Core Strength and Core Training are two buzzwords that dominate discussions around improving your MTB specific fitness in the gym. It is pretty widely recognized that having a strong core can help improve your performance and prevent injuries but what is Core Strength and what is the best Core Training?
In this episode of the Riding For A Lifetime Podcast I cover core training for the 40+ year old rider. While a lot of the things I discuss are just good core training strategies, I look at them through the lens of the older rider and what we need to consider that the younger rider may not.
BTW, in the podcast I talk a lot about the importance of the Windmill exercise for core training. If you haven’t seen it before you can find a video demo of how I recommend you perform this exercise by clicking here.
You can stream this episode or download the MP3 file by clicking the link below. You can also find the podcast on Itunes, Podbean, Spotify and all other major podcasting platforms.
You can also read a summary article from the notes for the podcast below…
First, what are the “core muscles”?
While a lot of people think of the abs and low back, the core actually involves everything in the torso – if you chopped off your arms, legs and head you’d be left with “the core”. This includes everything from the hips and the shoulder girdle.
Second, what is the function of the core muscles?
While you do need to be able to move through the core muscles, the main function for us is providing stability to protect the spine and to provide a platform to move from.
This is a good time to point out that “stiffness” is not the same as “stability”. Stiffness is something that you can’t turn on and off – it is always there – and stability is something you can turn on and off.
This is why it is important to maintain or even improve your mobility in the core while you are building better core strength and stability. Something like the Sun Salutation from yoga goes a long way towards helping with this.
Last, does mountain biking build adequate core strength and do we even need to worry about training our core muscles off the bike?
I believe that the reason mountain biking has gotten a bad rap for not developing good core strength and needing a lot of supplemental core training is that most riders rely too much on seated pedaling. When you are seated your core is in a rounded position and isn’t engaging the same way as when you are standing up. This develops core strength in a bad position and you don’t get the same level of core strength due to the lack of engagement.
This means you need to do core training in the gym to make up for this. But if you stand up more, especially during hard efforts, you build core strength in a more functional way that doesn’t require as much work to correct.
Even then you still can benefit from some core training like the ab wheel, leg raises and windmills as a way to build a strength reserve – one of the goals of strength training is to help you gain more strength than what you get from the sport alone so you have the reserve needed to handle unexpectedly high loads. But if more riders stood more to pedal then I don’t think you’d need to worry as much about it and you wouldn’t see as much low back pain, which usually gets blamed on poor core strength as well.
So, in summary, the core is the platform that provides stability when we move and while you can get better core engagement from standing up more on the bike, it does help to train your core muscles off of the bike to build the strength reserve needed to increase performance and help prevent injuries.
Remember too that if you are doing freeweight exercises then your core muscles get engaged from simply lifting weights – squats, deadlifts and even things like standing bicep curls and lateral raises all build core strength so you don’t need to go crazy with core specific training in the gym.
With that said, there are two skills that often get overlooked when talking about core training that are vital to your performance and injury prevention.
The first is the ability to “twist” through the core in a safe way.
You want to be able to move from the hips and t-spine (upper back) and not from your lumbar/ lower back area. This is the movement skill behind cornering and something that will make a huge impact on your riding.
The best way I’ve found to train this skill is through Windmill exercises – Stick, Kettlebell and Steel Mace.
The second is how breathing impacts your core strength and ability to use it on the bike.
Your body will prioritize breathing over bracing, which means that if you aren’t breathing with the right muscles then your body has to use core muscles that should be used to brace instead.
You can have adequate core strength but still struggle to use it on the trail and/ or avoid low back pain because of bad breathing habits. You can avoid this through breathwork training and through focusing on proper breathing during strength and cardio training.
Proper core function and adequate core strength are necessary for performance on the bike and for helping to prevent overuse injuries, especially in the low back.
There are 4 things you can do to accomplish this…
- Stand up more on the bike.
- Focus on freeweight exercises in the gym.
- Use exercises like the Ab Wheel, Leg Raises and Windmills to focus on core strength.
- Improve your breathing habits so you can use that core strength on the trail.
Core training is important but it doesn’t need to be complicated. Use these training tips to help you improve your core strength and core function so you can have more pain free fun on the bike as you get older.
Until next time…
p.s. In this podcast I talk about the impact breathing has on core strength and function. If you want to improve your breathing then you need a program that addresses this important factor in fitness and longevity.
The Guide To Better Breathing for MTB is the only breathing program for mountain bikers on the market. In it you will find ways to assess and improve your breathing, workouts to help you improve your cardio fitness and ways to use your breathing to improve your mindset around competition. You can find out more about this unique program by clicking here.
The 40+ MTB Rider Training Program also has a breathing section along with strength and mobility training specifically designed for the 40+ year old rider. It is a comprehensive program that can be done at home with little or even no equipment. You can find out more about it and get your copy by clicking here.
Getting older doesn’t have to mean slowing down, it simply means that you have to train smarter. I hope that these tips and programs can help you do just that.