Gym-free abdominal exercises for cyclists

Key resistance training exercises for better riding

Want more power, more speed, better technical riding, and most importantly a big dose of comfort? Then supplement your riding with a few key resistance training exercises for better riding.

The word “core” is overused, but try not to shy away. Despite a natural inclination to veer from anything popular, there is a reason this modern day cure-all has such a reputation

Fit and function

But what is the “core” and how did it get its name?

My perspective (biomechanist, corrective exercise specialist, neuromuscular therapist and bike fitter) says the core consists of seven muscles: multifidus and erector spinae (spine musculature), psoas (or iliopsoas), transverse abdominus, internal and external obliques and the rectus abdominus.

This list is from the deepest to most superficial. The psoas is a muscle most will never touch, while the rectus abdominus sits just below our skin and represents the proverbial ‘six-pack’.

Together they work to control and protect the spine and pelvis. Arguably, the closer to the spine, the more critical it is to lumbo-pelvic health and your overall performance.

Thus, if the outer layers (rectus abdominus) are well developed but the deeper layers (transverse abdominus) aren’t, riders might appear to have good abdominal strength when that isn’t the reality.

The name comes from the fact that all movement is initiated from the spine/pelvis — it’s the “core” of all movement. An underdeveloped or dysfunctional core results in dysfunctional and compensatory movement, leading to various manifestations of injury.

Here are a few gym-free exercises that, by design, prioritize the movements required to initiate good core mobility and strength. Additionally, many of them create good glute activation, which is ideal for creating a stable pelvis and spine.

They are listed in increasing levels of difficulty.

Remember, corrective exercise isn’t a competition and it’s definitely not “more pain, more gain”. Quality movement begins with proper execution. Start easy and progress. When quality movement is lost, quantity is of no benefit and likely injury inducing.

Plank series

Plank variations are ideal for cyclists because they are a sustained exercise, meaning you can’t hold your breath. One of the critical components to strength training, corrective exercise, and proper core function is breathing.

Can you engage your deep abdominals and still execute full breaths? If not, planks will help with this.

The plank is a static (held) exercise and requires continuous breathing, which is great for endurance athletes
The plank is a static (held) exercise and requires continuous breathing, which is great for endurance athletes

Get in to elbow, hand, or side-lying position with an overall straight and powerful spine/pelvis position. For maximal deep abdominal contraction, tuck your pelvis under, preventing downward collapse of the lumbar spine.

Begin a slow count, while maintaining regular breathing rate. When you feel fatigue is overriding your ability to hold good form, that’s one rep. Shoot for 30 seconds.

Progress to extending the arms, raising one leg, or raising one arm
Progress to extending the arms, raising one leg, or raising one arm

Start with five reps and keep track of your time — progress by holding longer and increasing rep count.

Once you’re a plank master, lift one foot or try any number of variations: wider stance, single-handed, plank over a Bosu ball, shifting weight left and right, etc.

The side plank works the entirety of the core and can be more challenging by raising the arm and/or the leg or simply increasing the hold time
The side plank works the entirety of the core and can be more challenging by raising the arm and/or the leg or simply increasing the hold time

Supine crunch over the ball

Far too often I see overworked rectus abdominus (six-pack) and underworked everything else. However, because the crunch is such a popular exercise, it’s best to at least help explain correct form.

The abdominal crunch is not your 'sit-up' from grade school PE class. Done correctly it serves to support healthy and fluid movement of the spine.

Position yourself over a Swiss ball, with the head and shoulders supported by the ball. Place your fingers in your ears so you aren’t cheating and creating unhealthy spinal flexion. And as funny as it sounds, press your tongue against the back of your upper teeth — this engages deep neck muscles and protects the upper spine — hold this through an entire rep.

The abdominal crunch is not a 'sit-up' — roll one vertebra at a time off the ball and simultaneously bring the pubic bone towards the ceiling
The abdominal crunch is not a 'sit-up' — roll one vertebra at a time off the ball and simultaneously bring the pubic bone towards the ceiling

The motion is an attempt to peel one vertebra at a time off the ball while simultaneously tucking the pelvis under. Bringing the ribs and pubic bone towards each other at the same time is the goal. It should feel quite difficult and culminate when you simply cannot engage further.

