Rider Functional Training
Functional training is a buzzword that is most definitely overused these days in the fitness industry! You've probably been into a gym or studio space at some point that calls itself a functional fitness space & thought what on earth does that mean?
Training functionally means making sure that what you do in the walls of the gym or your home sessions directly relates back to improving your specific sports performance or your everyday quality of life depending on which is relevant to you.
So for example for a Mum of 3 young kids who works part-time & spends the rest of her time looking after her children, functional training would be making sure she builds her posterior chain strength using movements like hip hinges & deadlifts so her back & movement pattern to bend over & pick say her child up off the floor is as strong as possible. Core strength so her core is strong after having her children for everyday life & to support her back strength & rebuild post-partum, as well as making sure that we add in plenty of thoracic spine & hip mobility as much of her working life is seated so we want to get her moving. This would be relating her training back to benefit her everyday life therefore functional.
For a rider, this would look like making sure we train the posterior chain (the muscles on the back of your body) as these are the main working muscles used when you're riding such as your hamstrings, glutes, lat muscles. You would train these areas using movements like hinges & pulldowns, including core exercises that help you to have the ability to maintain a neutral spine & resist rotation, for instance when your horse whips round you have the core strength to resist collapsing with him as he pulls you or if he yanks your arms out you can maintain a strong seat rather than being tipped forwards. Including hip extension in your workouts as this is needed for a strong lower leg aid. So functional would be making sure that you train the same muscles & movement patterns that you use when riding. Obviously, this slightly differs from discipline to discipline but the core principle is the same.
Training in a functional manner means that your workouts & time spent in the gym is going to be time effective & 100% relatable to your riding giving you the confidence that you’re making the most out of the time you have & training in the most effective manner to build your riding strength. Which for all of us riders is incredibly important as time is not typically something we have much of!
Functional does mean much of the time using free weights like dumbbells or kettlebells over say machines. Again this differs between gyms & often functional training spaces pride themselves on using free weight & more functional kit like tyres, battleropes, sleds, med balls & cables over machines or cardio kit. The whole approach & principle of this is to allow your body to move in a manner similar to how it would in everyday life situations or in your riding. So using predominately free weights over machine will be far more beneficial for riders as we make sure we challenge our whole body as one kinetic chain & our core is always being engaged like it is when riding.
So as a rider you want to make sure that you’re training yourself to be the best rider but equally in a functional manner that supports your everyday life, (that depends what you do on a day to day basis, your job, movement, family life etc) to make sure you have the best quality of life, strength & health. Focusing on your posterior chain would be functional for riders across all disciplines.
The muscles on the back of the body are your predominant riding muscles as I mentioned earlier; so you’re lats, upper back, lower back muscles, core, hamstrings, glutes. Training them through hip dominant exercises such as a deadlift or a hip thrust hits these muscles directly as well as working your hip through extension which is needed to swing the leg back & forth to give aids. Building a strong hip hinge pattern would be functional for all riders for both in the saddle strength but also combatting daily life.
You want to think about the movement patterns we perform in the saddle & replicate them as closely as possible. When we’re riding we are often in quasi-isometric movements, this is where you’re holding an isometric position say standing out of the saddle whilst galloping across the country but there is still very slight, minimal movement or releases going on as a reaction. You can replicate this in the gym by doing movements like squat holds with slow pulses or planks with slow leg lifts so you’re building your isometric strength but then adding in that sudden movement that occurs when riding.
Isoballisict exercises like jump squats, box jumps are also great ways to train these intermittent movement patterns. If you’re jumping a showjumping course you’re going to be constantly moving from isometric to dynamic positions so it’s really important to replicate this & get used to that type of movement.
You should find you’ll almost get to a point where you feel a burn say in a squat pulse then you release, relieve the burn then go again. It obviously depends on what discipline you do as for a dressage rider you won’t be going in & out of these isometric into dynamic positions so focusing on more pure isometric work such as squat & plank holds would be more beneficial.
From a cardio point of view, you still want to make sure you keep your training specific. Consider what energy systems are working & required for your discipline; if your sport requires you to be above your aerobic threshold then it's not much good just constantly training in a steady-state & you'll probably find your body doesn't get the adaptations you were looking for!
For showjumpers & eventers, we’re working above & below our aerobic threshold when riding. What this means is you’re working your aerobic system to the point that your body starts to use your anaerobic metabolism to provide energy to your muscles & sustain the activity. When it’s easier, steady-state exercise your aerobic system works to keep you moving. So making sure you do enough training in the easy zone but also if you are an eventer, jumper or a polo player you work above these thresholds & in your anaerobic capacity to build your fitness here.
Adding in exercises like battlerope waves after a strength movement is a great way to challenge the anaerobic system, you’re demanding your body to work really intensely & hard for a short period of time & resist fatigue then go straight back into a strength movement which replicates the demands of say a cross country really nicely & moving from anaerobic to aerobic systems!
Testing your cognitive function in your sessions can be a great way to keep training functional too. It can help with things like remembering dressage tests for instance. You could perform a high-intensity interval for say 10 minutes at the end of your session whilst reciting your dressage test. This will help you to train yourself to perform under pressure but also learn to keep your performance when you’re fatiguing.
Functional training doesn’t have to look a certain way or involve certain kit. As long as it replicates the demands of your sport & everyday life then it is functional. Making sure your training programme includes elements of endurance, strength, core, flexibility, balance, mobility & power work will make sure you train in the most functional manner to keep your riding benefitting.
You want to know that what you are doing is going to be time-efficient, strengthen the right muscles & ultimately lead you to be that stronger rider you’ve been striving for. Hopefully, this helps you to understand what functional training actually looks like for riding & how you can start to apply it to your own training.
If you have any more questions or need more help on what functional training is then feel free to drop me a message, I'm more than happy to answer any questions & will help you as much as I'm able to.
Good luck & keep training,