Core training is something every rider I've ever worked with has as a goal. "I know my core needs to be stronger, I want stronger core muscles" & usually when we dig deep as to why that is the goal it's for a few reasons.
Either you're suffering from lower back pain & know that strengthening your core muscles will help to support your spine & should help to reduce your pain.
Your posture could be improved. You find yourself slouching, riding or sitting with rounded shoulders & know you don't really use your abdominal muscles.
You feel unbalanced, wobbly & unstable when riding & exercising & know that if your midline had a bit more strength you'd be far more balanced & ride better.
A strong core & abdominal muscles are really important for riders as the stronger our core the more support our spine will have. Strong core muscles help to absorb impact & shock to the spine which we are going to experience when riding for example in sitting trot. The better your core strength the more balanced you will be, you will be able to control your aids better & feel more symmetrical & in time with your horse.
If you're lacking core strength what it will result in is a lack of stability & balance when riding. You'll feel wobbly, you won't be able to sit to your horse deeply & go with his rhythm & chances are you're probably going to be experiencing pain. When we're not strong enough in our core it can also mean that we end up having too much movement in the saddle which is going to really end up confusing our horses as our aids won't be clear & concise, unbalancing you & putting your horses as well as your own body under more load due to the excessive movement.
First of all when we're talking about the core we need to identify;
What is the core?
The core's number 1 role is to support & stabilise the spine, that's what our core is there to do, not just look pretty! The core is compromised of muscles, ligaments, joints as well as the brain & spinal cord being considered part of the core.
The core consists of all of the muscles that attach to the pelvis. So that is everything on the back and front of your body from below the chest to mid-thigh. Your abdominals, oblique's and deep core muscles most definitely make up part of the core structure but so do your glutes, hip flexors, lower back muscles and it’s important to remember this as we need to make sure we are training all of these muscles & train the core as the whole unit it is.
So leave your crunches at the door & focus on core training that works all of these muscles not just your 6 pack! Bodyweight core training is something I implement with all of my clients & bodyweight is the best place to start. First of all, it's accessible, anyone can do it & you can do bodyweight core training from anywhere, anytime with no kit at all.
Using your bodyweight for movement is a great way to build motor control & strength too so it's a double winner! If you're a more experienced trainee then you can absolutely add load to your core training but for many of us, bodyweight core work will be enough!
Within my training programme I focus on core exercises that strengthen 3 movements;
These movements will build our lateral core stabilisers, our deep & superficial core muscles & teach the body to avoid excessive rotation through the torso & hips & resist the spine going into lumbar extension. The reason I focus on these 3 movement patterns is because they are functional. These are the movements you're going to be resisting when riding, for example, using your lateral core muscles to not collapse into the opposite hip hence adding in side planks.
I've written blogs & posts about core training before so you know I'm not a big fan of a crunch or a sit up & ultimately that's because it just encourages poor posture. You take your spine through an excessive amount of flexion in these movements & ask yourself;
When riding, when do you want a rounded spine?
Obviously never so they have absolutely no functionality to riding strength therefore I won't be adding them in. 90% of the time too you're looking to improve your core strength as you've struggled with back pain & taking your spine through excessive amounts of flexion is only going to exacerbate your back pain rather than help it. So for most, I would suggest leaving them out of your training programme.
With core work like any other exercise, we're looking for progression. So start easy, focus on nailing down isometric holding positions & then in time add movement & increase the complexity of the exercise.
How to do;
Lying on the floor roll your pelvis down to the floor so there is no gap between the floor & your lower back. You should feel your core engage. Legs up to 90 degrees, hands in the air & deep exhales. Hold for as long as you can without losing contact with the floor.
How to do;
Same set-up as above, legs at 90 degrees & your arms are directly above your chest. Extend the opposite arm & leg out as far as you can, pause then control back to the centre & repeat on the other side. Do not lose contact with your lower back & the floor at any point. Using your breathing will help to control your core muscles as they work so make sure you exhale as you extend, inhale to come back in.
How to do;
The russian kettlebell challenge plank, although there are no KB's involved so don't ask why it's called that! This plank is all about teaching you to hold & maintain a plank with a posterior pelvic tilt, on your forearms with good tension. Tuck your tail underneath you, imagine a sad dog with his tail between his legs, squeeze your glutes, and draw your belly button upwards. Elbows under shoulders & fists together & hold for as long as you can. This is all about generating tension & as you get more advanced this should get harder as your ability to generate tension becomes better! Holding for anything more than 60 seconds shouldn't be an option due to high amounts of tension!
4-Plank Toe Taps
How to do;
Set yourself up in the same position as your RKC plank. Elbows under shoulders, sad dog position, glutes tight & feet together. Slowly tap 1 foot to the left, bring it back to centre, then repeat with the other foot to the right. Alternate which side you tap to through the time, tapping 1 at a time & aim to resist any movement or rotation through the hips or torso. Imagine you've got a drink on your back & you're trying your hardest not to spill it
How to do;
Set yourself up on all 4s in a tabletop position. Make sure your ribcage & hips are stacked sat on top of each other so again if you put a glass on your back it wouldn't move. You are going to then extend your arm & the opposite leg out, your leg should go into full extension through the hip & knee, squeezing your glute & your arm reaching past your ear. Pause when fully extended & make sure you've maintained your table top position, no extending of your lower back. This really gets those opposite limbs working together & is a great exercise to spot any imbalances side to side. Control the movement back in then repeat.
How to do;
Lying on your side lift yourself up into a side plank hold. Pushing from the bottom feet, lifting the bottom hip up & pushing from the elbow. Make sure either your feet are stacked on top of each other or 1 foot in front of the other, hips & ribcage in line & your elbow right underneath your shoulder. Lift from your side & hold for as long as possible. If you struggle with this full position drop your bottom knee to the floor for a bit of extra support. This exercise will be another really good one to highlight your strength & any differences side to side & you are aiming to maintain a straight line from your shoulder to hip to foot throughout.
7-Side Plank Leg Lifts
How to do;
Once you've nailed the side plank hold & can hold for a minimum of 40 seconds per side you can start to increase the complexity by adding a bit of dynamic movement to the plank. Lifting your leg side to side, slowly through the time don't let your hips collapse as you move. Your aim is to remain as stable as possible as that leg moves independently.
How to do;
Set yourself up in your all 4's position & moving with your opposite hand & leg walk forwards like a bear crawling along. You are aiming to move with intent, really push your foot & hand into the ground with every step to really work those legs & shoulders. Keep your back stable throughout & again imagining you're a moving table trying not to spill anything!
How to do;
Before you progress to supermans I would highly suggest you have mastered all of the above movements first as these hit the 3 movement patterns I referred to earlier. The superman really targets the lower back muscles & is a great back strengthener however you need an adequate level of strength & mobility do them first of all. Lying on your front, arms on the ground with your palms facing down & legs extended together take a big deep breath in & lift your legs from your glutes & your arms by lifting your chest off the floor. Pause at the top then exhale as you lower down under control. These will be really hard at first but in time your range of motion & strength will build & your lower back & hips will really strengthen.
With all core movements when you feel you have successfully completed the 1st exercise in the chain then move to the next progression & progress from there. If you're looking to strengthen your core & ride at your best but aren't sure where to start then feel free to reply to this blog with a comment or DM me & let's chat!