Making your training rider-specific
Updated: Apr 13
Discussing training & workout design with riders is always really interesting. Most riders have tried some form of training before whether that is group exercise, HIIT classes, resistance-based training or even sometimes CrossFit or more strength-specific PT has been tried. But I often hear the same question from riders in terms of how to structure workouts that are specific and going to directly help their riding.
"How do I know what I'm doing is going to benefit & transfer into improving my riding?"
Knowing that what you do in your training sessions is actually going to have a direct benefit on your riding performance is a valid concern & good point.
When time is short, (let's face it, it is for all of us!) you’re putting your full effort into your training and focusing on getting a result it is essential that your training is functional and fits the demands of your Equestrian sport.
It’s easy to get a bit too caught up when we talk about sports specific programming and at the end of the day a lot of sports train in a relatively similar fashion when it comes to strength and conditioning. Obviously it's important to consider the level of the athletes fitness here too.
Something is always better than nothing and it’s important to remember that, so as long as you’re following a progressive strength training programme that applies progressive overload over time focusing on compound movements & the movements used when riding then that will most definitely benefit your riding performance.
The best thing to do to keep your training rider specific is to focus on training the movement patterns we use when riding within your gym or home sessions.
So for instance when you are galloping across the country you are holding your 2 point seat, as a fence approaches you need the ability to sit up sit into your seat, collect your horse, and then the stability through your core & trunk as he jumps to allow him to use his body & land stable to then get away quickly & smoothly.
That is a lot of different movement patterns in a very short space of time so think about it functionally. When you are galloping what is your position? What muscles are working? This applies to all Equestrian sports, dressage is primarily holding 1 position so slightly less complex.
In your cross country seat your bum is out of the saddle and you are holding a hip hinge pattern, your hips are pushed back, weight is down into your heels, your torso strong and you’re looking ahead. Transferring that into a training session a deadlift of some variation replicates that hip hinge pattern perfectly and would be a great exercise to use to strengthen that position. That is specific training.
Looking at the approach to the jump you need the strength in your seat to be able to sit up and collect your horse, using your leg to keep his forward rhythm & hindleg under him. Therefore you need to have strong glutes, leg muscles, and posterior chain so that you can use your seat, a stable lower leg to support you, and a strong core and upper body to hold both yourself and support your horse's front end.
The last thing you want is to be flopping up the horses neck because you can’t hold your own body weight. The other consideration to think about here is your aerobic fitness, there’s a lot of quick decisions mentally & physically in all jumping or polo-based disciplines and your ability to react is essential to the result and your horse's jumping performance.
Making sure you are not out of breath, knackered after landing, and then actually able to help your horse is essential so make sure you include some intense, high-intensity interval training within your programme. This would be very beneficial alongside having a good level of base endurance fitness.
For most of your reading this, you will most probably be at the very beginning stages of your own training & fitness journey. So to begin with focus on movement patterns as I said previously not muscle groups.
If we focus on movement patterns this is a far more functional way of training where you will be recruiting your larger muscle groups and working multiple joints at the same time replicating how you moving riding closely.
This gives you the most bang for your buck and are the exercises that get you working the hardest too! Training muscle groups is fine but it’s not a particularly functional manner of training when we are talking about being specific to riding and you will probably find that progress is slow and it doesn’t suit your goals very well. If you’re training muscle groups you need to be able to train 4 to 5 times a week and lift moderate to heavy loads to get a good training response to elicit an adapatation.
Again think about how your body works in the saddle, it's not like only 1 muscle works at a time is it? Your whole body is constantly working together to create & absorb movement. Therefore we need to make sure your whole body is as strong as it can be to do the above!
If you're training 3-4 times a week full body sessions are the most functional and effective way to train & include all your movement patterns. They are time efficient too. You can pair upper and lower body exercises within a superset back to back so you’re not wasting time resting and hanging about between exercises.
It also means that you keep moving throughout your session and therefore you are constantly challenging your cardiovascular system as you are working at a higher intensity and therefore burning more calories and creating a higher metabolic effect on your body encouraging muscle growth all at the same time!
The movement patterns we want to focus on are the primary movements used in all phases of our riding sport. The posterior chain should always be a focus for riders of all disciplines.
When we talk about the posterior chain, this is all of the muscles on the back of the body from the neck all the way down to the calves. Your posterior chain & muscles are the most used muscles when riding. The stronger you are through the posterior chain the more effective rider you are going to be & the more stable and balanced you will feel in the saddle.
Your glutes control your movement and balance in the saddle so to create a deep stable seat it is essential you have strong glutes, strong yet mobile hamstrings and calves and a mobile ankle to create a strong lower leg. Much of the time during flatwork the position we sit in replicates a squat movement primarily and we are requiring the front of our body to work harder now.
Making sure you add in enough anterior work is important too. Unless there is a reason for you to need a bias in your programme, such as injury or imbalance, your training programme should be balanced in terms of hitting all of your muscle groups equally and the same applies to anterior and posterior movements.
So you want to make sure you are including the following patterns in your sessions;
Hinge hip dominant
Squat knee dominant
Single leg work
Upper back pull
Core; anti extension, anti rotation anti-lateral flexion
These are the fundamental movement patterns you should be focusing on including in your training week and that will be the most beneficial to your riding. Try to use one lower body pattern and match it with say a horizontal push and a vertical pull in 1 session and then you can add in some core as accessory work. If you structure your workouts in this fashion then training 2-3 times a week means you can hit all of the above movement patterns as well as giving your muscles enough rest between working them! Making sure you include plenty of single limb work is important as well so those other patterns can always be changed to working 1 side at a time independently as needed.
Core work should always be treated as essential for riders but remember core is accessory work that can either be done within the session or at the start or finish. In all of your main movement patterns & compound movements, you're training your core so it's working all of the time.
I see way too many riders spending their precious time doing sit-ups & crunches which is completely unfunctional and in the long run it’s going to negatively impact your spinal health big time. Think about it when do you ever want to go into that fully flexed position when riding? Never so don't use it!
Making sure you are consistent and then apply progression to your training is key in terms of results. It’s easy to overcomplicate sport-specific movements & training but focus on the movement patterns used in the saddle and think about where you struggle when riding. If you know you tip forward on the landing of a jump then you most probably need to work on strengthening your seat, lower leg, core strength and upper body strength to be more effective and help your horse more. This will help to make sure your training is as specific & personal to you as it can possibly be to have the biggest benefit on your riding!
Progress and drastic changes aren’t going to come overnight so being consistent over a period of weeks and months is the best way to see changes. Be mindful of using videos to see progress & differences in your riding position & enjoy the benefits of transforming your body & riding at your best once you start training!