A popular discussion within Equestrian fitness is core strength & stability. Often a rider's goal can be to improve their core & get strong abdominals. It's important to understand what your core is & how that translates into your riding.
When you train in your own sessions you want to make sure you are targeting the same muscles & movements as when you ride. In the saddle the muscles we use the most include your obliques, abdominals especially your TVA (deep abdominal corset muscle), glutes, piriformis, hip flexors, & lower back muscles.
When we are referring to the core we are referring to all of these muscles. Often trainers who don't understand the physical demands of riding on the rider will only focus on training the "6 pack" muscles & your obliques. However, as rider's, we know we need much more than that.
Back pain is a common problem amongst riders from all disciplines so making sure you are training all of these muscles & following a balanced programme is essential to build a well balanced & stable core and avoid your body compensating from elsewhere to perform an exercise.
Many core exercises encourage excessive flexion of the spine such as crunches & sit-ups which for riders is the last thing we want to encourage. Spinal flexion is not something we are working to achieve in the saddle, in fact, we want the opposite & if you spend most of your day in a seated position you most probably already spend too much time in flexion. Excessive spinal flexion can cause the appearance of rounded shoulders & upper back soreness as well as lower back pain due to the spine being put in a compressed position & putting pressure on the vertebral discs. For any of my riders, especially those who have had previous back injuries or pain, I would remove any type of crunching movement! They have their place & if done with the correct form then can improve your core strength however there are far more beneficial & effective ways to target & train all of your core muscles.
If you only train the front of your core & those "6 pack" muscles then you may find that over time you build a very asymmetrical version of yourself & end up with imbalances that could cause you discomfort & potentially injuries further down the road. Remember our goal when training for riding is to build the most symmetrical version of yourself as possible, so you are the most balanced & even rider you can be. You should never follow a plan or programme that only focuses on one area as this will cause asymmetry.
Your core muscles are everything from the top of your ribcage down to the bottom of your bum on the front & back of your body. All of the muscles that attach to your pelvis are considered core muscles hence the lower back & glutes being included as part of your core. If you suffer from back pain when you train your abs then it can be due to the fact that your core muscles are not strong enough, so your lower back ends up taking over & compensating for the lack of strength. If your lower back is overactive when you train then it can lead to your back muscles tensing up & causing you discomfort or pain. We never want pain!
Moving the body through all planes of movement & directions is important too. You want to make sure you are including rotational exercises within your training that teach you to generate rotation as you would when you ride. Think about it, your showjumping & turn the corner to the next fence, you rotate through your core, shoulders & trunk to turn the horse. If you have weak rotational muscles or haven't trained that movement then you may find that rotation is very stiff & again can cause pain. You want to first build your strength in exercises that resist rotation then progress to exercises that focus on rotational movement.
Considering the hip flexor & glute muscles is also important. If your hip flexors & glutes are very tight then they can pull on the lower back continuously which can be very uncomfortable & again could lead to pain or worse, injury. A focus on releasing tight muscles such as foam rolling & dynamic stretching and performing a quality mobility routine before you train is important is to alleviate muscle tightness. This should be a staple around your training sessions.
If any core or abdominal movement you do causes you pain then you should stop immediately, don't ever persevere with a movement because you think you should. Pain in a training session is never a good sign so I would always advise you to stop if you feel pain as you will probably do more damage than good!
Building your core strength is a long term process that takes consitent & continuous work. Focusing less on the abdominal muscles and working your entire core is the way to go. Working on movements such as;
-Anti Extension exercises like planks & dead bugs
-Anti Lateral flexion exercises like side planks
-Anti Rotation exercises like bird dogs & pallofpresses
-Posterior Oblique Sling exercises such as bird dogs & split squats to rows
-Rotational exercises such as woodchops
-Lower Back exercises such as supermans
Working through these movements starting in static positions, where you hold the movement, & then progressing to dynamic versions of the movements is what you want to be focusing on. Then progressing the exercises over time by increasing the resistance, reps or volume is how to get stronger.
Remember your body is a clever unit, if one muscle or movement isn't firing correctly then your body will compensate from somewhere else to allow you to perform that movement. This can be why people struggle with discomfort in certain exercises & it is important to follow a proper progressive training programme that is suitable & personalised for you!
If you need help on what types of exercises you should be focusing on then feel free to comment & I will help you!
I hope this helps you to understand how to improve your core strength to help your riding!