Cyclists: Get Off The Floor To Train Your Core And The Science Behind It, Part I
Updated: Jun 3, 2021
How's that for a title? Kind of just rolls of the whatever things roll off of for things that flow really well.
Yes, I'm very caffeinated at the moment, and, if I may quote the incomparable MC Hammer, I'm feeling "dope on the floor and magic on the mic." Which usually means top notch prose that fuels your head and may even tickle your funny bone with a few yucks. So, cycling, getting stronger off the bike to go faster on it, is the topic at hand. What's the best way? What's going to have the most functional carry over? What exercises will get you the strongest? Before I deliver the goods on that, we need to go over what won't help. What 15 years of working with endurance athletes has taught me is the least effective approach. Are you ready? If you read the title, you may have figured out the plot line, so here you go. The Key to Developing A Bigger Motor On the Bike Here it is my friends. One of the least effective ways to build strength for riding your bike faster. Ready? Well, hold on a second. There's a caveat, it’s a subtle one, but it bares mentioning. If there are rehab/corrective needs then this method can help you rebuild your fundamental muscle activation patterns. If you need to rewire a connection from the nervous system to the muscles moving bones correctly to progress, then I feel there's some merit. Especially if a muscle imbalance has knocked something offline.
In 2005, I had surgery on my left knee and the port side glutes went into a sad state of affairs. They didn't work as well post-op and I needed some serious PT to shock and awe them back into existence. That meant spending loads of time on a table while an evil human being caused me severe muscular discomfort of biblical proportions to get them back online.
I hated every second of it because it hurt like hell. But, my brain needed to talk to my butt again (STOP!) and this was the best way to do it. I wasn't able to coordinate that in a standing position, hence the time spent laying down so the table could stabilize me as the glutes worked.
Once the dots were reconnected, it was off to doing things standing. So, there was merit given the application of the strategy and end goal.
With that being said, outside of a rehab need of some kind, I honestly don't see the value of being on the floor for cycling specific "core strength work" given what you do on a bike. To state once again, if you don't need a corrective, rehab, neural drive reconnection, etc approach to put yourself back together for whatever reason, then here it is: Get off the floor to work your core. Bam. That's it. Simple. Basic. Pretty damn effective. Why? Because I S.A.I.D. So Here's why it’s the most effective way to go, because I S.A.I.D. so. Yep, I S.A.I.D. so. Now, not just because I'm telling you, but because there are certain training principles based on movement science that need to be applied to maximize your time spent working on getting stronger. Use them, you get stronger. Don't use them, fill your workouts with noisercise (exercises that are pretty much just noise as Dan John says) and it could be harder to set yourself up for success. The S.A.I.D. Principle states (1): "The body will specifically adapt to the type of demand placed on it. The degree of adaptation that occurs during training is directly related to the mechanical, neuromuscular and metabolic specificity of the training program." So, I read that as if you want to get stronger driving a pedal down toward the ground, do exercises that mimic that motion and application of force. For cyclists, this means applying strength with one leg in a vertical downward motion.
That doesn't look like being on the floor on your back face up. Unless you just crashed. Then you've got other, most likely more important, things to deal with. If you haven't just crashed, think about it for a second. When you push a pedal down, which way are you projecting force? Are you on your back or are you upright? I'll give you a hint, it rhymes with "downward" and "vertically." So, if we apply Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (the S.A.I.D.) as a movement principle, then doesn't it makes more sense to get your muscles moving your bones the way they do when you're riding your bike? So, if your goal is to go uphill faster, then it makes more sense to train your legs to produce force pushing down toward the surface you're riding on. You can do this by moving heavier loads in the direction your muscles move a pedal: vertically toward the ground.
This is why working the glutes (hip extension: knee away from the hips) more and hip flexion movements (knee toward the hip) less works really well for a cyclist. If you're a mountain biker who rides flats, training a hip flexion pattern is somewhere between a waste of time and a fool's errand given you can only actively produce toward the ground because your feet aren't connected to the bike at the pedal.
Especially when you take into account the fact that riding a bike is a seated activity. Here's where I'm going with this.
You probably sit all day to work. Then you sit to drive to your ride.
You sit while riding, then you sit some more on the drive home. You probably sit during dinner, then eventually lay down to go to sleep. That's a lot of time spent in a position the hammers the flexion pattern (knees toward the hips) of the lower body. So why would you emphasize muscles that mimic that when you exercise off the bike? You don't want to do things that further strengthen the muscles that put the body in a position most people are too damn good at as it is. Plus, overactive hip flexors knock the glutes offline, over activate the hamstrings and the whole operations starts to go to hell from there. Let's be honest, since 2006, I've learned proprioceptive awareness and the sensation of the right muscles working at the right time isn't something most cyclists are dialed into.
The only thing you gain by losing glute function is an accelerated chance of getting injured. Exercise accordingly.
