Core training for cyclists: Is it worth it?

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In a previous post we looked at the value of strength training to improve your cycling performance and reduce your risk of injury. Today we focus on core training and whether it can make you a better cyclist.

Firstly, what is your core?

In anatomical terms your core can be described as the muscles that attach to and facilitate movement of your torso. They enable flexion, extension, side bend and rotation of your trunk. To confuse the matter a little, the muscles that flex, abduct and extend your hips are also sometimes included.

The theory is that a strong core will enable you to transfer more force to the pedals, as well as reduce your risk of injury. Let’s take a look at what the evidence says and what might be the best exercises to use.

Is the core important in cycling performance?

The studies that have been done so far are equivocal at best. As with most concepts in athletic performance and injury rehabilitation, the research tends to follow a trend rather than lead it. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but here’s some of what we know so far.

This study took 15 competitive cyclists and had them cycle to exhaustion whilst measuring both their power output and motion at their ankle and knee joints. The test was then repeated after the cyclists had performed a workout designed to fatigue their core muscles.

The researchers were surprised to find no difference in power output in the second test. What they did find however was a difference in knee and ankle motion mechanics. In other words, when your core muscles are fatigued, you may cycle differently. The authors suggest this might have implications for injury prevention rather than performance.

This study looked at whether an eight-week core stability training programme would improve the efficiency of 13 well-trained cyclists. The researchers were unable to demonstrate an effect on cycling efficiency, despite seeing improvements in measures related to core function.

In this master’s thesis a correlation was found between fatigue in the abdominal muscles and performance in a Wingate test — a measure of anaerobic capacity. Abdominal fatigue did not affect performance in a 3.2km time trial however. The subjects were college students and not experienced cyclists.

A relationship was demonstrated between improved 1.5km time trial performance and core stability training in this master’s dissertation which used trained cyclists. No control group was used for comparison however.

There is some evidence that training the muscles of the core may improve VO2max, although this effect has not been shown on trained cyclists, to my knowledge. There is also the potential that core training may improve respiratory muscle strength as it did with this group of volleyball players. Again this effect has not been demonstrated in cyclists.

That pretty much gets you up to date on present research. Underwhelming right? Certainly not what you’d expect to find given the ubiquity of core training articles in the cycling press and its apparent use by the pros.

Of course, a lack of evidence doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t an effect. At this stage there are so few quality studies on the subject that it’s not surprising we don’t have a clear idea either way. There’s not even a consensus about which muscles constitute the core, or a gold standard to test core function.

Core muscle function during cycling

Given the paucity of evidence, let’s take a look at which muscles are most active in cycling, to help guide our exercise selection. Whilst the contribution of lower body muscles to cycling is well understood, there’s not a huge amount of data on core muscle activity. Here are the findings of the most relevant studies.

This paper looked at the relative contribution of different trunk muscles in various cycling positions using electromyography (EMG). Positions included upright, normal (think exercise bike in the gym), flexed (closest to the racing position) and standing. The subjects were not cyclists but they were all classed as athletic. Also of note is that neither clipless pedals nor cycling shoes were used by the subjects.

Three muscles in particular seemed to be more active than others, especially when sprinting. They were the psoas, which was activated to 49% of its maximum voluntary capacity (MVC), the erector spinae muscles (32% MVC), and the external obliques (28% MVC).

In this paper the researchers looked at lumbar spine motion during cycling and the activity of the lumbar spine muscles and the rectus abdominus (the ‘six pack’ muscle) in three elite cyclists who placed second, fourth and seventh in that year’s Tour de France (1995).

They noted side bend motion in the lumbar spine during cycling and found the rectus abdominus to be largely relaxed. This largely concurs with the previous study which found rectus activity to be around 10% MVC in all cycling positions and intensities. In contrast, the muscles of the lumbar spine showed higher levels of activity, which increased with pedalling intensity.

We know from EMG studies of the lower body that the gluteus maximus (your butt) is a big contributor to cycling motion, especially when you get out of the saddle. Given the size of this muscle, it would certainly make sense to include it in any core programme.

Bearing these studies in mind, let’s take a look at which core exercises would be most likely to improve your cycling performance.

Core exercises to improve cycling performance

The majority of these exercises are body weight only and include suggestions to make each more challenging if required. Aim to bring about fatigue in the target muscles within 10 repetitions, using a slow and controlled repetition speed.

One set should be sufficient to begin with. Further sets can be added as you get stronger. Perform the exercises twice a week for best results.

Standing hip flexor exercise

The hip flexors (psoas among others) make a valuable contribution to cycling, particularly when you’re out of the saddle. Beyond a cursory stretch, they rarely receive much attention in standard core programmes, however. This exercise will help to improve their function. It’s demonstrated using a cable machine but a resistance band can also be used to good effect.

– Standing between two cable stacks, attach a cable to a strap placed just above your knee.
– Note the height of the cable. Try to replicate this as it will ensure a consistent challenge for the muscles concerned.
– Hold on to the opposite stack for support and slowly lift the target leg as high as it will go without moving your pelvis or trunk.
– Hold for a second in the top position before slowly lowering the leg until it’s level with the other.
– You should feel this exercise in the muscles around the front of your hip.

