How to train your abs & build core strength to improve your riding
Equestrian sports require a huge amount of core strength & stability. In all equestrian disciplines, our core supports our seat & posture in the saddle. Our core consists of everything from below the chest down to our mid-thigh around the front and back of your body, basically, if you got rid of your limbs & head what you have left is your core. As riders most of the time our goal is to improve our core strength in order to have a better and more balanced seat. Your core muscles are responsible for the stability of the spine, pelvic control & supporting your shoulder girdle. If your core is not working as it should be (with your body working as one connected unit) to do the above actions then you will struggle with your movement when riding & feel as if things aren't working as they should. To improve your core strength and balance when in the saddle you need to focus on training your core as one connected unit, just as it is when your riding.
We need to focus on our posterior (back of the body) being strong so your glutes, latismuss dorsi, lower back stabiliser muscles such as the erector spinae & your abdominal oblique muscles need to be strong and functioning correctly to allow you to have maximal strength in the saddle. As riders, our posterior muscles are responsible for the majority of movement so I would always suggest starting by focusing on strengthening your posterior. Once you have developed a strong foundation of movement of these muscles and focused on lengthening your shortened muscles on the front you can then focus on the front of your core too.
The muscles of the front of the core are your rectus abdominis (known as the 6 pack), the transverse abdominis (the deepest abdominal muscle), your internal & external obliques & your hip flexor muscles such as your psoas. Many people don't focus on the hip flexors as being part of the core but as riders, we are constantly using our hip flexors so it is essential to train these and include them in our core work.
As riders when training off the horse you want to replicate similar movements to those we do when riding so you are training functionally & I would suggest focusing on dynamic core movements rather than static holds, think about riding you are constantly moving, you never hold just one position, so you want to replicate this in your own training sessions. Holding a plank for 1 minute isn't going to do much to strengthen or improve your core stability. For many riders, our deep back muscles can be tight and the abdominal muscles on the front can be weak so I would never suggest focusing your core strengthening on crunching movements. You may find you don't have the strength for these movements but also they encourage spinal flexion which is a movement that can really stimulate back pain so I wouldn't focus on crunching movements for anyone with lower back pain issues. And again we want to make sure we are training functionally for our riding, when are you ever in spinal flexion when riding?
The aim of your core work should be to create strength & stability within your core unit so when you ride you are balanced, even & sitting strong in alignment whilst your horse moves underneath you. The weaker your core strength the greater you will struggle with your balance and seated position in the saddle.
Try these following exercises as a core workout, or pick 2-3 exercises and use them in your current training sessions as core finishers. Always focus on good movement and maintaining good form in all core work, this is most important!
1) Pallofpress/6-10 reps per side; Kneeling tall brace your abs, ensure your hips are stacked on top of your ribs and press the band out in front of your chest pause then bring your hands back to the chest. This will help you build stability in your trunk & hips.
2)Shoulder Plank Taps/6-10 reps per side; The aim is to keep as still as possible, no movement except for your hand tapping to your shoulder. You must do these slowly with good form resisting the rotation. This is an anti-rotation movement working the entire core that will build strength and stability. Focus on keeping your hips and ribs aligned throughout.
3) Standing Banded Rotation/6-10 reps per side- When we turn our obliques are responsible for this rotational movement so we need to train them to generate movement, really important if you play polo! This works your internal & external obliques working on stability & greater spine mobility.
4) Deadbugs/6-10 reps per side- One of the best core exercises if done correctly! Lying on your back keep your ribs and shoulders bolstered together with your lower back in contact with the ground. As you extend your leg out keep your alignment through your shoulders, ribs and hips. If you fail to hold the alignment you will feel the movement in your lower back, start with your hands on the floor and don't take your leg too low. This exercise targets all your trunk muscles as well as the hip flexors.
5) Single Leg Glute Bridges/8-12 reps per side- One leg in the air bridge up through your hips and pushing through your heel then slowly lower under control. Make sure your lower back is in contact with the floor before you bridge so you are using your glutes and hips not your lower back. This will work your glute muscles and balance.
6) Supermans/8-10 reps- This movement works on your posterior chain as well as targeting your front muscles and shoulders. Lying on the floor lift your arms and legs think of lifting from the shoulders and hips and keep your eyes down as you lift. Hold at the top and lower under control. This exercise really focuses on strengthening your erector spinae & glute muscles.
7) Bird Dogs/ 6-10 reps per side- Training your posterior sling muscles essential for when we ride. With your opposite arm & leg you are going to extend out in front of you then slowly return and bring your hand to the knee. The aim is to maintain a neutral spine throughout and keep shoulders, hips & ribs aligned as you move. This exercise will train you to have control and correct alignment improving your core stability. It works your entire core unit including your hips and posterior oblique chain muscles.
8) Side Plank Kneeling with leg lift/ 6-10 reps per side- Lying on your side bridge up into a side plank from here you will keep the bottom knee on the ground for support and push up from your elbow and hip. Whilst you hold this position you are going to lift the top leg until level with the hip and slowly lower down. This is a great exercise for hip mobility and will really focus on stability.
Go through 2-3 rounds of these exercises and see how you find they help your core strength and stability!
P.s If you are looking for help to build your core strength and are unsure of what you should be doing to improve your fitness to specifically help your riding then fill out the consult form below & book your free 30-minute consult call with Katie!