Certain subjects just never seem to get old. Nutrition, supplements, cardio and core training are things that I could probably write about every day and people would still be interested in them. Last night I gave another talk on core training to a group at my chiropractor’s office and, as usual, had a great turn out and got to share some great info.
The first thing I covered was what exactly the core is. Core training is a huge buzz word that has been used to sell magazines, books, videos and late night television products. It is also one of the most important areas to understand and train. While most people think of the midsection (basically the abs, low back and obliques) I also include the hips and upper back. In essence, if you cut off your head, arms and legs you would be left with your core.
The core is important because it is the center of your body and if it is weak it will affect everything else. For example, if you do an exercise like a lateral raise (where you raise a dumbbell out to your side) it is traditionally looked at as a shoulder exercise. However, if you had an injured rib you would not be able to lift nearly as much weight. Same shoulder but a “weaker” core which resulted in the arm being able to lift less weight.
For us as mountain bikers the take home message is pretty simple – if you want to increase your strength and power, especially in your legs, you must address the strength of the core first. This is one of the main reasons I dislike the leg press as a training tool for mountain biking – it allows you to bypass core strength and train leg strength directly, often giving you a false sense of true strength.
The next thing I covered was the difference in how we trained the core back in the 80’s and 90’s vs. our current understanding of how the human body works. It used to be that if you wanted to get a muscle stronger you picked exercises that allowed you to move that muscle and then you used sets, reps and load with those movements. Crunches, side bends and back extensions are prime examples of this “old school” methodology.
However, as I have pointed out in some previous articles, we now understand that some areas want to be mobile and some want to be stable. Training all joints in the body the same way is a recipe for pain and decreased performance. For our purposes here, the hips want to be mobile, the lumbar spine (low back) wants to be stable and the thoracic spine (upper back) wants to be mobile. So, based on this understanding of functional anatomy we can see that we want to train the midsection to resist movement, not create it.
Since this is the case we want to avoid exercises that encourage movement and instead emphasize exercises that resist movement. The Core Training for Mountain Biking video that I have posted on my blog is a perfect example of exercise that do just that. If you have not done so already then watch that video and start incorporating those exercises into your routine. Doing them on a daily basis will really help jump start your core strength and start addressing the underlying issues that are holding you back from becoming a better rider.
-Note: doing crunches on a stability ball is not more functional and still falls under the “creating movement” category.-
However, there is more to “core strength” than simply doing exercises for the core. The next thing I covered in my talk was how movement ultimately defines your core strength. You can have the strongest core in the world but if it is surrounded by dysfunctional joints then it will have to compensate for that dysfunction no matter how many planks and side planks you do.
Most people have a lower back that moves too much to compensate for tight hips. If your hips are tight, which describes 99% of mountain bikers I have seen, then you will not be able to shift them back far enough to get the range of motion you need when picking stuff up off the ground or getting into position on your bike. Your body will figure out a way do what you are asking it to do and so it will then get the extra range of motion it needs from your low back.
This is why you have to look at how your body moves and train it how to move better. For most, this means getting aggressive with you mobility tactics. Stretching, foam rolling and dynamic mobility exercises for the hips and upper back are a must if you really want to break the cycle of bad movement most of us are caught up in. If those areas can not move freely then you are doomed to a lifetime of compensation and, eventually, pain.
The nest step is to utilize exercises that teach your body how to integrate your increased core strength and hip mobility in order to create cleaner, more efficient movement. For the mountain biker nothing beats the deadlift for this purpose. It is literally learning how to create movement with your hips while maintaining a strong core. This is another reason that machines suck – they do nothing to help you learn how to move better and allow you to take the core out of the equation. Since the core is always part of the performance equation on your bike you better train it that way in the gym.
So there you have it – a 21st century blueprint for creating a strong, high performance, injury resistant core. You can literally use the free stuff on my blog to address the areas I talked about. However, for those riders that really want to take their performance to the highest levels possible there is obviously more to it than simply doing some planks, hip stretches and deadlifts.
This article explains another reason that The Ultimate MTB Workout Program is put together like it is. The first few phases address core strength on several levels while also working on mobility and body control. As those increase the exercises become more complex in order to allow you to safely and effectively integrate those things into more complex movement patterns. This step by step approach is the only way to truly build performance from the inside out.