Take Back Your Core

It's time to take the back the six-pack from bodybuilding magazines and put it back where it belongs: on the bike. If you're struggling to get past a plateau or dealing with discomfort on the bike, your core could be the missing link.

Jennifer Ward |

It’s time to take the back the six-pack from bodybuilding magazines and put it back where it belongs: on the bike. If you’re struggling to get past a plateau or dealing with discomfort on the bike, your core could be the missing link. – By Jennifer Ward
core“If a rider’s core is weak, they’re not able to maintain their upper body in the position needed to ride a bike,” says Julie Bates, Body Geometry Fit Instructor with Specialized Bicycles. She says that cyclists who aren’t strong in that region will put their weight on their arms to hold their body up, which can lead to numb hands, a sore neck and shoulders, and other problems. On the other hand, a strong core can mean more fluid pedaling, better breath, and a more comfortable ride.Ashton Szabo, an anatomy and kinesiology specialist based in Grass Valley, Calif., says the primary function of the core muscles is to stabilise the body. Often, we think of the plank as the de rigueur test to see who has the strongest core among your training buddies— but Szabo says it doesn’t necessarily test the body in a dynamic, meaningful way. Try these three DIY tests instead to see how you measure up.


Row Your Boat

What it tests: 

This exercise assesses stability and fluidity of movement, as well as muscular imbalances between the various core muscles.

How to:
Lie down on the floor, face up. Keeping your pelvis on the floor, and lift your torso and legs into a “V” shape. Return slowly to the floor without allowing your heels or shoulder blades to touch the floor, and repeat. If this movement strains the low back, place your elbows and forearms on the floor beside you and try to just move the legs. (As Szabo adds, feel free to sing “Row, row, row your boat” to make it more fun.)

Because cyclists are hunched over their bike, they often have a hard time extending their hips and spine, Szabo says. It’s very likely that during this test, you’ll want to round out your back; be sure to maintain a neutral spine to help protect the low back. “There is a lot going on in this movement, so take your time,” he adds.

Core master: 
The motion is smooth.
Relatively easy progression through the movements.

Core weakness: 
Your motion is jerky, and you have to use momentum to “fling” yourself up.
Flapping limbs, or falling to one side.


What it tests: 

The core’s ability to support the body’s capacity to extend.

How to: 
Lie face down on the floor with your arms over head in front of you. When you’re ready, left your arms, head and as much of your torso and legs as possible. Hold and breathe. If you suffer from any neck pain, not to crank from the back of your head when you lift up. Instead, keep your eyes forward and down, with your eyesight in line with your sternum or a little higher.

The core is often associated with the front of the body, but it also helps stabilise the back of the body. Since they spend so much time in the forward position, many cyclists show strength along the front of the body and weaker muscle functions along the back.

Core master:  
The motion is smooth and coordinated with breath.
You’re able to “play”, by lifting just your left leg, and putting it down, then the right, as well as your arms.

Core weakness:
You rely on strength or force rather than coordination.
You’re holding your breath or your breathing is choppy.


Bicycle Bug on Foam Roller

What it tests: 

This drill is designed to challenge coordination of breath with core control while moving the legs.

How to:
Place a long foam roller perpendicular to a wall and lie down on it with your hands touching the wall behind you for stability. Draw your knees towards your chest, so that the thighs are perpendicular to the floor, and perform “bicycle” movements with your legs: first extending one leg straight, then the other as the first leg returns to its bent position.

Cycling, quite simply, comes down to being able to maintain a stable base from which to produce steady power. “Superimpose coordinated breathing on top of that and now we have a challenge on our hands” says Christopher Johnson, a Seattle physical therapist. Often when people tense their core muscles they restrict the areas where the breath is designed to go, which can decrease their capacity to produce power. Coordinating both can increase your performance.

Core master:
The motion is smooth and fluid while maintaining hand position without losing contact of the low back against the foam roller.
Fluid motion at a cadence consistent with cycling.
Eventual addition of a resistance band placed around both feet.

Core weakness:
You lose balance and fall off the foam roller or lose contact with your low back against the foam roller.

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