Knowledge Level: Beginner
Phil Burt, lead physiotherapist with the Great Britain Cycling Team and consultant physiotherapist to Team Sky, believes that we need to clear away the hype surrounding the core and reassess its role and importance to cycling.
For a number of years you won’t have been able to read a fitness magazine without coming across articles promoting the importance of core strength and core stability. Even in cycling specific publications, stability ball work and other core focussed exercises have been publicised as universally beneficial for preventing back pain on the bike and improving cycling performance.
Where it all came from
In the 1990s research in Australia suggested that weakness in one small muscle of the body’s trunk, the transverse abdominus (TrA), was responsible for the majority of lower back pain. With back pain such a prevalent complaint in modern society, the physiotherapy world adopted this universal cure for all, and was followed in turn by the fitness industry and the core stability trend began. Small, precise and isolated movements that targeted the TrA were not only being prescribed for people suffering from back injuries but also for fitness enthusiasts and athletes searching for performance gains and injury prevention.
One of the biggest issues with isolating the TrA is that it doesn’t work in isolation. It works with every other muscle that makes up the abdominal wall in its multiple roles, of which spinal stabilisation is only one. Research has failed to show any conclusive link between back pain and weakness of the TrA in isolation. A good analogy is that your trunk is like a tent with all the guy ropes and pegs representing the muscles and other soft tissue structures. You need to make sure that all the guy ropes and pegs are right, rather than focusing on one individual peg, the TrA. Even when patients have recovered from bad backs after performing TrA focussed rehabilitation, it is not clear whether the exercises were responsible. They might have improved anyway due to the rest, not performing the activities that could have been aggravating their backs and there is also the placebo effect to consider.
The benefits of these narrowly focussed and often lying down prone exercises to sports’ performance are even less clear. They have their place in a rehabilitation scenario but, in other sporting contexts, have been mis-sold. Knowing how to prescribe and progress them requires in-depth knowledge and an extremely intensive approach. For the vast majority of time stretched cyclists, who already have reasonable functional fitness for cycling and life in general, time spent on these types of exercises, without detailed instruction, is often time wasted.
Apples have cores, cyclists don’t
Within British Cycling, the expression, core stability is no longer used and instead functional trunk strength and robustness are the watchwords. Functional trunk strength and co-ordination is what is needed to be able to pedal strongly, perform on the bike tasks such as putting on a rain cape and, in the case of track sprinters, lift heavy weights in the gym. Robustness is the capacity to absorb training and avoid injury both on and off the bike.
If you imagine performance as being a pyramid, cycling specific fitness is the point at the very top. Relevant strength work might not directly benefit your performance on the bike, but it will indirectly be building a wider base of robustness and conditioning to your pyramid. This in turn will allow your point to rise higher through an improved ability to cope with consistent training and avoiding lay-offs due to injury.
What does this mean for me?
As a sportive rider, aspiring racer or seasoned clubman, you are probably already able to ride your bike for multiple hours and perform the day to day tasks and movements that your non-cycling life involves. If this is the case, then the exercises that are typically prescribed for “core strength” will have little relevance or benefit to you. Even if you do sometimes suffer from a sore back on the bike, this can be inevitable after a tough few hours in saddle, down to your position on the bike or due to factors completely unrelated to cycling. If back pain is limiting you either on or off the bike, consult with an appropriately qualified professional. Devoting your valuable time to exercises that are unproven to help with either back problems or cycling performance is pointless.
What should I be doing?
Rather than prescribing a complicated gym routine or a long list of exercises that you might only occasionally manage to complete, a simple short routine consisting of key movements that can be performed anywhere is far more likely to be adhered to consistently. The British Cycling Strength routine is derived from the functional movement assessment that all riders take before entering the British Cycling Programme. It’s typical of the sort of routine that top endurance riders at all levels of the programme are given.