Lumbar spine extension

The function of your lumbar spine muscles seems to be important both from a performance perspective and potentially for avoiding lower back pain. In order to challenge these muscles over their full operating range, you’ll need something that takes your lumbar spine towards flexion. A BOSU ball, as shown above, works well for this.

– Position yourself with the middle of your lumbar spine over the apex of the BOSU ball. Your belly button is a good indication of where this is.
– Make sure your knees are bent and on the floor to reduce the ability of your hamstrings to assist in the exercise.
– Contract your abdominals and curl your trunk around the ball. Pause once you can’t go any further and then slowly begin to extend your spine.
– Try to prevent your gluteus maximus from contributing by ensuring your butt stays soft throughout.
– Focus your attention on the muscles either side of your spine in your lower back.
– To increase the difficulty of the exercise, place your hands at the side of your head. To make it easier, have your arms by your side.

Split squat

This exercise will target your gluteus maximus, more so if you lean your trunk forward as shown above. You’ll also notice your quadriceps working hard.

– Standing with your feet hip width apart, slide one foot back as far as it will go without your lower back arching.
– Lean your trunk forward slightly and slowly lower yourself towards the floor.
– Keep the foot of your leading leg flat on the ground and stop before your trailing knee touches the floor.
– Slowly begin to push yourself back up again using your front leg as much as possible. Your trailing leg will contribute, but focus your attention on the glute and quadricep of the forward leg.
– Ensure your forward knee tracks in the same direction as your foot.
– Hold dumbbells at your side to make the exercise more challenging.

Side bend challenge

We’ve seen lumbar spine side bend demonstrated in one of the studies above and also external oblique muscle activity (a side-bender of the trunk) during cycling. It makes sense therefore to introduce a side bend challenge to your core programme.

Whilst a side bridge may provide some stimulus to these muscles, often the limiting factor is the weight-bearing shoulder. In this exercise above we remove the upper body contribution and have your side-benders work through a greater range of motion.

– Place a weight bench on an incline and have a folded towel in the space between your rib cage and pelvis on the non-working side.
– Straighten the leg of the working side and have that leg unsupported over the side of the bench.
– First actively side bend over the towel to lengthen the target muscles. Once you can’t bend any further, pause and then begin to side bend in the other direction.
– Aim to get the bottom of your rib cage as close to your pelvis as possible before slowly returning to the start position.
– Make sure your pelvis doesn’t move and that you side bend without your trunk rotating in either direction.
– To make the exercise more difficult, reduce the incline of the bench.

Seated row

Arm strength, or at least fatigue in the muscles of the arm, has been demonstrated to reduce peak power output on the bike. It’s also been shown that the biceps, triceps and upper trapezius (upper back muscle) are continuously active during high-intensity cycling.

A seated row is a good option because not only does it challenge the upper trapezius, it also uses the biceps in the same forearm position they’re used when you’re on the drops. The best results will come from using a machine seated row (pictured above) as the restraint of the chest pad will enable you to apply greater load to the muscles of your shoulders.

If you don’t have access to a machine row, use a cable machine to replicate the movement. A resistance band can also be used, although they have disadvantages.

– Sit tall and move your arms up to the level of the handles. Your arms should be perpendicular to the floor. Adjust either the seat height or cable / band height if this isn’t the case.
– To ensure the resistance doesn’t pull you into more shoulder protraction than you have available, measure this by pushing both arms forwards without altering your spinal position.
– Don’t let the weight take you past this point during the exercise.
– Maintaining the position of your torso, grasp the handles and slowly begin to pull them towards you.
– As your elbows become level with your torso, squeeze your shoulder blades together to complete the movement.
– Slowly return to the starting position whilst making sure the resistance doesn’t change the position of your trunk, or take you past your protraction limit.

Push-up

A traditional exercise but a good one, especially for your triceps as they help you maintain your position on the bike.

– Lay down on your front and place your hands in the position you want to lower yourself to; forearms perpendicular to the floor and hands level with your chest.
– From there come up onto your toes and extend your elbows. You’re now in the perfect position to begin the exercise.
– Keep your abdominals braced and slowly begin to lower your body towards the floor. As you approach the ground, pause for a second and then slowly start to push yourself back up again.
– If a full push-up is too challenging, perform them from your knees to begin with.

Summary

More research is required before we can confidently say whether or not core training is beneficial to cycling performance. That said, current evidence suggests it may provide some benefit to high intensity cycling performance and have an influence on injury prevention.

If your time is limited, however, you may find it more beneficial to engage in a general resistance training programme rather than one that specifically targets the core.

About the author

Paul Argent is a former Category 1 road racing cyclist from the UK. He now runs an injury rehabilitation and sports performance business in the City of London, Human Movement, which specialises in helping chronically injured athletes and weekend warriors alike get back to doing the things they love better than ever.

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