Let's also keep in mind, being locked into a machine that only allows you to move in one plane of motion (saggital, or in front of you), while the engine powering it is meant to move in multiple directions in a 3D environment (2). Cycling is heavily dependent on how the core interacts with ground reactions forces. Meaning, opposite arms and legs must control force production toward the ground to coordinate it coming back up into the opposite side of the body.
So, to that point chopping patterns in a split stance standing or in a half kneeling position are incredibly beneficial to a cyclist because of how they hit the rotational patterns you need to generate power into your pedals in AND out of the saddle. Again, because it mimics the patterns the muscles fire in when you're on the bike. Particularly putting in a hard charge out of the saddle when you throw the bike side to side.
You Gain What You Train Every time a muscle produces force in one direction, there is an equal and opposite force reaction. Once again, we produce force in the saddle with one leg at a time pushing down and then we have to control that force as it comes back up through the core and hips. This is why standing on one leg to train is a lot more advantageous to you as a bike rider. Any time you apply lower body force in a direction that doesn't look like pushing down a pedal, than you are wasting energy not too mention your time working out (3). Paul Chek, fitness industry pioneer who has forgotten more about training the body than most fitness professionals will ever learn (who was also talking about the importance of gut health in 2004 that is now the hottest thing in nutrition, like I said, pioneer), said "the less an exercise resembles the movement you want to improve, the harder time you'll have improving that movement." Essentially, if you push a pedal down vertically, then apply downward force toward the earth when you train off the bike. He also said our bodies know nothing about muscles, just movements. So, if you're on the floor "training" the core as your muscles apply force in a way that doesn't look like riding, you're not really training them properly to help you ride better (4). This is why we need to train movements, not muscles when we train. This is a great list Chek came up with to ensure you're training the right way to get stronger:
1) Does the exercise look like the activity you want to improve? If it does, then pitter patter (my pitter patter, not Chek's)!
1) Does the exercise challenge the nervous system to get better at muscles moving bones?
1) Is the goal of the exercise to isolate or integrate the muscles into a movement pattern?
1) And here's the kicker: Does the exercise have the proper "biomotor profile" to develop optimal skill and movement patterns? Again, does it look like the activity you want to improve?
Now, you probably noticed everything is number 1) and I'm glad you asked why. In his book "Relentless: From Good To Unstoppable," Tim Grover said that as humans go through a numbered list, once they hit 3-4, they start tuning out and give less importance to the ensuing points.
He said ALL of the things he tells people have equal importance, so he only uses the number one when lists things out. I love that strategy, and I agree 100%, hence the way the list is numbered.
Taking this out a little further, We know strength gains are highly specific to movement patterns. So, to Chek's point once again, the more the exercise/movement looks like the activity you want to improve, the higher the performance benefit from the training program (5).
Back to the lecture at hand. I'll S.A.I.D. it again (yes, horrible grammar, but it will make sense in a second).
Unless you need a corrective/rehab/neural reconnection strategy, well, once again, get off the floor to work your core.
When I Coach workshops, I always tell people what I want them to know, then I tell them two more times throughout the talk. I'd then say it again at the end so people would have a better time remembering the info that I wanted them to know. So, with that being S.A.I.D. (see what I did there?), let's add some more knowledge nuggets here.
Ride a bike, and this should mean pushing the pedal down with as much force as possible. Train the lower body accordingly and you just may have more "chain free days."
If you are training a cyclists the right way, you are improving specific functional strength to create as much stability as possible so that position in the saddle can be optimized to transfer force throughout the kinetic chain (6). Since you can only put out the amount of power your joints can stabilize, this is kind of a big deal.
IM(always)HO, that means get your glutes off the floor to train your core and never stop asking "does this look like riding a bike" when you chose the exercises for your core strength workouts. Alright, if you got down this far, remained awake and feel like a more informed fitness consumer, well done! If you fell asleep and didn't get this far, then you are a horrible human being who probably hates chocolate and likes decaf. I kid people, I kid. Part two of this prose will be coming shortly. In it, you'll get my favorite ways for a bike rider to strength train.
Until then, there's a ton of additional blog content loaded with high quality fitness factoids here on the IPF interwebs site. You can also listen to my pontifications of a PE nature on "The Fit At Home Podcast" that I co-host with Red Delta Project founder Matt Schifferle. Click here to have a listen on the best things you can do at home to build your fitness habit. References
"NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training," Michael A. Clark, Brian G. Sutton, Scott C. Lucett
"To The Max: Functional Training For The Endurance Athlete," Gary Lavin USAT II, CSCS, BS, Juan Carlos Santana MeD, CSCS
"Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, 4th Edition," Stuart McGill PhD
"Movement That Matters," Paul Chek
"Physiology of Sports and Exericse," Jack Willmore, David Costill
"Functional Training: Exercises And Programming For Training And Performance," Juan Carlos Santana, Med, CSCS