For decades many athletes have included straight forward sit-ups (without realising the damage they could be doing to their spine) as part of their training programmes, either as part of winter circuit training, or indeed regularly throughout the year. They reasons may be varied including wanting to develop a ‘six- pack’ or in the belief that it will help develop ‘core strength’. To many, core conditioning and abdominal strength have become synonymous when this is not the case. Abdominal muscles often get the credit for protecting the back and being the foundation for strength, but they are only a small part of what makes up the ‘CORE’.
The ‘core’ actually consists of many different muscles besides the abdominals that stabilise the spine, pelvis and hips.
Strengthening core muscles
Over the years a great amount of research into exercises that most effectively strengthen the core whilst minimising stress on the vertebrae has been carried out. Many of the best exercises focus on adding strength, stability and mobility to the muscles that make up the whole core region. These exercises only take a few minutes each to carry out and it is recommended they are done three times per week for optimum benefit. Breathe as naturally as possible during these exercises and never hold your breath:
Straight body plank (arms extended)– This is a deceptively hard exercise and one should aim to build up to being able to hold for 90 seconds in one go. At first even 60 seconds may prove a challenge, but with consistency, this will soon improve. Once 90 seconds is achieved, then 2 sets can be done with a 30 second break in between. More than 90 seconds is not required, and once this becomes easy then intensity can be increased through use of a stability ball
Stability ball plank (arms flexed) – This exercise should not be attempted until one is easily able to hold the above exercise for 2 sets of 90 seconds. Once 90 seconds is achieved with this exercise, then 2 sets can be done with a 30 second break in between. More than 90 seconds is not required, and once this becomes comfortable then one will have developed a very strong and stable core region.
Alternative arm/leg raises – This exercise should be carried out smoothly with each side being held in the extended position for 3 seconds each side, building up to 15 times per side for 1 set. Keep the extended limbs straight and focus on contracting the core. Do not raise the leg or arms higher than shoulder or hip.
Back extensions – This exercise should again be carried out smoothly with arms and legs held in the extended position for 5 seconds each rep, building up to 15 times for 2 sets. Keep the extended limbs straight and your head neutral. Do not strain the neck or raise the leg and arms higher than comfortable (never higher than 6” or 15cm)
Straight body side plank (arms extended) – This is again a deceptively hard exercise and one should aim to build up to being able to hold for 60 seconds in one go each side. At first even 30 seconds may prove a challenge, but with consistency, this will soon improve.
Once 60 seconds is achieved, then 2 sets can be done with a 30 second break in between.
Core exercises to AVOID
Despite their popularity sit ups and crunches are two of the worst exercises one can carry out in respect of the desire to develop core strength and stability. Long term use of such exercises could cause lasting damage to ones spinal vertebrae (especially where one also pulls on the back of the head when doing such exercises). Just because the lumber spine is capable of flexing into the position required of it during a sit up or crunch, does not mean that these exercises are safe to be carried out. Many people significantly increase the chances of damaging their spine by carrying out sit ups and crunches in an explosive (ballistic) style whilst securing their feet down in some way, which places an extremely high level of stress on the spinal vertebrae.
Other exercises that should be avoided as they could place unnecessary strain on the spinal vertebrae (especially if carried out incorrectly) include:
Straight leg elevations (leg lifts) whilst lying on ones back
Sit ups or crunches with feet elevated Hanging knee raises Any exercise where one grips the back of the
The stronger a rider makes their core the more able they will realise the benefits of any strength and power gains achieved in their legs, which will directly relate to increased cycling speed and endurance.
These exercises take no more than 10-15 minutes to carry out and should become part of a year round programme of off the bike core strength and stability training.