Core training for cyclists

Strengthen your core and improve your cycling

You’re out for a long ride and an hour or so in you’re feeling super strong. But, as time goes on, an annoying tightness starts to develop in your lower back. Tightness changes to back pain and soon you’re wiggling in the saddle, performing odd pelvic thrusts at your headset and even stopping intermittently to stretch.

Does this sound familiar? Assuming you’ve had your bike set-up checked, the problem lies within you and your core. (It's also worth having a read of this article on preventing back pain too.)

My own core has let me down – one episode was during my first Ironman when my back locked up completely on the bike and I ran the first eight miles of the marathon still in my ‘aero position’. Following an intensive bout of physical therapy I began to pay more attention to my core and, by using a simple sequence of exercises, I banished back pain from my riding. Here’s how you can too.

The routine

Try to do this two or three times per week. It only takes 10-15 minutes. If you really can’t be bothered with the whole routine then just do these five exercises – Pelvic Tilts, Cat, Plank, Child’s Pose and Low Cobra Pose. That said, I would strongly suggest trying the whole session if your back is a problem when you ride. 

If you’re really serious about sorting out core strength and flexibility issues, enroll in a yoga or pilates course. Another option is to get out on your mountain bike. Off-road riding is a superb conditioner for all cycling related fitness including core strength. Having to balance and adapt to rough trails, rather than churning out mile upon mile locked in the same position on the road, will make you a better and stronger rider.

Tips for exercising

  • Concentrate on breathing comfortably for all of these exercise and resist the temptation to hold your breath
  • Pressing the small of your back into the floor during crunches will guard against back injury
  • Perform all of these exercises slowly and smoothly. Avoid any jerking or sudden twisting movements
  • If you feel any back pain while performing these moves then you should stop and seek professional advice

1. Pelvic Tilts

Lying on the floor with knees bent, push your lower back into the floor. This should have the effect of flattening and engaging your abdominal muscles. Tilt the pelvis forward, allowing a small hollow to develop between the floor and your lower back. Try to keep the movement small, controlled and limited to the bottom section of your back. Hold the forward tilt for a few seconds and then return to the start position by rocking the pelvis back and pushing your lower back into the floor. Once you’re comfortable with this movement you can perform tilts while on the bike – I’ve found this a great way to help back tension on long rides.

Perform 10 reps in a slow and controlled manner.

2. Roll Ups

From the same start position as the Pelvic Tilts push the lower back into the floor. Carry the movement on by slowing pushing your hips towards the ceiling and, in doing so, peeling your spine away from the floor. Hold in the ‘up’ position for a count of five. As you lower, do so in a controlled manner, imagining placing each vertebrae down individually and lengthening the spine.

Perform 10 reps in a slow and controlled manner.

3. Cat

On all fours, engage your abdominals obtaining that ‘flattened’ feeling. Arch your back up towards the ceiling trying to imagine a rope attached to your belly button pulling you up. Hold the arched position for a count of two. Bow down by hollowing your back imagining the rope is now pulling you down. Hold the bowed position for a count of two and return to the start position.

Perform 10 reps in a slow and controlled manner.

4. Crunches

Lying on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor lightly support your head with your fingertips. Push your lower back into the floor and try to maintain that feeling throughout the movement. Crunch up by lifting the shoulders off the floor. Keep head up and neck relaxed, try to imagine an apple under your chin. Do not come up any higher than 30 degrees and keep tension on your abdominals. Come up to a count of three, hold for a count of two at the top and lower keeping control for a second count of three.

Perform 10-15 reps in a slow and controlled manner.

5. Back Extensions

Lying face down, look up and hold your fingertips against your temples. Slowly arch up lifting your chest and upper abdomen off the floor. Pause in the ‘up’ position before returning slowly to the start position.

Perform 10-15 reps in a slow and controlled manner.

6. Plank

Adopt a push-up position but, rather than supporting your weight on your hands, rest on your forearms and elbows. Engage your abdominals and try to hold a position where there is a straight line from the top of your head to your heels. Avoid sagging in the middle or ‘jack-knifing’ your butt upwards. Maintain strict form and hold the static position.

Hold for 30-60 seconds. (For more on this exercise, see our specific page about the plank.)

7. Superman

Start on all fours and concentrate on keeping your abdominals engaged and a flat back. Once you’re stable and happy with your position lift your right hand up and forward and extend your left leg up and behind you. Pause in the ‘up’ position, return slowly to the starting position and repeat, using the opposite arm and leg.

Alternate for 20 reps.

8. Sideplank

Lying on your side, stack your feet on top of each other and support your weight on the forearm and elbow of one arm. As with the regular Plank you’re aiming for a straight line from shoulder to foot. Avoid rotating towards the ground by extending your other arm up towards the ceiling.

Hold for 15-30 seconds on each side.

9. Child's Pose

One borrowed from yoga, this is a very relaxing pose and a great stretch for the flexion of the lower back. Kneel down and sit back on your heels. Keeping your backside in contact with your heels, curl forwards bringing your forehead onto the floor. If you struggle to keep your bum down place a cushion between it and your heels. Relax into the pose, breathing deeply. Either stretch your arms out in front of you or simply allow to rest by your side.

Hold for 30-60 seconds.

10. Low Cobra Pose

Another yoga pose, this time working on lower back extension. Start in the same way as a back extension but place your elbows and forearms on the floor to support your torso. Imagine yourself as the Sphynx. Once again, breathe deeply and relax into the stretch.

Hold for 30-60 seconds.

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