Whether you spend a lot of time in the saddle, want to optimize the few hours that you do get to ride, or just want to be in better shape, having a strong core is key. For cyclists, as you lean over to grip the handlebars, your core is activating, so if your core gets stronger, your pedaling will feel more efficient, balanced and powerful overall. Plus, the variety of movement and added strength will help make you less prone to common cycling problems like lower back pain.
“Core work. That’s my No. 1 best tip for beginners,” says former Rally UHC CyclingSM racer and National Criterium Champion Brad Huff.
From new cyclists to racers who’ve been training for decades, every type of cyclist will see (and feel) the difference when they add core work to their regular weekly routine.
“If I stop doing core, that means I've let a lot of things go,” says the team's Ryan Anderson, who’s been racing for nearly 10 years in North America and in Europe. “I know when I’m focused, and core is part of my program, I feel the best. It’s so good for that base, especially when you haven’t been riding much.”
Even if your time is limited, making core a priority in your training at any level of cycling is important. Here’s what the pros do on a regular basis.
Weighted Side Twists
Forget the common crunch — none of the Rally Cycling riders focus on that movement. Rather, they opt for moves that target the entire core, not just a single muscle.
“I’m super old school,” says Erica Allar, who’s been racing for 17 years. “Any workout I can do while watching TV, really!”
Her favorite move involves the classic medicine ball: Start sitting with your legs bent (like you would at the top of a sit-up position) while holding the weighted ball. Then, lean back slightly, to where your core feels activated, and move the medicine ball and your torso from side to side. Don’t let your back hunch, and focus on keeping good posture throughout the move.
Yoga with a focus on core stability and strength is Vancouver-based racer Sara Bergen’s go-to workout, since it covers body-weight strength training and flexibility in a single session. To her, the gains in both strength and flexibility are crucial for cycling success.
She prefers videos from Yoga International; on the road, it’s hard to find time to go to an actual yoga studio for a class. In the off season, most of the riders will increase their core and strength workouts to three to four per week, but even aiming for a short yoga session once a week is a great starting point.
Yoga is also a key to solid recovery, and if calling it yoga feels cheesy to you, call it core work plus stretching. At 38 years old, Huff says, “I have to be more on recovery and core. Every day, I’m lying down and stretching for an hour as everyone else is taking a nap or watching TV.”
The Turkish Getup
The strangest of the exercises is also Huff’s favorite. The move is complicated, but targets your entire core while challenging your balance. This may take a few attempts to get the movement down — so use a light kettlebell when you’re getting started, or even try it without weights until you’re comfortable with the motion.
It looks silly and feels even sillier, but Huff swears by it for a strong core. “I’m leaner and stronger than I’ve been, overall,” Huff says. “Time and experience have been on my side."
Full-body strength training with heavy weights will also target your core, so that’s how the Ellsay siblings — both are time trial specialists — work their cores in the off season. Nigel Ellsay says that he and his sister Gillian do the usual heavy lifting for cyclists, including deadlifts, squats, and leg presses, all of which require serious core activation as the weights get heavier.
The Ellsays hit the gym with their coach, Richard Wooles, who helps them with proper lifting technique. If you’re considering lifting heavy weights for strength and power on the bike, plus the added core benefits, make sure you seek expert help learning the movements before going to the gym solo. Without proper training, it can be hard to properly engage the core and get the full benefits of each movement. Additionally, if you’re lifting heavy weights with the wrong technique, you run a much higher risk of injury.
Planks and Side Planks
The simplest way to train your core can be done anywhere: In any hotel room, host house, or training camp space. That’s why planks topped the Rally Cycling riders’ lists of favorite core work. Planks are impossible to fake, and even a minute or two is enough to start heating up the core muscles.
“I try to keep my routine simple, so I can do it anywhere,” says Anderson. “Planks, side planks, leg lifts — simple stuff, so I can do it on the road in a hotel, and I don’t need a gym to get it done."
A few minutes a day is enough to make a major difference, says Huff. Do planks with your elbows on the floor or arms straight, whichever feels best for you. “Don’t focus on holding for a minute,” he says. “Our coach has us doing them 10 seconds on and five seconds off [let your knees drop to the floor], for a total of two minutes. A little bit goes a long way, and you really feel those 10 seconds."
Activating the core is important, but for cyclists, what’s often neglected is glute activation as well. That’s why Bergen loves the side plank with a raised leg: Not only is her entire core working to stabilize her, her glute muscles and hips are working as well.
“Cyclists tend to have ‘lazy butt,’” she says. “We like to use our quads, so doing the side plank before rides makes us more inclined to use glute muscles.”