We outline core exercises to help you stay strong and injury free on the bike

We’ve all heard talk of the mystical ‘core’ and its importance for cyclists, but as a general rule most riders regard time spent training this area in much the same way they do the edible kind: we’d rather chuck it away to devote more time to the fleshy goodness of hours in the saddle.

However, one or two sessions a week devoted to strengthening the biggest muscles in the body can go a long way in boosting power and keeping you on the bike.

“The ‘core’ is quite a misunderstood term. What we’re trying to strengthen is the body, minus the legs and arms,” explains head coach and owner at Surrey Strength and Performance, Dan Iaciofano.

“Having a stronger core will allow you to transfer more power through the legs, as well as reducing the instance of injury and improving your posture.

“Since a lot of riders do mostly endurance training, strength work will help them to access their fast twitch muscle fibres. Finally, cycling isn’t weight bearing, so even taking out the core strength element, adding in some weight bearing and loading exercises will be good for bone health,” he confirms.


Build your own  core strength routine

core strength for cyclists

Coach Dan Iaciofano, who owns Surrey Strength and Performance

Iaciofano, who trains National level athletes across a range of sports as well as cycling, suggests that riders should look to include four specific exercise types.

“Make sure you have a balanced programme – which addresses all the key needs. Within the upper body, you need a push and a pull movement, then include a hip dominant and a knee dominant lower body exercise. In those four movements, you have pretty much the whole body covered” he says.

All of the exercises below include variants you can do at home, but Iaciofano does suggest you run through correct form with a coach or personal trainer before you start out, to ensure you’ll get the most from the time you put in.

How many reps?

Split your session into two parts, choosing a push and hip dominant exercise and then a pull and knee dominant exercise. Do four sets of each, starting with six to 10 repetitions.

“Cyclists sometimes think they need to keep the reps high, to replicate the many pedal strokes they’ll complete on the bike. You’ll never replicate the endurance of cycling with these movements, this is instead about raising the ceiling of strength – so go for lower reps,” Iaciofano says.

As you progress, the number of repetitions and weight can be adjusted depending upon the goal and time of year. High reps with a lower weight will build muscle, but result in heavy DOMS – so are best saved for winter whilst low reps with a heavy weight will fire up muscles and create adaptation with less damage.

Push movements

The push movements are mostly upper body exercises, but cyclists should not shy away from these. GB track sprinters are often seen working through pull-ups, and there’s no reason to avoid them, even if you’re after the willowy physique of a climber.

“Upper body strength will help because you’ll be stiffer through the midsection, which means less energy leakage and more power through to the pedals,” Iaciofano says.

“You won’t put on weight unless you’re in a calorie surplus. It’s actually quite hard to ‘put muscle on’ – particularly for women who have such low levels of testosterone. Cyclists are also usually completing high volumes of endurance training, so it’s hard to build muscle and the exercises and sets are nowhere near enough to create a ‘big’ upper body. Body builders would do 20-30 sets to get the ‘pump’ they’re after.”

Push-up

How to:

  • Place hands below shoulders
  • Lower yourself, until your nose is at the floor, keeping the core tight and body in a straight line
  • Push up from the floor, try not to sag at the lower back
  • Repeat

Make it easier:

  • Try an incline press up, find a slight slope, this will let you use gravity to your advantage

Make it harder:

  • Try looping an exercise band around your hands, and across your back
  • Add a weight plate onto your back (you’ll need a friend to help)

Why:

“Push ups are really good for the anterior core – so the whole front side of the system, this is particularly good for maintaining stability in the cycling position,” Iaciofano says.

“It’s good for the pressing muscles, chest and triceps. If you create enough tension, you get a benefit through the abs, glutes and hamstrings, and you can turn it into a whole body exercise.”

Single arm overhead press, half kneeling

How to:

  • Start with a knee at 45 degrees
  • Brace the abs and glutes
  • Keep the weight close to your body, pressing into your shoulder
  • Press straight up
  • Return to the starting position
  • Repeat

Make it easier:

  • Start with a can of soup

Make it harder:

  • Try the same movement, standing
  • Move on to using a barbell for a double arm overhead press

Why:

“I wouldn’t give a beginner a double arm overhead press, they may not have the stability and stiffness required through the core, to brace, which can then lead to compensation and sagging in the back. But a single arm half kneeling variation is a good start. Similar to a push up, it helps build core stiffness and it’s progressive. Anyone from a beginner to an elite rider could benefit,” Iaciofano says.

Pull movements

Pull-up

How to:

  • You can use a bar, or rings as shown – whichever you’ve got available. A lot of parks have basic gym equipment including a pull up bar!
  • Hold on to the bar/rings and pull yourself up
  • Lower until your arms are almost completely straight
  • Pull yourself back up

Make it easier:

  • Full pull -ups, with complete extension through the arms, are really challenging – particularly for women who statistically have less upper body strength and more body fat. If you can’t do full pull-ups, start with eccentrics, where you pull yourself up, gradually lower to full extension, return to the ground and then start again

Make it harder:

  • If you’re confident you’re getting full extension, add a weight around your waist. You might need to do weighted pull-ups as eccentrics (described above) for a few weeks until you can complete them fully with the weight

Why:

“You can do this with limited equipment, and you can progress it, it’s hard enough for most people. It involves the lats [latissimus dorsi], which stabilise  the pelvis, which will help you to transfer more force through the pedals,” Iaciofano says.

