Core Training to Actually Help Your Riding
If you walked into a gym or logged into a zoom session for a core class I'd put money on it that you'd see people lying on the floor doing a crunch or sit-up style ab exercises to strengthen their cores. Amongst this, you'd see alot of spinal flexion going on & most probably many complaints about sore backs & not feeling their abs work! Now whilst there is nothing wrong with sit-ups; if done correctly & programmed for the right person for a specific reason, for most riders they are not what you want to be doing.
We want to be focusing on functional core exercises that relate back to the muscles used & movements you perform when riding. For example, a plank with a shoulder tap as below is training you to avoid rotation through your trunk. What this means is that as you tap your hand to your shoulder the aim is to avoid as much rotation or movement through your torso as you can & maintain stability just as you would when you are riding. Imagine you are riding & your horse pulled you on one rein you need a strong core to be able to resist that force & maintain a stable seat & strong core. All anti-rotational exercises teach you to resist that movement & build your strength through this type of movement & are therefore functional to riders as they replicate movement &strength we need to have to be able to ride effectively.
Alongside anti-rotation the other main roles of the core are anti-extension & anti lateral-flexion. Resisting extension is referring to the spine, so when you do a sit up movement you are putting the spine through a large degree of flexion, if you think of it from a functionality point of view when do you ever lean forward & want your spine to physically round forward when riding?
The thought of rounded shoulders & a hunch back is probably enough to give most of you dressage nightmares so you absolutely do not want to be training movements that encourage this posture. Instead, you want to be focusing on resisting spinal extension or excessive flexion & having the ability to maintain a neutral spine & pelvis both off & on the horse. This is where anti-extension training comes in. For many riders who struggle with lower back pain, most will struggle to maintain a neutral spine so anti-extenstion exercises like the deadbug should be your first port of call! You are focusing on maintaining contact with the floor underneath you & resisting any extension through the spine or allowing your lower back to arch up off the floor. The deadbug is a great exercise to start with as you have physical feedback with the floor to help you gain the feeling of control & good form then in time you can build to be able to hold & maintain this neutral spine in standing exercises & then when riding.
Your final role of the core is anti-lateral flexion focusing on your oblique muscles, which are your side abs in basic. They help you to resist lateral forces & their role is to stop you from collapsing into your side & going into lateral flexion. If you find you tip to one side or struggle to hold yourself straight then your lateral core stabilisers would most probably be something you should be working on. Again if you're riding the last thing you want to be doing is tipping or collapsing into one hip or side. Overtime if you are unable to resist this lateral flexion you'll most probably end up suffering with pain or soreness as you overload that one side & become very imbalanced. In terms of riding this will lead to you struggling to give effective aids as you are not even through each side. A side plank is your starting exercise to train lateral flexion, you are resisting the floor underneath you. Think of pushing the floor away under you whilst maintaining a neutral spine & ribcage & hips stacked on top of each other. If you need to drop your bottom knee to the floor to begin with for extra support.
These are your 3 main roles of the core & the movements you want to be focusing on building strength in to specifically help target & strengthen the abdominal muscles that are used when riding. Make sure your core training is functional in terms of focusing on the movements & muscles you use when riding so your training is as effective as possible & translates straight back into your seat.
I hope this helps! If core strength & lower back pain is something you struggle with then please drop me an email & I'd be happy to offer you some advice to help regain your strength.