Even for experienced cyclists, it can be a puzzling cue. Here, the why and how.
While their leg game is super strong, the truth is “cyclists are notorious for having weak cores,” says Rachel Vaziralli, the creative manager of group fitness programming at Equinox. It makes sense. Cycling is, at its roots, acardio workout, not a core workout, she says.
Unlike running, in which your torso rotates to spark engagement, spinning calls for a flexed forward position. “There's not a lot of functional recruitment of core muscles,” Vaziralli explains.
So why do instructors urge us to “engage” our cores in class? Because if you don’t, you run the risk of overworking your lower back muscles, leading to early fatigue, decreased performance, and over time, injury, says Kristy Discipio, Equinox’s east coast regional group fitness director.
But engagement doesn’t necessarily mean bracing for a punch. “Engaging refers to having an awareness of one’s core,” says Vaziralli. “Both as a means of maintaining good posture and good breath control.” After all, tighten your abs while you sprint on a bike and you decreaseyour cardio output, which means you miss out on the cardio and the core action, she says.
Below, experts explain every part of the process, from bike prep to post-class.
BEFORE YOU RIDE:
The Seat: If your bike seat is aligned correctly, your front knee will be over the ball of your front foot when your pedals are at 3:00 and 9:00. The saddle height will allow your leg to extend at the bottom of the pedal stroke, but not hyperextend, Vaziralli says. (Usually this means the seat will line up with the top of your hip.)
The Handlebars: Be careful not to have your bars too low or too high. “There is a myth that the lower you are, the more core work you get, but in reality it's just harder on your back,” Vaziralli says. But if you’re too high (and sitting almost upright), you decrease your ability to generate power through your legs, she notes. “You want to find your happy medium where you're back feels good and you put out good power.” Aligning your handlebars level with your saddle or slightly higher is ideal.
In the Saddle: Sit with a slightly anterior pelvic tilt. “Think like you're sticking your butt out and pointing your tailbone up.” You’ll want to be positioned without shrugging your shoulders, with minimal pressure on your wrists, and with your elbows are slightly bent, she explains. Your body should feel stable and strong versus wobbly and weak, notes Discipio.
You want to actually relax your belly. “This is so that your abdominals can naturally respond to the demands the cardiovascular system makes on them as you go in and out of intensity zones throughout class,” says Vaziralli. If you’re positioned correctly, your core muscles will contract and relax rapidly during a sprint, she notes.
And remember, when you hit hard parts of class, avoid throwing tension or stress to other parts of your body and refrain from clenching the handlebars too tightly, says Wil Ashley, a New York-based Equinox cycling instructor. “Although the intention might be to alleviate stress on your legs, the result instead contributes to inconsistency, inefficiency, and diminished results.”
If you’re feeling pain, check your positioning and bike set up. If something is off with either, you may feel it in your back, lats, or shoulders, says Ashley.
To fire up your core after a sweaty ride, follow class with a series of planks and balance and rotational work, says Vaziralli.