The early season for many triathletes marks the beginning of a strength training program to improve athletic performance for the upcoming season. Two vital components of a well-designed strength program are core strength, or a more accurate term core stability and equilibrioception or simply balance. Each athlete has their unique potencies and limitations when it comes to core stability and balance, so a training plan should be designed around a series of progressive exercises to meet the athlete’s requirements.
An essential component of athletic success is core stability, particularly in the lumbar, pelvic, and hip region collectively called the lumbopelvic-hip complex. We must keep in mind that stability allows us to control force, and in many instances, stability needs to come before strength to provide a stable platform against force. Perhaps a better way to think is our body must be able to resist the forces applied against it to achieve efficient locomotion. In other words, when pushing high watts on the bike you need a stable core to maximize power transfer to the pedals.
A well-designed core stability program will not only provide improvements in core stabilization but will also improve the neural pathways of the central nervous system that provides constant feedback and refinement of movement patterns. The lack of stability and balance in the sport of triathlon may have adverse effects on the ability to sustain force in unstable environments. All three of our sports are in unstable environments or on unstable surfaces, so a combination of core stability and postural balance training are key ingredients to maximize athletic efficiency, and quality of life.
Training in unstable conditions will stress the body’s neuromuscular system to a greater extent than stationary exercise. Spending the early season on a bike trainer will not prepare you for 20mph crosswind gusts on race day or the slippery conditions of a wet road surface. Incorporating cyclocross, and mountain biking into a yearly training plan with the emphasis of stressing the neuromuscular system adds improvements to balance and bike handling skills. Other outside actives like trail running, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing are other great tools to incorporate core stability and balance training into your workouts during the early season. These types of exercises move the body’s center of mass beyond its stable condition and increase synergistic muscle activity.
Resistance training to increase core stability can be achieved by a program of progressions in exercise programming that adds instability before an increase in load is applied. The advantages of free weights over machines have been well researched and documented since free weights require the athlete to stabilize the load throughout the movement plane. We can progress the exercise further by adding instability to the movement adding greater muscle core activation. The anti-rotation or Pallof Press/Hold is an excellent example of a core stability exercise that can be adapted to a progression framework.
To get started, you will need a high/low cable machine like a Keiser, Free Motion, or similar product. The progression starts in the kneeling position with the load perpendicular to the body and centered to the chest. Grip the handle with both hands and bring the handle to the center of your chest, and now extend the arms and hold, you will need to stabilize your core to prevent the load from rotating your spine, the focus is to apply stability to prevent rotation. Below is the progression of the exercise.
Pallof Press/Hold Progression - Note: we work both the left and right sides of the body, and we don’t increase the load only the amount of instability throughout the progression.
For the athlete to archive optimal performance, core stability in the lumbopelvic-hip complex and the ability to maintain balance are vital components, not only for quality of life but also for athletic success. Improvements in core stability can be enhanced by using unstable platforms within our resistance training with an increase in muscle activation and lower loads, thus increasing sport-specific gains and decreasing injury risk. Keep in mind that resistance exercises that contain an element of instability should be conducted with low resistance, and workouts with heavy loads should be performed on a stable base, never perform high resistance training combined with instability. So, train outside this winter to improve balance and add instability to your core workouts to see performance improvements on race day.
George Epley holds multiple coaching credentials including his USAT Level II Coaching Certificate. He has a passion for knowledge and believes it’s the key to maximizing your potential. He keeps abreast of the latest scientific studies, always trying to find more efficient and validated means of coaching his athletes. Knowledge in the form of communication is just as important. The more he knows about his athletes and the sooner he knows of changes in circumstances, lifestyle or training, the greater resource he can be.