Core Strength—Four Exercises to Help Strengthen the Equestrian’s Core

Though you may not realize it, your core muscles heavily influence your riding. Defined by Brittany Cacossa of Bringing Change Equestrian Fitness in New York, your core is “everything aside from your arms and legs.” Functioning as a stabilizer for your entire body, “you use your core in nearly every movement,” shares Brittany. Laura Rubin from Fitness Unleashed Coaching in Colorado similarly defines the core as “the muscles from your neck to the top of your thighs.” She also clarifies that your “seat, weight, and torso are at the ‘core’ of your riding, with your limbs being secondary aids.”

If you find your instructor constantly requests for your shoulders back, to sit up straight, or to stop leaning to one side—it is a sign that your stabilizers are not very strong. Together, Brittany and Laura share their favorite exercises to help equestrians boost their core strength.

Exercise 1: The Bird Dog

For this exercise, Laura has students start on the ground on all fours. “You will want to align your knees under your hips and wrists under your shoulders with your back table top, do not let it sag during the exercise,” Laura specifies. “Draw in your navel to your backbone and brace your core. Simultaneously lift your right arm up/out, parallel to the ground, and your left leg up/ out, parallel to the floor. Your arm should not be above your shoulder, and your leg should not be above your hips. Keep your hips and shoulders flat and your neck in line with your spine (looking at the floor). Hold for two seconds at the top and return your arm and leg to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.”

Exercise 2: The Deadbug

For the Deadbug, Laura has her students start by lying on their backs with legs bent at a 90-degree angle at the knees. “Raise your arms directly up from your shoulders so your fingers are pointed up to the ceiling. Draw your navel in and push your lower back into the mat/carpet. While keeping your left arm and right leg in the starting position, lower your right arm back over your head and extend your left leg out so your foot lowers to two inches above the ground. Make sure that your lower back remains flat against the mat/floor. Only lower your arm and leg as low as you can go while maintaining contact with the mat/floor. As your core gets stronger, you will be able to lower your arm and leg farther without arching your back,” Laura explains.

Exercise 3: The Good Morning

For the Good Morning, you will need a barbell. Brittany has her students start by placing the bar in the rack where it should hit the middle of your sternum and feet hip-width apart. “Pull your shoulders back, creating a rack for the bar to sit, and rack the bar across the back of your shoulders, not on top of your traps. [Keeping] your chest up, send your hips back and bend over [until your torso is] near parallel to the ground—this may not [completely] happen in the beginning. Make sure your back is arched and head it neutral (don’t look up),” Brittany explains. with legs bent at a 90-degree angle at the knees. “Raise your arms directly lower back into the mat/carpet. While keeping your left arm and right leg in the starting position, lower your right arm back over your head and extend to two inches above the ground. Make your arm and leg as low as you can go while maintaining contact with the mat/floor. As your core gets stronger, you will be able to lower your arm and leg farther without arching your back,” Laura explains.

Exercise 4: The Pendlay Row

This exericse has a similar setup as a barbell deadlift, but with wider hands. Brittany has her students start this excercise by walking up to the bar, placing it over mid-foot. “Bend down and grab the bar—hands just a bit farther than shoulder width apart—without bringing your legs toward it yet,” Brittany explains. “Bring your shins to the bar without moving the bar. Pick your chest up, as if you were in jumping position, take a big breath, and row the bar toward your sternum. Place the bar back down, reset, and do another rep.”

So, why is your core so important? As Brittany, Laura, and any equestrian will tell you, being in balance is a big part of riding. Laura puts it plainly as to how the muscles directly affect the rider. “Riders with core instability have a tendency to pinch their knees and tighten their shoulders and arms in an effort to find body control. They are ‘trying’ so hard to stay steady in the saddle that other muscles are recruited instead of the core, leading to tight muscles and poor posture. A stable core allows riders to stay aligned with their horse through movement without being rigid.” Concerned that this might be an issue you have been ignoring? Building up the muscles may take some time, but it will greatly improve your riding.

In order to get proper results, you will need to know how often and how much to exercise. Laura proposes a bit of a different approach for her exercises, working for five minutes per day for newcomers to training and working your way up to 15-20 minute sessions three times a week. As for repetitions, she suggests doing 20-30. Brittany recommends doing between four sets of eight to 12 reps twice for one to two times per week when it comes to her exercises. “I would not recommend doing a high volume at first,” she adds.

Both of Brittany’s exercises involve a barbell. This is because, “many of the barbell lifts will force you to hold your core tight while completing the exercise,” she states. “Think of strength training for your core as going through your whole body. If you only train the surface, you may be able to ‘pose’ on your horse, but if you are strong all the way through, you can handle just about anything.”

After training consistently, riders will start to notice their balance and seat are much better. “[Riders] will get jumped out of the tack less, last longer in lessons, avoid soreness, gain a ton of confidence, and decrease chances of injury,” Brittany says of students who continue to strengthen their core. “A solid core provides for effective separation of upper and lower, right and left, front and back, and rotational movement,” states Laura. “In other words, it allows you to rub your tummy and pat your head while staying balanced in the saddle.”

Brittany points out the importance of continued weight training. “One must weight train in order to create, and keep creating adaptations to the body,” she remarks. “For example, if you only do bodyweight exercise you will only become X strong. If you continually strength train, increase weight, change exercises, etc. you will keep progressing your strength, just as you would want to do with your horse.”

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