Single arm row

How to:

  • Place one knee on a bench, with your other foot on the floor, alongside it
  • Push into the bench with your resting arm, bracing your stomach muscles
  • Pull the weight towards you, bringing your elbow back
  • Don’t allow the lower back to dip
  • Return and repeat

Make it harder/easier:

  • Add or subtract weight!
  • If available, use a barbell, rings or TRX bands for horizontal rows – the movement is similar but you’re using both arms and working with your body weight

core strength for cyclists

Why:

“A single arm row will still target the mid-back muscles, which can become quite weak for anyone who sits at a desk all day, or hunches over a bike,” Iaciofano. If you’re using a gym with a barbell, rings or TRX equipment, he’d recommend a horizontal row too.

Hip dominant movements

The hip area can be broken down into the hamstrings and glutes, so we’ve looked at them as separate entities – and they’re certainly both important.

“Even though it is generally taught that best practice is to push through the pedal stroke, most riders dominate with the push. The hamstrings and glutes are often comparativly weak, which can result in knee pain – so pulling exercises which focus on the hamstrings and glutes are really important to cyclists,” Iaciofano says – suggesting riders might want to include two hip movements to each knee dominant exercise.

Hamstrings: Sliders

How to:

  • A set of sliders will cost you around £5 – every living room should have a pair!
  • Place your heels on the slider
  • Bring your bum up into a glute bridge
  • Push your heels away from you
  • Return to start
  • *Pro tip: never walk over the sliders in the gym, catching one with your foot – you will go flying into the air and land with a thud

Make it easier:

  • Swap the sliders for a swiss ball – this takes your legs further from the ground and makes the exercise a bit easier

Make it harder:

  • Move the sliders further from your body in the outward movement, pause for a few seconds at your greatest extension

Why:

Your hamstrings will let know they’ve been worked!

Hamstrings: Romanian deadlift

How to:

  • Start with soft knees
  • Pull the bar into you, push the hips back and lower the bar, You should feel it in your hamstrings and glutes
  • Continue to drop the bar until you reach the end of the range of motion in your hamstrings
  • If you feel any curvature in your lower back, you’ve gone too far
  • Return to the start position
  • To make it easier or harder, up or lower the weight

Why:

“A deadlift targets all the right muscles and you have to keep tight through the abs to ensure good form. However, it is really best done only if you’ve had a coach check your form. It’s easy to get it wrong and hurt your back. If you are going to do them, don’t overdo the weight,” Iaciofano says.

Glutes: Hip thrust

How to:

  • Best done in the gym with a bar and weight, but at home you’ll get a benefit from body weight initially, or can use a kettlebell until your loading needs become too heavy to do this in comfort. Progression with a single leg variety (below) could be done at home with minimal weight.
  • Rest your shoulders on a bench (or sofa/chair at home), start with your feet and bum on the ground, knees bent
  • Squeeze your glutes and lift up until you’re like a straight table top, be careful not to overextend in the lower back creating an upward rise
  • Return to start and repeat

Make it easier:

  • Use your bodyweight only and hold for 20-30 seconds

Make it harder:

Go single leg. Always start by working the weaker leg, and complete the same reps each side. There’s two options:

  • Start with both legs on the ground, rise up, then lift one leg up for the lowering stage (easier)
  • Start with one leg on the ground, and the other raised, lift yourself up and return to the floor (harder)

Why:

Anyone can do a body weight double leg hip thrust, but you can load it up to meet serious strength goals. Going single leg will highlight any in-balances, allowing you to work on levelling up.

Knee dominant movements

Squat (front squat, split squat, pistol squat, single leg squat)

How to (split squat):

  • Place the bar over your back
  • Stand with one leg in front, your feet should be level with your hips as opposed to directly in front of each other
  • Bring the back knee down, keeping control throughout
  • Drive up through the glutes to return to the start position

Make it harder:

  • Try single leg squats, with a view to working towards a pistol squat – where you straighten one leg in front of you and lower until the straightened leg is level with the floor, then return to standing. Don’t expect a pistol squat to happen overnight!

Why:

There are many squat varieties, so there’s lots to keep you entertained. Iaciofano explains: “Squats work your entire core – your abs have to work to keep you standing up. Single leg squats are particularity good if you’ve got an in-balance to work on, most cyclists will have one leg that’s stronger.”

Step up

How to:

  • You can do this with any raised block at home
  • Start with one foot on the block
  • Squeeze your glute and lift the rear leg up to meet the other foot
  • Don’t spring off the rear leg, raise your toes before moving if it helps you to avoid it
  • Keep squeezing the working glute, lower your leg back down to the ground
  • Focus on pushing your knee out, tracking over the toes, throughout the downward movement

Make it harder:

  • Hold a dumbell
  • Go more slowly on the way down

Why:

Weak glutes can result in an inward pedalling motion, which can lead to injury. This forces the glute to work to keep the knee in position and also works the quads.