How to train your abs to improve your riding
One goal every rider shares regardless of their experience, level or profession is improving their core strength. Core strength & stability is essential for you to be the most effective & balanced rider but core strength is often misunderstood.
I have worked with many riders who say right off the bat, “I don’t want to do any sit-ups they hurt my back”. And this is the standard perception when it comes to core training; your trainer is going to just make you do endless sit-ups.
First of all, if you have back issues & your trainer suggests or encourages you to do these exercises then I would say sack them off right away. Sorry but if this is the case then they don’t understand the role of the core when riding & this kind of spinal flexion exercise does not translate into functional movements to help your riding.
We want to focus on building your core strength functionally so you have the ability to resist external forces. This is key when riding. Think of your horse snatching down on the reins, you get yanked forward and he pulls on your lower back. You want to make sure you have the strength & stability that you can hold your position & sit into your seat not letting him tip you forward.
The core has three main roles;
Your core training should incorporate all 3 of these movement patterns, teaching you to resist rotation through your trunk. Being able to maintain good alignment through your pelvis & ribcage is essential in order to keep a neutral spine & not allow excessive extension through the spine, particularly your lower spine. Having the strength to resist lateral forces will help you to stop tipping or leaning to one side, think of carrying a water bucket do you collapse into that side when you carry it?
Strengthening all of these patterns will not only build your core strength but also in turn reduce your lower back pain as you have the ability to keep your spine in a neutral & safe position.
You want to start right with the basics & from there then progress into movements. If you don’t nail the basics right from the off you will struggle with core work & improving your strength over time. It is really important that you understand what you are trying to achieve in the movement & also what you are feeling. A great place to start from is the floor as you receive great feedback from the floor through your spine & pelvis.
Core strength & stability is also tough to measure & quantify, which can make it hard for you to tell if you are increasing or improving in strength. This is often where riders tend to “mix it up” or try new exercises as they are unsure if they are progressing & if they are doing the correct exercises. Whereas I would suggest you focus on nailing the basics and then from there start to progress into exercises incorporating the 3 movement patterns above.
Functional training for riding means training the same muscles you use in the saddle out of the saddle & replicating the same movement patterns so you can directly transfer your training gains into the saddle. Think about the position your hips & spine are in when riding; your spine is never in excessive flexion, eg. a crunch, so why would you train yourself in that position?
To clarify there is nothing wrong as such with crunching movements, they do target the abdominal muscles however repeatedly encouraging your spine to go into excessive flexion will not do your back & spinal health any good in the long run. Especially if you already suffer from lower back pain.
So first off start with isometrics. Holding a movement still for a set amount of time & really focus on feeling the muscles working. It is very easy to not fully apply your concentration & not be able to feel what you are working so you really need to concentrate on what you are doing, focus on your breathing & start to understand the basics of controlling your pelvis & ribcage to engage the anterior of your core.
Remember your core is everything that attaches to your pelvis front & back. So think below the chest to mid-thigh front & back. Yes, your glutes are also part of your core! As is your lower back.
Start with a deadbug hold this is the best place to start to work your core & begin to get feedback, teaching you to resist extension through the spine. Start with your feet on the floor with your lower back pushed into the floor & perform 6-10 pelvic tilts. Being able to control & move your pelvis is imperative for your core strength, if you cannot control your pelvis you will not be able to perform core movements well. Place your fingers under the small of your back & tilt your pelvis up then down. As you tilt your pelvis up you will have a gap between the floor & your lower back. Then tilt your pelvis down pushing into the floor there will be no gap between your lower back & floor.
For all your core movements this is the position you want. A pelvic posterior tilt so when lying on your back there is no gap between the small of your back & the floor. Placing your fingers under the small of your back can be a really good cue to get you feeling the position of a pelvic tilt. Use the feedback from the floor to understand the movement. Your ribcage should be down & control your breathing as your pelvis is pushed down into the floor. Having the ability to freely move your pelvis is key to your core strength.
Once you have mastered this movement-don't move on until you have this nailed down with good form otherwise you will struggle as you continue up the continuum of core strength! We will progress to a deadbug hold.
So exactly the same as your above movement, we are simply lifting the feet off the floor now to increase the challenge. Your pelvis stays in a posterior tilt throughout, so you are pushing the floor away through your lower back. There should be no gap between your lower back & the floor. If it helps pop a piece of paper under the small of your back & don't let it move! Keep your knees & feet at 90 degrees; if you let your feet drop down then you will feel your hip flexors working more & you end up tilting your pelvis into that anterior tilt which we are aiming to avoid. Control your breathing, imagine you are blowing out through a straw slowly as you exhale & really focus on feeling the front of your core work. Start with 20-30 seconds hold and aim to go through 3-6 holds increasing time gradually.
Once you have this position nailed & can feel the front of your abdominals working & are able to maintain solid contact with the ground through your back then you are able to progress & start adding some dynamic movements into your core exercises. Trust me, start with the basics, once you have the understanding & know how to hold this position you will have full control over your core movements & will find you progress pretty fast!
I hope this helps! Give it a go & start building that core strength,