Allow the pelvis to go back to a neutral position and roll back to allow one vertebra at a time to make contact with the ball. Finish by fully extending and pressing your spine, neck and head against the ball. That’s one rep.

Start with 10 reps, or until good form and smooth muscle contractions stop. When you can manage 20 reps, use a dumbbell to add resistance.

Prone (facing down) walkout over the ball

Position yourself face down with the ball at mid-thigh. Do a ‘wheelbarrow’ hand walking motion until you’ve gotten to your feet. Walk yourself back and that’s one rep.

The prone walkout can be challenging when single-arm and single-leg variations are part of your workout
The prone walkout can be challenging when single-arm and single-leg variations are part of your workout

Work your way, with good form, up to 20 reps and then search for more challenging variations: single handed hold at full extension, single-legged at full extension, push-up at full extension, etc.

Prone (facing down) rollout over the ball

Start by kneeling, with your torso in an upright position and a Swiss ball placed about 8 inches (20cm) in front of you. Place your hands on the ball and begin to slowly roll the ball out with hands and forearms, engaging more musculature as required. Keep your pelvis tucked under a bit to engage the proper muscles and protect your spine.

Roll out as far as you can until you feel your strength is not able to maintain good control of your lower back. Roll back to your starting position. That’s one rep.

The rollout is a very challenging exercise — protect your spine by tucking your pelvis under a bit and only rolling out as far as you feel strong
The rollout is a very challenging exercise — protect your spine by tucking your pelvis under a bit and only rolling out as far as you feel strong

Start with five to eight reps, or as many as you can do with good form. Progress up to 20 reps, and then move away from the knees and execute the exercise from your feet (similar to a push-up progression).

Supine (facing up) twist over ball

The Russian Twist is a challenging exercise that engages the entirety of the core and adds glute activation, too.

Strong glutes are required to get in to position, sustain a linear spine and prevent hip-drop during rotation.

Begin with your hands directly above you. Rotate on to your shoulder without letting your hip drop. Rotating to one side, back to center, the opposite direction and back to center is one repetition.

The supine twist is an abdominal and glute exercise — keep those hips up and use additional weight or speed for increasing difficulty
The supine twist is an abdominal and glute exercise — keep those hips up and use additional weight or speed for increasing difficulty

It’s best to start with a very light (2.5lb / 1kg) weight or no weight at all, and progress when form is consistent for 15+ reps. Increasing rotation speed is another progression.

The right hip of this athlete has dropped a bit — keep them up for better lumbo-pelvic function
The right hip of this athlete has dropped a bit — keep them up for better lumbo-pelvic function

Prone (facing down) twist over ball

This is another challenging exercise that achieves a full-body muscular benefit.

Similar to the Prone Walkout, get in to position by laying face down and walking out over a Swiss ball. Wrap your feet around the sides of the ball at approximately ’10 and 2’ and lock them in place. Keep your pelvis tucked under just a bit to engage proper musculature and prevent spine injuries.

Rotate slowly to one side until that foot touches the ground, without letting your spine sag towards the floor. Work back to center, the other direction, and then back to center — this is one rep.

Prone rotations over the ball require a neutral spine and good glute activation to execute properly — increasing speed is a great progression
Prone rotations over the ball require a neutral spine and good glute activation to execute properly — increasing speed is a great progression

Start with five to eight reps, or as many as you can do with a strong and quality movement. Progression is the addition of reps and the increase in speed from side-to-side.

It’s not a competition

Strength training has unfortunately developed a reputation of “no pain, no gain” that couldn’t be more inaccurate. The right exercises, done properly, with proper load, frequency and breathing make more true strength gains than overloading with weight.

Furthermore, while a little is good, more is not necessarily better. Two days a week during peak riding season is plenty to make gains and keep you protected.

Use the off-season to engage in a more frequent (three to four days per week) resistance training regimen. And if you suspect your core needs more attention, back down the mileage a bit while you focus on your strength needs.

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