Core Stability

Core stability, is a term I don’t like to use. Its become so well-used and misused. Here are my (brief) thoughts on what it is, its not referenced, perhaps I’ll expand on core stability at a later date and discuss more scientific research. Today is more an opinion from my experience as a physiotherapist.

Looking more globally at the body, I interpret “core stability” as the ability to maintain an appropriate posture (the base) to carry out the physical task and thus allowing for maximal efficiency of the motor control system. Meaning that we don’t want to waste energy on excessive movement (at any joint, not just the lower back), nor risk injury with poor biomechanics. I think of it as a skill, a skill that some are blessed with and one that others have to work hard at. As a skill, it is therefore particular to the task that you are doing, so that the requirements of a runner, who has only one foot in contact with the ground at a time are quite different to that of the cyclist, for whom most of the time there are 5 points of contact, 4 when they stand up. Which do you think is harder to control? And therefore is associated with more injury?

How do we improve it? First thing to consider, is it a problem in the first place? Perhaps not, but like most performance related issues, there’s always room for improvement, after all a skill can be practiced. The question is not whether you have good “core stability” but looking at whether you are conditioned and skilled appropriately for the task that you want to achieve (e.g. road cycling for 3 hours). An assessment by a Physiotherapist/Rehab Therapist/S&C coach would help you answer this and should consider whether you have the appropriate overall endurance; the range of motion in the primary joints (such as hips, lower back etc); and whether you are able to maintain a satisfactory position of the involved joints during a cycling task. This positioning and control on the bike is further task dependent, meaning the demand on your body in a seated sprinting position on a road bike is quite different to the demands on a mountain bike seated climb, and so one should be assessed according to the demands of the specific event or at least thought should be given to it. After the assessment a set of prescribed exercises should then be given to help address any stiffness, weakness or premature fatigue, should any actually be found.

If an assessment isn’t available to you then you can’t go wrong with a short but balanced, whole body conditioning program. There is a lot of literature out there for this, the point of an assessment is to be specific to your needs and avoids you cherry picking for what you think you need. Fitting extra training into the high volume demands of endurance cycling and getting the right balance of progress without excessive local muscle fatigue is the hard bit. If you are a time strapped athlete, it’s probably not time well spent, learning to recover and relax maybe more useful. Just remember that rattling out hundreds of reps of abdominal work will not carry-over into cycling performance benefits or prevent back pain. Consider it a task related skill, involving multiple muscle groups and other systems (neural, cognitive, metabolic etc).

Please note, I have just written this, and had no idea British Cycling had just published an article on the same subject. Hey ho, they beat me to it.

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