Ooh I think, there’s a good way I can improve my riding out of the saddle – I’ll just go and do loads of sit-ups or something. That way my core will be strong and I’ll be better, right?
Erm – apparently not actually! Fitness instructor, sports scientist, physiologist and biomechanics technician Andrew Strong (left) says it’s more complex than that. You might remember Andrew from previous Headstrong Equestrian article fame, ‘lower back pain in horse riders’ where he explained how tight hamstrings can be a leading cause of back complaints in riders. Andrew also happens to be my Sweden dwelling brother, often found completing 48km hilly trail runs, marathons, triathlons or something equally absurd!
Andrew explained; “While core exercises should be a vital part of training, they only form one part of a comprehensive programme if people are serious about maximising their potential. Working your core 4 or 5 times a week and neglecting other muscles in your body such as your chest or back puts extra emphasis on your core if other muscles are struggling to contribute to the total work being performed by the rider.
“Think about the kinetic chain from contact of the horse/equipment right through the body. Grip strength, arm strength, shoulder strength, chest and back strength are all important too. If they're strong then they remove some of the stress placed on the core. Equally your legs will provide the basis for stability when gripping your horse and pressing into the stirrups or applying aids. So work up thinking about ankles, calfs, quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. Again if these are strong you have a better foundation for riding and less stress on the core.
“Equally, if you have strong arms or legs and neglect your core, you will lack the balance and stability in the saddle to effectively use your limbs anyway. So it’s really a case of improving your core by looking at the body as a whole; none of these things can work effectively to full capacity in isolation.”
To help with this Andrew has given me a number of exercises to address to form part of a full programme of activity that will give improved core stability and strength by addressing the whole body. He insists that prescribing a ‘one size fits all’ activity schedule is not appropriate as it doesn’t take into consideration things like age, current fitness levels, any old injuries or weaknesses, and things like working environments.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing some of these exercises that you might wish to try, but please do bear in mind that like with any form of physical exercise, it’s advisable to consult with a professional about your capabilities beforehand and to ensure you are performing them correctly.
Exercise 1 – The plank
I’ve chosen the plank to start with because it’s so simple you can do it at home without any equipment, and it involves using your whole body.
There are lots of variations, a few demonstrated below. Andrew advises technique is the most important thing, and you must remember to squeeze your stomach muscles, drawing your belly button back to your spine and keep your hips in a neutral position, feet hip width apart. Remember to keep your back and neck relaxed, and breathe deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth.
Alternatively, if you have an exercise ball, you can try with your elbows on the ball with your feet on the floor, and then raise feet up on to sofa for example.
Andrew advises doing these plank exercises for a minimum of 3 sets at a time, holding for as long as possible each time. Repeat the exercise 3 times per week.
Since writing this blog a friend flagged up this great 30 day plank challenge - this is the perfect way to put the plank into practice and help build up your core strength over a month. Plus the structure is great as gives you something to aim for!