Core strength is defined as your trunk’s ability to stabilize in order for your upper and lower body to work together in a functional and coordinated way. The biggest misunderstanding about core strength is that it is some type of exercise done on the floor or mat.
Floor exercises do have their place in a training regime, but, to improve functional efficiency (in this case power on the bike) it is crucial to stand up and add some external forces to the limbs. This really gets the trunk muscles firing, building stability, which will improve your riding. Don’t forget to warm-up!
1. PUSH PRESS
This is a power exercise, which also challenges your core and is hip dominant. Note that your arms do not do the pushing here, your lower body does most of the work with momentum to two-thirds of the distance above the head, then you push it out.
SETTING UP: Place your bar in front of you, just like you would start your deadlift (shins touching the bar). Grip your bar tightly and lift it as shown in the first picture. Push your bum back by hinging in your hips, soften your knees, dig your heels into the floor and explosively thrust your hips forward and your knees back by pushing through the ground with your feet. The momentum of this explosive movement should cause you to flip the bar onto your shoulders. Your elbows point forward and are slightly below the bar. Position your feet shoulder width apart. This is your starting position.
UP: Slowly flex the hips first and then the knees in order to move the bar down in a straight line. Don’t go any deeper than a quarter squat. As soon as you reach the bottom, explosively thrust your hips forward and your knees back by pushing through the ground with your feet. During that explosive movement, your elbows should start to extend in order to lift the bar overhead. Once your legs are straight, fully extend your elbows immediately, by locking them in. Your arms and bar should be in line with your ears or slightly behind them.
DOWN: Slowly release the tension from your elbows and lower the bar to your shoulders. As the bar lands, soften your hip and knee joints to cushion the impact on your shoulders.
TIP: Ensure that you keep a neutral spine and chin tucked in throughout the movement. If your flexibility stops you, try a lighter weight and ask your local Biokineticist to assist you with some upper body flexibility exercises. Because this is a power-movement, you will never do more than three consecutive reps.
2. FRONT SQUAT
This is a hip and knee-dominant movement, therefore you will feel Quads, Glutes, and Hamstrings working together in a well-balanced manner.
SETTING UP: Place the bar on a rack just below shoulder height. Walk to the bar until your neck is touching the bar. Lift your arms up to shoulder height and cross them over and place your hands on the bar, palms down or keep your arms parallel and hook your first two fingers under the bar with your palms facing up (this 2nd grip requires some shoulder flexibility). Whichever grip you choose, you must be able to keep your elbows shoulder height, otherwise, you will feel like your arms are holding the bar up. The bar should be resting across the front of your shoulders. Wedge the bar in between your neck and your shoulders. It should lay in a nice pocket. Tuck your chin in. It might feel a bit like you are strangling yourself but you will get over it soon enough. Stabilize your spine and find the neutral position. Lift the bar off the rack and take a step back. Please ensure that you have set up the safety arms on your rack, as shown in the picture. They are great to save you in case you lose your balance or if the weights are too heavy just leave the bar on them. They also give you a sense of safety so that you can move more freely. Place your feet shoulder-width apart and turn your toes out about 5 degrees. Keep a tall spine with the chin tucked in.
DOWN: Bump your bum back slightly until you can feel the glutes and hamstrings engaging. Slowly sit back while your knees bend to drop you down. Because this movement is more knee-dominant than your deadlift, your knees may come forward, but your feet must stay flat on the floor. At the bottom of your squat, you want the bar and the middle of your feet in one line perpendicular to the floor. The bar stays in that line all the way through your movement. Your hips go back, knees go forward and the upper body goes slightly forward to get to the bar above your feet in order to lower the weight. Go down in a controlled manner for 3 seconds. Go as low as you can while keeping the tension in the muscles as well as your form. Note how this is different to your deadlift because your knees bend more here and you will feel your quads work harder with your glutes and hamstrings. In your deadlift, which is a hip dominant movement, your upper body hinges further forward and you dominantly feel the hamstrings and glutes working.
UP: Push through the tripods of your feet, the knees go back and the hips forward. Make sure your bar moves in the same line, up and down, no forward and back movement. You should really feel the spine stabilizers work hard here. This is one of the best core strengthening exercises you will ever do if your stabilizers fire during your movement. Control your movement up for 2 seconds.
TIP: If you struggle to sit back in your squat put a box/bench behind you to sit back on. Make sure you still control your movement and only touch the box before pushing back up. Keep your elbows shoulder height and width. Don’t flare your ribs up. Pretend that stick is on your back. Avoid just dropping to the bottom of your squat and then re-engaging your muscles to get back up, make sure you keep the tension in your muscles all the way through your movement. If you feel this in your back, lower your weights until you can feel your core muscles engaging to stabilize your movement.
