Core training is big buzzword in mountain biking today. It seems that the cure to everything is better "core strength". But what exactly is the core and why should a mountain biker care how strong it is? What is the best way to train the core to help you ride with more skill and endurance? What are some exercises you can start using today to improve your core strength and riding?
I'm glad you asked. Here are some strategies I use to help riders like Aaron Gwin ride with more strength and confidence.
The first thing we need to cover is what defines “the core”. 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) you should 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.
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.
It is also important to understand 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, we now understand that some areas of the body 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.
If this is the case then 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 planks, side planks and bird dogs 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 to 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 that 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 next 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 single leg RDL and deadlift for this purpose. Those exercises really help you understand how to create movement with your hips while maintaining a strong core.
There you have it - a 21st century blueprint for creating a strong, high performance, injury resistant core. Teach the core to resist movement, increase hip mobility and then practice good movement in the gym. This is the step by step approach I use everyday to help riders build performance from the inside out.