Crunches are NOT recommended for cyclists as they can cause an imbalance between the abs and the other core muscles, especially the back muscles. Here’s a simple but effective core workout, illustrated by clear videos, that will help you build strong core muscles – making you a better cyclist, and reducing back pain and injuries.
Contents of this Post at a Glance
- What are the Core Muscles?
- A Short but EFFECTIVE Core Workout
- Core Exercise # 1: Swimmer Exercise
- Core Exercise # 2: Bird Dog
- Core Exercise #3: Single Leg Touchdowns
- Core Exercise #4: Lateral Lunge
- Core Exercise #5: Plank
- Finish off with Child’s Pose
One of the biggest reasons I became a cyclist was due to back pain I experienced as a runner. It became so severe that I eventually had surgery. I made a full recovery, but kissed my running shoes goodbye and bought a good bike. I made that change to protect my back. But I continued doing crunches for years, in the happy belief that they would develop my abdominals, giving me a wonderfully strong core. I have since learned that I was wrong. Here is the correct way for cyclists to develop a really strong core.
What are the Core Muscles?
The core muscles are NOT just the abdominals! In fact, the core is a whole lot of muscles in the middle of your body, as you can see from these pictures. Basically, core muscles are all of the abdominals, plus all of the muscles that attach to the spine and the pelvis.
Apparently, I am not alone in over-exercising the abdominals, while pretty much ignoring all the other core muscles.
The Trouble with Crunches when Cyclists Do Them
In fact, it turns out that with most people, the abs are much like the biceps – over-rated and over-exercised. The major movement that abs perform is to shorten the distance between the pelvis and the rib cage – which is basically what happens when you do crunches. Over and over and over again.
The trouble is that cyclists – especially those who ride road bikes – are crunching most of the time, if you think about it (as they bend forward over the handlebars). So those abs are already very powerful. If you then add a hard-core regime of ab crunches into the mix, you can develop Olympian-strength abs.
Balance is Essential
You might be thinking that having super-strong abs does not sound so bad. But as it turns out, it is. As with everything else in our bodies, balance is essential. If your abs are over-developed and all your other core muscles – such as the muscles of your lower back – are under-developed, your core is in a state of extreme imbalance. Your abs will effectively “bully” your other muscles, causing those muscles to be incapable of doing their jobs properly.
The muscles that the abs most commonly bully are the muscles of the low back, the internal oblique, and the transverse abdominus.
Why We Get Back Pain
The net result: unbalanced core muscles, weak back muscles, poor performance on the bike, and feelings of tiredness and strain in all the under-developed muscles. I think we can all attest to those aching backs when we come off a long ride.
Why Core Strength is Important for Cyclists
Greater core strength makes you a stronger, faster cyclist, and helps you to accelerate and climb hills. It will even help you to descend hills faster! BONUS! A strong core will also improve your posture.
Why all these benefits from core strength? Well, as you can see from the pictures above, your core pretty much holds you together from top to bottom. Think of your core muscles as a natural corset that keeps you upright, stable, and firm. If your core muscles are strong, all of your muscles paths are stabilized, so that you can efficiently transfer power from your hips and your legs to your pedals.
Best of all, strong core muscles will reduce your chances of injury and dramatically reduce back pain.
So, how can cyclists maintain a strong core without crunches?
A Short but EFFECTIVE Core Workout
Here is a short but effective core workout to strengthen most of these core muscles. This routine does not require a lot of space or any special equipment, just a stopwatch on your cell phone and a yoga mat or a towel for the floor. I also like to work out in front of a mirror so that I can make sure my technique is solid.
You will also find that these exercises improve your balance, which is another way to improve your core stability and protect yourself from injury. You can easily work these five exercises at home or in the office in 10 minutes.
Core Exercise # 1: Swimmer Exercise
Lying face down on a yoga mat or a towel extend your arms forward and legs back, hovering just a few inches above the floor. Raise your right arm and left leg about a foot off the floor and then alternate. Make sure that your moves are slow and smooth, holding your leg and arm straight and steady. You should not be floppy or jerky. Continue for 30 seconds, then rest for 15 seconds, and repeat for a total of 4 repetitions.
Total = 3 minutes
Video Showing How to Do the Swimmer Exercise
Core Exercise # 2: Bird Dog
Start on your hands and knees on the mat, with your back flat. Your head can be looking forward or face down, depending on your comfort. I like face down because it gives my neck and upper traps a nice stretch. Extend your right arm and left leg until they are both parallel to the floor. Keep your back flat by pulling in your belly button towards your spine. Return your arm and leg to the floor and alternate the movements for 90 seconds.
Total = 1.5 minutes
Video Showing How to Do the Bird Dog Exercise
Core Exercise #3: Single Leg Touchdowns
Stand with your feet hip-wide apart, with your knees slightly bent. Lift your right foot and extend straight back while bending forward at the hips. Stop when your back and leg are parallel to the floor. Reach down and touch the floor with your hands, then push up to standing position. Work one side for 45 seconds and then work other side.
Total = 1.5 minutes
Video Showing How to Do Single-Leg Touchdowns
Core Exercise #4: Lateral Lunge
I’m not a fan of lunges but this one is very safe. Stand with your feet comfortably wide apart take a wide sidestep to your right side. Lean forward to touch the floor while bending your right knee and pushing your butt out behind you. Push off the floor with your right foot and hands, returning to a standing position. Alternate left and right legs for 90 seconds.
Total = 1.5 minutes
Core Exercise #5: Plank
Who doesn’t love plank? My favorite way to do this exercise is with two little dogs attacking me by jumping on my back and licking my face. Lovely…but, I digress.
- Lying face down on your yoga mat or towel, prop your upper body by holding your hands together below your chin, with your elbows just below your shoulders. Pressing your toes and elbows into the mat, raise your body until it is parallel to the floor. Remember to pull up on your belly button to keep your lower back flat. Hold your pose for 20 seconds and then drop your knees into Child’s Pose for 10 seconds.
- For the second set, hold plank for 25 seconds and then hold Child’s Pose for 10 seconds.
- For the third set, hold plank for 30 seconds and then hold Child’s Pose for 10 seconds.
- For the fourth set, hold plank for 30 seconds and then hold Child’s Pose for 15 seconds.
Total = 2.5 minutes
Video Showing How to Do the Plank Exercise
Once you get really good at plank, you can introduce variations to challenge yourself, such as this sideways plank.
Finish off with Child’s Pose
From plank position, drop your knees onto the floor and lean back to rest your butt on your heels. Extend your arms and upper body out in front of you as close to the floor as you can get. This will give you a lovely back stretch.
There you have it, nice and simple, and also very effective!
Ride safe, ride often!
Note: If you want to find out much, much more about core strength and core workouts, check out this excellent book on the subject:
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