3. RENEGADE ROW
This one is highly recommended for aggressive trail riders as it keeps your core engaged while you move about the bike. You will feel your shoulder stabilizers as well as your trunk stabilizers fire during this movement.
SETTING UP: Place your dumbbells the same distance apart as your grips on your bike. Go into the start of a pushup position with your hands on the dumbbells. Lengthen your spine, tuck your chin in, unlock your knees, dig your toes into the ground and engage the stabilizers around your spine. Make sure that your shoulders are in a neutral position.
DOWN: Lower down and do one push-up.
UP: When you get to the top of your push-up, lift the dumbbell and row. Pull back while keeping your elbow close to your body. Do not rotate your body, your hips must keep pointing forward. Pull your shoulder blade toward your spine in order to open your shoulder. Lower down and repeat on the other side.
TIP: If you struggle to keep your hips still or your body rotates, place your feet wider apart. Once you can master it, try them closer together after a few weeks of practice.
4. ANTI-ROTATION CHOP
In this movement, the arms move while the rest of the body works together to stabilize. You should feel your obliques working and all your other stabilizers will be firing too. It’s a fantastic move for all mountain bikers and will help you through switchbacks, corkscrews and any direction changes you need to make on the trail.
SETTING UP: Set the pulley height just below shoulder height. If you only have a high or low pulley at your gym, you can also use the high setting. Pull the rope through to the one side so that it is one long rope. Stand with the feet wider than shoulder-width apart. Lengthen the spine and tuck in the chin. Stabilize the spine and sit back slightly to engage the hamstrings and the glutes. Push your heels toward each other to engage the inner thighs.
OUTWARD: Push the rope forward to lock in the elbows and swipe the rope across your body, away from the pulley, keeping the elbows locked and the shoulders and hips pointing forward.
INWARD: Slowly control the rope back to its starting position to counter the force of the pulley.
TIP: If you do not feel this working effectively in your obliques, make sure that your hands are inline or slightly behind the pulley when they are stretch forward.
5. PALOF PRESS
This exercise works on the obliques and all other muscles in the core. Focus on not rotating the body and sit back into the heels.
SETTING UP: Set the pulley up in line with your navel. Grab the handle with your inside hand and fold the other hand over that hand. Take a step away from the pulley. Feet are shoulder-width apart and the spine in a neutral position with the chin tucked in. The handle should be by your navel. This is your starting position.
FORWARD: Push the handle forward, keeping it in line with your navel. Keep the chest open to ensure that you are not crunching your shoulders forward. The hips and shoulders point forward at all times.
BACKWARD: Slowly control the handle back to its starting point.
TIP: Make sure that you are hinging through your hips when you sit back and slightly push your heels towards each other to engage the inside thighs. When your arms are stretched out, they should be in line with the pulley.
6. WOOD CHOP
Unlike the previous two exercises, this one actually allows your upper body to rotate.
SETTING UP: The pulley must be on its highest setting. Grip the rope and take a step away from the pulley so that your arms are straight when holding onto the rope. Place your inside foot in front and sit into that hip so that you can feel your glutes activating. Plant the back toe into the ground and close your hips so that they are both pointing forward. At this point, the upper body should be rotated slightly towards the pulley.
DOWN: Keep your arms straight and explosively chop down, as if you are chopping wood, all the way to the opposite hip. Make sure that your hips are still pointing forward and upper body is rotated away from the pulley.
UP: Slowly control the rope back to its starting point, while keeping the stabilizers around the spine activated.
TIP: If you do not feel the obliques firing, move forward or back until you find a point where it works for you. It often works best if you are standing slightly behind the pulley.
7. BEAR CRAWLS
This is the perfect exercise for spinal stability (core) and shoulder stability. You should feel the stabilizers of the shoulder and spine working here and this one will do wonders for your stability on the bike whilst standing.
SETTING UP: Go into a four-point-stand. Make sure you have about 20 meters to 40 meters of space in front of you. Lengthen your spine and tuck in your chin. Make sure your shoulders are in a neutral position. Stabilize your spine and slightly lift your knees away fro the floor by pushing your toes and hands into the floor. Do not round your shoulders and keep the shoulderblades flat on your back. This is your starting position.
FORWARD: Crawl forward by taking small steps at a time, placing your opposite hand and opposite foot in front of you. Walk the 20m and turn around or walk 40m. You can also work up to these distances.
TIP: Keep your elbows locked in and move through your shoulders. If you feel it in your Quads, move your feet slightly further away from your body.
DONE! – Remember …
- Form is everything
- Record and track your progress
- Focus on systematic overload and recovery for maximum gains