a list of her favorite balance and core strength exercises, including our modifications, plus her best tips for how to add them to your regular training.
How to use this list:
Courtney does three gym sessions each week and typically, she’ll devote the final 30 to 40 minutes of her session to core work. You can incorporate these core exercises into your usual gym time, turn your lunch break into a quick core crusher, or do them after a ride two to three times per week. “It’s really about how it best fits into your overall programme – everyone’s body is different,” she says.
The goal is to do a variety of exercises each time, so feel free to pick and choose from this list. There’s no need to do all of them at once. Courtney gets ideas from her trainer, from social media, and by experimenting. Her signature weight-flipping move came from a video ski racer Lindsay Vonn posted.
You’ll notice there’s a progression in these exercises, too, so we organized this list from easiest to most challenging. You want to start with the easier moves, such as kneeling on the balance ball, to build your strength and balance before moving on to some of the more complicated exercises. Since Courtney is a pro athlete, she’s able to perform these at the highest level, so we detail how to make them easier.
Don’t be discouraged if you can’t complete each move the first time you try it. Even Courtney had to try some of these exercises multiple times before she mastered them. “I feel like with all of these, it’s a lot harder than you think it will be the very first time,” she says. Keep at it and even flipping a weight will become as routine for you as riding a bike.
1. Balance Ball Kneel
Why: If you’re new to balance ball exercises, the balance ball kneel is a great place to start. Courtney recommends starting against a wall for support. “Most people are going to feel pretty wobbly,” she says. “After trying it a couple times, you’ll progress quickly.”
How: Place a balance ball next to a wall and stand behind it. Using the wall for support, kneel on top of the ball one knee at a time. Brace core to balance and let go of wall. Once you can balance near the wall for 30 seconds, move the ball to the middle of the room and repeat. Build up to being able to kneel on the ball for 60 seconds. “The biggest thing is stability in your core, so you should feel like you have a solid, engaged core, while kneeling on the ball,” says Courtney.
2. Balance Ball Kneel With Medicine Ball
Why: “This works a little coordination and moving the ball side-to-side obviously challenges your balance more,” says Courtney. “It also forces you to stabilise your core in more than one direction.”
How: Hold a medicine ball underneath your arm so your hands are free to get into a kneeling position on the ball. Once steady, hold the medicine ball with both hands in front of hips. With a slight bend in elbows, press the ball up overhead diagonally to the right, lower, then press up again to the left. Continue to alternate for 30 to 60 seconds or as long as you can balance.
“I think this is really important for mountain biking, because when you’re going downhill on a steep, technical section, it’s not always a completely linear body position,” Courtney says. “Being comfortable keeping your core stable while rotating is super important.”
3. Indo Board Dance
Why: “Dancing is a very important part of spending time in the gym, and if you do it on the Indo board, it counts as working on your balance!” she says.
How: Stand on top of the Indo Board and find your balance. Cue up your favorite music and go at it. Courtney’s is Beyoncé. “The Indo board brings you more lateral balance, where the balance ball moves in all different directions,” she says.
4. Indo Board Squat
Why:“It’s nice to do different things. When you spend a lot of time working on balance in one way, your brain and body adapt, and it becomes less challenging. So being able to throw in something different, that challenges you in a new way is good—even if it’s working on a lot of the same things,” she says.
How: Stand on the Indo board with feet just wider than shoulder-width apart and find your balance. Send hips back and bend knees to lower down into a squat while keeping your chest lifted and maintaining balance. Once you master this, add weight by holding a medicine with both hands in front of chest to make it harder. “It’s about keeping your brain engaged,” Courtney says.
5. Indo Board Weight Plate Flip
Courtney’s well-known for her weight plate flips. Master yours on solid ground first, then try it on the Indo Board.
Why: Because, why not? It actually can improve your skills (grip strength), but it also makes for a great party trick. “This one’s definitely for fun and another way to challenge your balance,” she says.
How: Start standing with feet on the ground. Grab a weight plate that you can manage to lift with one arm (start lighter, then build up to a heavier weight). Holding the weight by the top edge, raise arm up so palm faces down to flip the weight. Catch it with other hand by the opposite edge. Continue to flip while alternating between hands. Be extremely careful not to drop the weight on your feet.
Once you master the flip, try it on the Indo board. Stand on the board holding a weight plate and find your balance. Flip the weight and catch it with other hand. Continue to alternate for as long as you can balance.
Don’t be discouraged, if you struggle with this exercise at first. “Flipping the weight alone, without any balance involved, was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” Courtney says. “It’s after those first three or four tries, you stick with it, you’ll be really surprised at how quickly you can get good at it.”
6. Balance Ball Squat
Why: “This gets your legs involved, and you’ll definitely feel those quads doing it,” she says. “It also recruits all the smaller muscles in your legs that help stabilise your body. This is helpful when you’re standing on the pedals, going down a challenging descent, and the bike is moving around a bit.”
