Confused about what you should be doing to directly improve your riding fitness?
When prospects approach me about the possibility of working together in person or online they are always slightly confused about what they should actually be doing. Often they have tried something else before in terms of a training programme & nutrition and for one reason or the other, they found it didn't work for them or give them the results they wanted. As riders, there isn't much solid advice flying around the equestrian community about how to get fit to help improve how you ride & your performance at events, shows & at home to enable you to get the most out of your riding and your horse as the partnership you are. Often prospects establish their goals; you want to improve your core strength, build flexibility and normally you end up in a gym class trying something like HIIT or ab attack which often isn't what you actually wanted to do & don't actually enjoy.
For riders back pain is a common problem so smashing out 500 reps of sit-ups encouraging spinal flexion with sh*t form with a trainer screaming at you to go harder isn't going to help you build the strong core you need for riding, if anything you may find you actually end up worse of with worse back pain than when you started! So the question is what should you be doing?
Functional training is defined as an exercise to train the body for everyday movements you perform & to train the body for sports-specific movement. We need to be replicating the movement & the muscles we use when we are riding so first of all need to establish what movements we should be working on.
Your exercise selection should be based on riding functionality & you as an athlete. Obviously, if you have specific goals or past injuries this may be different for you, but thinking of how you move when you ride needs to translate back into your training programme. Hip extension, knee flexion, ankle dorsiflexion, core stability & shoulder extension are all foundational joint movements you need to focus on & build strong movement patterns alongside core strength & stability, glute strength & a strong shoulder girdle focusing on good alignment with a neutral spine & pelvis. This may just sound like gym bro chat to you so in basics you need to focus on strengthening the back of your body using similar movement patterns to those you use when riding.
Foundational movement is your most important thing so first of all make sure you are doing lots mobility work, foam rolling, yoga to loosen your muscles & ensure you have a fully mobile strong base before you start loading your joints & body with resistance. If you bulldoze straight into a training programme without having the basics you run the risk of injury. Compound movements hit multiple muscle groups such as squats, lunges and deadlifts and these are your main lifts. When we ride our muscle groups work together in unison so we want to make sure we are training them in the same way not isolating muscles. As riders core stability is essential to holding a strong seat & being able to control the movement of your seat in the saddle. Remember your core is everything from your mid-thigh to the bottom of your ribs top & back, so think about this when you are training you "core muscles". You need to train to resist flexion & extension through your spine so exercises like plank variations, push-ups, crawl movements alongside anti-rotational movement such as pallofpress, single-arm presses. These movements improve stiffness & stability of the spine encouraging you to align your spine in a comfortable neutral position alongside your pelvis, the best position to be in if you suffer with lower back pain & the position you need to focus on being in when you ride long term.
Alongside your resisting movements, you want to also incorporate exercises that generate force in a cylinder movement style such as rotational & diagonal movements. Exercises like woodchops, rotational ball exercises, side on movements, bird dogs are all movements you should be training as riders. When we are jumping and going cross country you need to be able to both resist movement, generate force & rotate smoothly. Diagonal movements train our sling muscles front & back of the body which we use constantly when we ride. Training your body in multidimensional movements will build a strong body with good mind-muscle connection, encouraging fast reactions which is essential for riding. When working your legs for example side lunges are really important to do to make sure you are working all your hip muscle fibres as they are designed to be used, making us as strong & functional as possible.
Single limb movements are also extremely important to work on. When riding we use each side of our body as individual components as well as together so if you are noticeably stronger on one side it will most probably negatively impact your riding. Things like collapsing to one side when you are riding are signs you are not even in your body, this won't improve through more lessons this is something you need to work on off the saddle with single-leg & arm movements. If you aren't balanced & straight on the ground then nothing will get better when you get onto your horse, you are just probably making your horse very unbalanced as well. It amazes me that alot of peoples response to improving their riding is to have more lessons on the horse without focusing on themselves off the horse. You are a partnership so it's not much good just focusing on improving your horse's movement without working on your own, the amount of money you invest in your horse it is probably time to start investing into yourself to get the results you want.
For many of you, you have full-time jobs that can involve a lot of sitting. Even if you are riding 8 horses a day you may well find that you get stiff & sore. Our body was not designed & evolved to be sat down for 8 hours a day so you have to remember that, sitting negatively impacts our body & movement so we must be conscious of this when we start to follow a training programme. You need to undo the effects of sitting on the body; the muscles on the front of your body will have become shortened & tight such as your chest & hip flexor muscles from prolonged periods of sitting whilst the back of your body has become weak & stretched so focus your strength work here; your posterior chan including glutes, shoulders, back & hamstrings. To clarify lengthen the front of your body whilst strengthening the back.
To build a balanced training programme think of the practicality & usefulness of the movements & exercises you are picking in terms of the function they have when you ride. Don't be blindsided into picking movements that look cool or use fancy equipment, often the simple exercises are the most effective. A resistance band & a dumbbell can form a brilliant training session.
Always spend the first 10-15 minutes of your session mobilising & warming up your body, focus on hips, spines & shoulder especially important if you have been sedentary all day. Foam rolling is a great warm-up too, I would highly recommend adding foam rolling into your routine to help relieve muscular tension & get your blood flowing into the muscles. Your training programme should focus on compound movements such as squats, lunges, hip hinging movements, shoulder presses, pulls vertically & horizontally, with a good amount of core stability work focusing on resisting movement as well as exercises that encourage movement to build your diagonal & rotational strength. I would always advise you to focus on single-limb work to help imbalances & this engages your core whilst working on each side as its own so you will become more aware of your imbalances. Exercises like lunges, step-ups, single-leg squats, single-arm presses will all help you to build strength & are good foundational movements you need to incorporate to build a balanced body & training programme. Balance is key to avoiding injury and ensuring your body is not being overloaded in certain areas. At the end of your session add in your "extra work" so any areas you feel you need to specifically focus on more such as weaker areas or muscles you want to work on such as arm work or glutes, always add these isolated movements at the end!
Designing a training programme that positively impacts your riding shouldn't be complicated. Focus on the movements you do when you ride, your goals and areas you need to work on. A balanced programme that gives you progressive overload over time that fit's into your life easy is the best programme for you! If you need any advice on how to train then drop me a message, always happy to help. I hope this blog simplifies things for you & gives you clarity on how you should be training for your riding!