In the act of cycling, legs are often the focus of performance analysis. However, a strong core contributes significantly to cycling comfort and injury prevention, said Seattle physical therapist Izette Swan, DPT.
“Everything works from the core,” said Swan, owner of Real Rehab Sports + Physical Therapy in Seattle. “Our core is the combination of muscles surrounding and supporting our torso, pelvis and hips. The core keeps human bodies stable, upright and moving forward – a key factor in cycling.”
In terms of pain, a weak core most often presents as back pain when riding and/or general tightness in the neck and shoulders. In contrast, a strong core keeps the power moving through the legs to the pedals, propelling the rider forward most efficiently.
The body’s core is made up of two parts. The inner core is the specific internal structures like the diaphragm, the transverses abdominals (lower ab muscle), the multifidus (spinal stabilizers), and the pelvic floor (muscles seated in the pelvis). Then there are the rest of the muscles that wrap around the torso, pelvis, and hips and legs.
“This is the outer core,” said Swan. “These muscles are the primary moving muscles; these are the muscles engaged in activity.”
A weak core is easy to spot, according to Swan. When standing, a weak core is presents in a swayback posture where the head is forward, the shoulders are rounded and the pelvis is thrust slightly forward.
When riding – and assuming the bike has been fitted to the rider – poor core engagement is diagnosed by a lot of movement in the body, a lot of rocking and rounding that is draining power from the legs. Swan recommends the following for assessing and strengthening the core for more efficient, pain-free cycling:
Posture Assessment. Being aware of and assessing posture is a great first step to determining core strength and improving it. Are you sitting on your sit bones (slightly forward) or on your tailbone (slightly slumped back)? Are you stacking your rib cage on top of your pelvis and your head on top of your shoulders?
Try Some Simple Postures. Can you stand on one leg for 30 seconds without the pelvis dropping and without any quivering muscles in your body? Can you lie on your back, lift a leg and not feel your back arch or your pelvis shift around? If these postures are challenging, Swan said, you most likely need to work on your core strength and, more specifically, your inner core – those lesser known and smaller muscles that help stabilize the torso, pelvis and hips.
Practice Yoga. Yoga is also a practice the helps improve core strength and cycling performance. When cycling, movement is performed in one plane: vertical and forward. In yoga, movement is performed in several different planes, recruiting more muscle groups into the movement.
Core Exercises. Real Rehab recommends three exercises to begin a strengthening regime: the dead bug, the single-leg isometric for tonic spread, and the bridge. (Click on the exercise to see a demonstration video.)
Depending on strength and stamina, vary the duration of the exercises and the repetitions. For example, if you feel you are weaker in your core, start with one to two sets of 10. As you get stronger, increase the set to 20 and repeat three or four times.
As always, if you have trouble with these exercises or experience any pain while training or cycling, contact a physical therapist for a full assessment and to develop an individualized exercise program.