As cyclists we often read articles and hear people talking about having a strong core as the key to being a better cyclist. But what does that mean, to have a strong core, and better yet, what’s the best way to get one?
Seeking answers, I leaned on my son, 28-year-old JJ Tower, an instructor at Core Pilates LLC. JJ, himself a cyclist, rehabilitated his mother after a particularly nasty year of multiple fractures from falling off my bike.
I asked JJ how core and strength training enhances cycling and reduces the risk of injury.
“It’s more than just core strength training,” he said. “People make the assumption that they have to have a strong core, but in reality we’re talking about improving range of motion and stabilizing strength of joints. Pilates emphasizes strength in all ranges of motion. We’re talking about muscles that control range of motion in your shoulders and your hips. It’s rotational and lateral motion that you have to stabilize.”
I liken cycling to moving in a two-dimensional plane. We’re very good at moving forward and back, but not side to side.
JJ concurs: “The most explosive cyclists have the ability to move rotationally and laterally. They also have muscles that stabilize rotationally and laterally. Twisting is rotation. Stepping sideways or side bending is lateral movement.”
Most mountain bikers I know are very good at turning over the pedals, seated squarely in the saddle with little dynamic movement.
“In cycling, you’re locked on a bike,” JJ adds. “Although other sports have risk for injury, cycling is even riskier because of its repetitive nature. On a bike you’re in a fully closed chain, meaning, both upper and lower extremities (hands and feet) are attached to the bike which limits lateral and rotational movement.
“So it’s not enough to do crunches, or Jane Fonda-style leg lifts, or even planks which for most people is too high a load. Planks and crunches suffer the same pitfalls in that they tend to capitalize on muscles that contribute little to joint stability and are difficult to execute in the proper form for a majority of athletes.
“Pilates is a school of movement that emphasizes balancing stability and mobility to return the body to a safe and powerful neutral position. In order to achieve this, exercises focus both on stabilizing within small ranges of motion to enhance stability as well as dynamic ranges of motion to emphasize mobility. In any Pilates exercise, an athlete has to focus on which part of the body is being stabilized in addition to identifying which part of the body is being mobilized.
“Traditional exercises focus on one or the other while ignoring that a majority of athletic movements are a combination. We need a strength program that emphasizes real-world conditions. For mountain bikers, they’re not dynamic enough on their bikes. They tend to lock up into one position when the going gets rough. Best case scenario, they make it but lose speed. Worst case scenario, they crash and injure themselves.”
Since I have been training with JJ to strengthen and stabilize, I’ve felt like a different rider. I’m more dynamic on my mountain bike than before, my coordination has improved, and I feel that my explosive power to get over steep pitches, rocks and roots is better than ever. Perhaps if I had consulted JJ sooner, I would have spent more time on top of my wheels rather than underneath them.
HORSEBACK ON BALL WITH ROTATION
Roll hips onto the ball so that head, shoulders, hips, and knees are in one straight line squeezing the ball firmly with feet narrower than knees. Rotate evenly from belly button through crown of head while belly is held in tightly. Emphasis is hip stability and rotational mobility.
Lie on your stomach. Tilt pelvis to flatten lower back and pull navel upwards. Lift head, chest and shoulders off mat while keeping gaze down. Inhale to reach arms forward. Exhale to sweep straight arms back to side. Emphasis is upper back mobility and lower back stability.
SIDE PLANK/SIDE KICK
Start in a side plank carefully aligned so that head, shoulders, hips, and knees are in one plane. Lift top leg and kick forward while keeping the rest of your body stable. Kick leg back and repeat. Emphasis is lateral stability and hip mobility.
CONTROL FRONT WITH BALL
Stand with hips back and hands light on the ball. Reach out to weight ball and straighten spine. Pull abdomen up and in, and kick into toes to return to starting position. Emphasis is dynamic mobility and bike position stability.
SINGLE LEG FLOOR TOUCH
Stand with hips level. Pivot forward on standing leg at hip, keeping opposite leg and body in one straight line, with hips square to floor. Focus on hip muscles on the standing leg and pivot back to starting position. Emphasis is hamstring flexibility, hip and trunk stability.
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