If you are anything like me, you have heard the same message throughout your years in sports and especially in cycling. We hear over and over that building up your core is the key to strong cycling performance. It’s one of those truisms that we all agree with and understand intuitively.
The basic message we often hear goes like this: the core muscles form the stable platform from which we our legs down through the pedal stroke when we are seated. If our core is not strong, this results in the legs pushing against a soft core and losing power.
Similarly, a weak core means inefficient coordination and power transfer whenever we use our arms to yank on the bars, such as during sprinting or climbing while standing.
The above arguments are absolutely undeniable, and I was reminded of their importance through several cycling scenarios the past two months:
* Doing my first prolonged climbing in a long while during a visit to Vancouver in early February, I did reps of a 15 min climb. The first two times, I focused on keeping my core stable and driving my legs smoothly, and climbed fast and smooth up the 8% grades. The third time up, my hips were wobbling all over the place as my core weakened, such that any strength left in my legs were wobbling my core even more rather than going to the pedals.
* I just set up one of my bikes as a time trial rig, and am learning to keep my body stable while stretched out in a low position while maintaining power. What would have been an “easy” sweet spot effort of 215-220 W for me felt a LOT harder.
* I spent the bulk of the winter riding my CX bike on road and on the trainer. Despite this, my first few rides this past week on dirt roads, it was a real challenge to translate my power to actual speed. Thinking it through, the big difference is that, off-road, most of the time we’re riding “seated” but slightly off the saddle, such that we have to stabilize our body weight while pedaling rather than using the saddle as a brace.
* This weekend’s club ride featured howling and gusting crosswinds battering us, which made for great fun keeping the bike stable with 45 mm carbon wheels.
The Abs Are NOT The “Core”!
So if we know the core is important, what’s limiting us from properly working on improving them? Possibly the biggest reason is the misconception, and one that is perpetuated by the fitness industry’s advertising, is that working the core is all about building that washboard set of abs. Look in magazines, on advertising, or YouTube, and it’s easy to find lots of “core” workouts that are focused almost exclusively on building those washboard abs. So most core workouts we think about are really just endless variations of ab cruches and situps. Great for looking good, but not so much for cyclists.
This for me is where Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage, co-written with exercise physiologist and trainer Allison Westfahl and published by VeloPress, has its main “Advantage.” First and foremost, the book is unabashedly written and designed specifically for cyclists. This is not a generic workout book re-badged for the cycling market, but designed from the ground up to prevent cycling injuries and with the specific posture and motion of cycling in mind.
A Holistic Approach
The second key “Advantage” for me is that the book and its workouts are very holistic. Rather than just focusing on the abs, the book focuses on the integrated system of muscles and how they inter-relate. Also, detailed examples are provided for how an imbalance between connected muscles, or a weak link within the core, can lead to pain or injuries throughout the body.
Cycling injuries come in many forms, many of which can be minimized with a good core program
An obvious example is low back pain. Most of us think that the solution to low back pain is to get our abs stronger. While that may be the case sometimes, it is just as likely that an under-developed set of back muscles, or tightness in supporting muscles, is to blame.
Tight gluteals and hamstrings can lead to posterior pelvic tilt
Tight erector spinae, quads, or iliopsoas can lead to anterior pelvic tilt
So lower back pain is hard to generalize, but the best path to rehab and prevention is to both strengthen and balance the overall core musculature, rather than focusing on one exercise or muscle. At the same time, releasing tightness will also permit muscles to move and work freely.
The first part of “Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage” does a terrific job of clearly outlining “What is Core Strength?” and the anatomy of the core musculature, from the neck down through the hips and glutes. Besides discussing the rationale for core training for cycling performance, there are very solid chapters on the anatomy of proper posture and common cycling injuries.
For me, the biggest eye opener is the anatomy and core contribution to common injuries like iliotibial band pain or knee pain. Besides bike fit, the book gives a good argument that another contributor may be weak gluteus medius far up in the hip, resulting in other muscles like the iliotibial band being overworked and ultimately resulting in pain down at the knee.
The TDCA Workouts
The third “Advantage” is the holistic and progressive nature of the workouts. In total, 45 individual exercises are grouped into three sets or levels of 5 progressive workouts. The three levels depend on your experience with core workouts and your existing core strength, while the 5 workouts within each level go from:
1) Injury Prevention/Rehab: to decrease pain, increase neuromuscular efficiency, and address long-standing muscular imbalances that cause injury.
2) Posture-Correction: to correct muscular tightness and weakness, improve joint mobility, and establish optimum positioning of the spinal column.
3) Stability and Bike-handling: to improve static and dynamic stabilization of the entire core musculature, increase muscle firing efficiency, and improve intramuscular coordination.
4) Endurance: to improve muscular endurance and efficiency of the core and increase time to exhaustion.
5) Tommy D’s Optimum Performance Workout: to develop optimum core strength, increase power production, and improve muscular endurance.
The workouts are not overly time-intensive, with the Endurance workouts being the longest and yet taking only about 30-35 min for me to complete, including the suggested dynamic stretches. Danielson prefers doing the workouts in the mornings prior to his ride to get his muscles activated and ready.
One of the challenges of books is their relatively static nature, in that it may be difficult to demonstrate something in movement. However, I found no real problems in figuring out exactly how to do each exercise correctly. The book devotes a page to each exercise, with Danielson serving as the model for multiple poses within each exercise. That, along with the concise but clear instructions, makes doing the exercises correctly and with proper form quite straightforward.
My personal bête noir, these mountain climbers in Level 1 HURT!
The more advanced Tick-Tocks in Level 3 adds more difficulty and motion compared to Level 1 exercises.
No Tools Required!
The fourth major “Advantage” is that every exercise is done with only body weight for resistance. Therefore, absolutely no equipment of any kind is needed. So every impediment or excuse for not doing core workouts are removed. No kettle balls, stability balls, weights, or any gym equipment required.
Related to this, the workouts are so portable that they can be done anywhere. As Danielson writes, he also wanted to be able to do his core workout any time he is on the road, often in small hotel rooms. I tried this portability myself during a three week trip to Vancouver and New Zealand this past February, and had no problems keeping up my program in my various small hotel rooms.
Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage fills a massive gap in the cycling fitness literature. It is very well-written and well-designed in terms of layout, being extremely easy to follow. With a book like this, there really isn’t ANY conceivable excuse for ignoring your core and the improvement in cycling that you can gain from it. At only $18.95 through velopress it could certainly be worth a look.
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 60 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s the co-author of Cutting Edge Cycling a book on the science of cycling which came out April 2012, and he can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org