It is no secret that a foundational piece of rider fitness is strength in your core muscles. The rectus abdominis is the abdominal muscle on the front and outside of the stomach area. It connects at the pubic bone and bottom of the sternum and is responsible for both curling—and resistance to curling—the body forward.
Riders who curl forward or slouch may have a shortened muscle, or simply an unconditioned one. A strong rectus abdominis, like a strong support post in a house’s basement, prevents the collapse of the rib cage forward. Exercising this muscle at its full length is important.
Many people’s understanding of what core muscles are is limited to these stomach muscles. However, the core is a system of torso-area and torso-connected muscles supporting posture. From a skeletal or hard structure point of view, the rider’s waist is extremely vulnerable to excessive motion. When you look at the skeleton, a very small section of spine is all the structural support a rider has for the 4-inch area between the bottom rib and pelvis. There are also 24 joints in the spine that sit on top of the horse and experience waves of motion from their base. Core muscles wrap around the torso in layers, and go in different directions to create an effect something like the cables on a suspension bridge. The multi-layers and multi-directions of the various muscles support torso stability and movement.
According to certified fitness trainer Heather Sansom in her book Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks!, specific core exercises can build the rider’s ability to hold a neutral spine. The goal for riders is to be able to transfer targeted core work to integrated core usage (when your core is engaged while you are doing other exercises) because that is how your body organizes itself while you are riding. The ideal is to train your core well enough that you rarely ever have to think about it while riding because your body automatically engages it correctly and you have built up the strength and stamina that permits you to focus on riding, not on which muscles in your body are properly engaged.
Here’s one key exercise that results in deep core strength and that you can easily work into your day and do at home or at the barn:
The Plank—On Hands or Elbows
Goal: Hold for 30–60 seconds.
Muscles Worked: Obliques, deltoids, shoulder rotators, transverse abdominis, lower back area, pectorals, triceps.
To do the Plank properly, you need to tuck in your pelvis slightly to reduce the hollow in your lower back by engaging your abdominals. Also, draw your stomach muscles upward with a feeling that you are making as much distance from the top of your head to your heels as possible.
1. Start by positioning yourself on all fours (knees and hands) on the floor.
2. Lift your body up into a Plank position. You can also do the Plank on your elbows, if you cannot do it with straight arms.
3. Make sure that you lift your seat only very slightly, tucking your tailbone down, and pulling your pubic bone toward your ribs.
4. Use a mirror or a partner to verify that your hips are level and you have good alignment from heel through hip to shoulder.
5. Hold for as long as you can until you feel your back hollowing, then stop.
This excerpt from Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks! by Heather Sansom is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.