Core stability – Essential for cyclists?

A lack of core strength and stability is thought to result in an inefficient technique which predisposes to poor performance1 and injuries to knees, lower back, neck and/or shoulders.

Kibler defines core stability as "the ability to control the position and motion of the trunk over the pelvis to allow optimum production, transfer, and control of force and motion to the terminal segment in integrated athletic activities"2.

We use the term “stability” rather than “strength” because strength is just one component of the dynamic stability required. Dynamic stabilization refers to the ability to utilize strength and endurance and motor control in a functional manner through all planes of motion and action despite changes in the centre of gravity. Athletic activities such as cycling involve changes in the centre of gravity; in descending or climbing slopes, or cornering.

The muscles that make up the “core” – include the abdominals in the front, paraspinals and gluteals in the back, diaphragm as the roof, pelvic floor and hip girdle musculature as the bottom, and hip abductors and rotators laterally. All these muscles connect the upper and lower limbs. Therefore, when the muscles in the hips, shoulder girdle, and trunk work together, they present the core as a functional segment 3. The core keeps the body stable on the saddle and improves efficiency by preventing excessive side-to-side movement so that all the energy produced is delivered in a smooth pedal stroke.

Prolonged cycling with altered lower extremity mechanics as a result of a fatigued core might increase the risk of overuse injury from malalignment. Fluctuating low back pain has been accepted to be a natural part of road biking. There is some evidence that cyclists with ongoing low back pain tend to hold a more fixed position of trunk flexion while cycling than those without low back pain. This static flexion positioning can be secondary to intrinsic factors such as hip girdle and core weakness and inhibition.

A weak core potentially could inhibit power production, since the pelvis is the "lever" for the cycling-specific power muscles. If the lower extremities are not aligned properly and the lever is in an incorrect position, then power output will be compromised4.

Improved core stability and endurance could promote better alignment of the lower extremity when riding for an extended duration4. Improvements in core strength could promote greater torso stability within the saddle and maintenance of lower extremity alignment to apply greater force transmission to the pedals. Cyclists should integrate a year round core conditioning program into current training to promote lower extremity alignment while cycling.

It is paramount to keep in mind the concept of a neutral spine at all times during a core stability program. It is a pain-free position that should not be confused with assuming a flat back posture or pelvic tilt. It is said to be the position of power and balance. Any exercises that increase compression loads on the lumbar spine such as traditional sit-ups are unsafe and stretching exercise should be used with caution in individuals suspected of having lumbar pain and instability.

Although cycling is primarily a sagittal plane activity, a core conditioning program should incorporate all three different planes. Most popular are exercises in the sagittal (eg. lunges, front planks) and frontal (eg. side-walking, lateral bridges) planes. Too frequently, exercises in the transverse/rotational plane (eg. cable wood chop) are neglected.

Allied health professionals such as Kinesiologists and physiotherapists have the expertise to assess movement patterns and prescribe optimal individualized core stability programs. 

by: Melanie Lambert-Paradis, Kinesiologist & Exercise Physiologist