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How to Build Core Strength

A personal trainer to professional cyclists shares tips to strengthen your core


How to Build Core Strength

Allison Westfahl, MS, NASM-PES, USAT, has worked with countless cyclists over the past decade. The director of personal training at Flatiron Athletic Club in Boulder, CO, and founder/owner of The Athletic Edge, a personal training and fitness consulting company, counts professional cyclists Tom Danielson, Ryder Hesjedal, Timmy Duggan, Mike Friedman and Blake Caldwell among her most high-profile clients.

Westfahl believes a cyclist’s core is the foundation for producing power and transferring it out to the legs.

“Without a strong core, you will not only lose power in your pedal stroke, you will also be more susceptible to injury, and will suffer from major postural distortion patterns that are common with cyclists,” she said.

A New Approach

Westfahl says she was prompted to develop a new approach to building core strength after working with Tom Danielson in January, 2008.

“He came to me with some nagging injuries that were really affecting his ability to perform on the bike. His predominant problem was low back pain. I took the approach of trying to find the source of the pain instead of the site, and it led me to the conclusion that it was actually weak gluteal muscles that were causing his back to hurt,” she recalled.

Westfahl created a series of exercises for Danielson that focused on getting the glutes to activate at the same time the lower abdominals were working (specifically the transversus abdominus, or the TVA), and made sure the exercises mimicked the position he was holding while on the bike.

The result: his low back pain went away within a matter of weeks.

“After that, I continued to create unique exercises that helped him increase power, stability and performance on the bike,” she said.

Cycling-Specific Core Exercises

Westfahl has developed the following core exercises specifically for cycling:

1. Grab the Water Bottle
Muscles targeted: Transversus Abdominus (TVA), shoulder complex, spinal stabilizers.
Goal: Increase dynamic balance and stabilization in the core while the upper body is moving.

For this exercise, you'll want to start in a push-up position with your hands directly below your shoulders, feet 8 to 10 inches apart, and tailbone slightly tucked. Slowly and with control, lift your right hand off the ground and begin to reach under your body towards your left foot as if you were going to grab a water bottle. Return your right hand to the ground and switch to the left hand. Continue switching back and forth for 10 reps on each side.

“The goal is to avoid any rocking in the hips and shoulders while you are moving your arm. Try the first half of the set without moving your head and neck, then do the second half with your eyes following your hand while it reaches down,” explained Westfahl.

2. The Wall
Muscles targeted: Transversus abdominus (TVA), shoulder complex, spinal stabilizers.
Goal: Increase dynamic balance and stabilization in the core while the lower body is moving.

“Cyclists frequently call a long, steep climb “The Wall” because it’s challenging for the muscles, the endurance and the brain. The same goes for this exercise, but when you’re done you will also have that same exhilarating feeling of accomplishment,” said Westfahl.

This exercise also has you starting in a push-up position with your hands directly below your shoulders, feet 8 to 10 inches apart and tailbone slightly tucked. Slowly and with control, lift your right foot off the ground and bend your right knee in toward your right elbow. Keep your shoulders and hips quiet and parallel with the ground. Return your right foot to starting position and switch legs, completing 10 repetitions on each side. This exercise can also be performed from a plank position (forearms on the ground) if you need a bit more stabilization.

3. TT (Time Trial) Position Acceleration
Muscles targeted: Entire core musculature.
Goal: Engage all the muscles of the core equally; improve intramuscular coordination between the upper back, lower back and lower abs.

Start with the basic plank hold on your forearms and toes. Elbows should be directly beneath your shoulders, and your feet should be 8 to 10 inches apart. Keep the back of your neck long and do not look up or down. Work to bring the shoulder blades onto the back by squeezing them together slightly; your upper back should not be rounded. Your lower back should not be excessively rounded either, nor should you adopt a swayback position. Keeping the shoulders and hips quiet and parallel to the ground, slowly drop your right knee to the ground without allowing the hips to move or sway. Bring it back to starting position and drop the left knee. Continue alternating knees until you have completed 10 repetitions on each leg.

Westfahl says the exercises mentioned above focus on creating strength throughout the entire core, not just in the abdominals.

“The core consists of all the muscles that connect to either the spine or the pelvis, which is a much bigger area than our common notion of the core. Additionally, the exercises focus on correcting muscular imbalances by working the back and sides of the body more than the front. This helps correct posture, alleviate muscle strain, and distribute the work load to a larger group of muscles,” she explained.

‘Riding Faster and Pain-Free’

Westfahl says she and Danielson had been working together for about four years when they realized they had amassed a library of core exercises that were created specifically for cyclists.

“We decided to put all these wonderful programs into a book that we could share with the cycling world so that everyone could experience the benefits of riding faster and pain-free,” she said.

Tom Danielson's Core Advantage contains five dynamic warm-up exercises and 45 core strength exercises. All exercises are grouped into beginner, intermediate and advanced. There are also 15 workouts routines to show you how to put together an effective, time-efficient workout from the exercises.

“No equipment, no gym membership – just your desire to become a healthier, faster, more powerful cyclist!” Westfahl concluded.

You can find Tom Danielson's Core Advantage at book stores, bike stores and online. Visit velopress.com for a complete list.

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