How: First, you need to master kneeling on the ball (above). Then progress to standing. It will help if the ball is not fully inflated. Start with the ball near a wall. Step onto the ball and use the wall to help you balance. Once you can balance for 60 seconds without using the wall, move the ball to the middle of the room and try again. “Standing on the ball was really challenging the first time I tried it,” Courtney says. “Then you get it a lot more quickly; it’s like riding a bike.”
When you master standing on the ball for 60 seconds, progress to adding a squat. Standing on the ball with feet as wide as possible, send hips back and bend knees to lower into a squat. Keep chest lifted. Press back up to starting position. When you can successfully squat on the ball, add weight by holding a medicine ball in front of chest.
“Eventually you’ll be able to get up on the ball while holding your medicine ball, but it’s helpful if you have a buddy who can hand it to you the first couple of times,” says Courtney.
7. Balance Ball Stand With Medicine Ball
Why: “This one, again, forces you to stabilise not just through your core, but also with your legs,” says Courtney. “It challenges coordination and balance and builds body awareness to keep your core stable while still moving the rest of your body independently.”
How: Master standing on the ball first (see above). Once you can stand on the ball with no support for 60 seconds, try adding weight with a medicine ball. Stand on the ball. Once steady, hold the medicine ball with both hands in front of hips. With a slight bend in elbows, press the ball up overhead diagonally to the right, lower, then press up again to the left. Continue to alternate for 30 to 60 seconds or as long as you can balance.
8. Balance Ball Stand With Weight Plate Flip
Why: It’s a slightly harder version of the Indo Board Weight Plate Flip because the board just moves laterally, while the ball moves all over. “The weight adds a lot of grip strength, too,” she says.
How: Make sure you can stand on the ball for up to 60 seconds first. Then, master the weight plate flip on solid ground (see above). Once you have those two basics down, put them together. Stand on the balance ball with feet wide, holding a weight plate with one hand. Once balanced, flip the weight and catch it with other hand. Continue to alternate between hands for as long as you can balance.
9. Push-Up to Side Plank
Why: “This one highlights upper body strength,” says Courtney. “It also secretly works on grip strength. Holding a dumbbell feels a lot like holding on to a handlebar.” We recommend performing this move without the weights first, then add the dumbbells for an extra challenge.
How: Start on all fours with wrists under shoulders. Step each foot back to come into a high plank position with wrists under shoulders, core engaged so body forms a straight line from head to heels. Bend elbows to lower chest down to floor and press back up to perform a push-up. From high plank, roll onto right arm to come into a side plank as you lift left arm toward ceiling and keep hips lifted. Return to high plank then roll over to left arm to repeat on other side. Return to starting position and repeat for 10 to 12 reps.
To make this move harder, add a set of medium-weight dumbbells. In high plank, hold the handles of the dumbbells, then lift each up overhead when you roll into the side planks.
“These pushups might not be that hard, but being able to do quite a few of them comes in handy at the end of a race or long ride when you’re really tired,” she says.
10. Indo Board Slider Pike to Push-Up
Why: “I really like the little sliders because they allow you to move your legs really dynamically,” says Courtney. By bringing your legs forward one at a time, you follow the motion of riding a bike. “You can target those muscle groups and work on core stability at the same time.”
How: Start in a high plank position with hands shoulder-width apart on an Indo board, wrists under shoulders, feet on sliders, and core engaged so body forms a straight line from head to heels. Using the sliders, draw right knee to chest, return to high plank. Draw left knee to chest, return to high plank. Keeping legs straight, slide both feet towards hands as you use core to hike hips straight up into a pike. Return to plank. Bend elbows to lower chest to Indo board and perform a push-up. Repeat for 10 to 12 reps.
“For me, this exercise is really helpful neurologically because I’m mimicking the motion of cycling, while paying really close attention to keeping my upper body and core engaged,” she says. “It gives me that feeling of being really stable, while in the position that I’m in while I’m actually riding hard on the bike.”
11. Reverse Crunch With Barbell
Why: “This move targets core strength, while keeping your upper body stable and working on grip strength,” she says. We already know Courtney is a badass, so we don’t recommend starting this move with a loaded barbell. You’ll want to master the Reverse Crunch first, then you can get the same effect by holding two medium-weight dumbbells overhead. If you’re extremely experienced with a barbell, you can give it a try, but use a spotter.
How to: Lie faceup on a mat or bench with legs straight. Lift legs a few inches off ground and press lower back into mat. Bring feet towards chest as you use your abs to curl your lower back off the mat for a reverse crunch. If you’re on a bench, you can grab the edges of the bench with your hands for assistance. Lower hips and legs back down and repeat for 10 to 12 reps. Once you’ve got that down, add weight.
Start by holding two medium-weight dumbbells over your chest. Perform the reverse crunch and complete reps. After a few weeks, you can continue to add more weight and potentially build up to a barbell.
“The goal here is to be really strong and stable in your upper body – tighten your core and think about pulling your belly button to your spine,” says Courtney. Make sure your lower back doesn’t arch off the ground. “Keep your shoulders low and strong and make sure the bar stays directly over your shoulders.”
Images: Ian Tuttle
This article originally appeared on bicycling.com.