#4 Fitness Focus: Core Strength--More Questions Than Answers

The Problem: Knowing When You Have Enough

Core strength: strength in the middle; in the torso; in the ab's, back, and pelvis; is all the buzz these days but how many of us know how much we need and precisely where we need it most? In one way, developing core strength is like studying a new subject: you don't really know what your level of mastery is until you are tested. With both, you can think you've got it and then get challenged only to discover that you were wrong. But with core strength you may benefit from even more than you've got and not have a way to know it.

For more than a decade I've been sure than I knew what core strength was and when I had enough and when I didn't but that confidence in my knowing was turned upside down early in July of 2012. It was then that I recognized that I suddenly had substantially more core strength than ever before but I only understood that once challenged by the extreme demands of riding up mountain passes on my loaded bike; I couldn't tell while I was developing it that I had more. After having the benefits of enhanced core strength punctuated for me on the bike I then noticed a more subtle benefit from my recently heightened core strength when on a long hike--clearly some amount more was a lot better but I still didn't know where my weakest points had been.

Only Knowing in Hindsight
It was early in our first year of cyclotouring abroad in 2001 that I painfully recognized the importance of core strength after I lost it. I'd been pushing my loaded bike over logs and other obstacles on a Belgium forest trail when I strained a back muscle. Suddenly I lost my pushing power. For 6 weeks or so I was very weakened, especially when pushing the bike and Bill had to take over for me when pushing up stairs and over high curbs. During this injury, my core was strong enough for pedaling but not for the special demands of pushing. Since then, I've always recognized the need to be a bit guarded while I regained core strength by cyclotouring after a long break from it, but that was the extent of my understanding.

My next significant lesson in the difficulty of assessing core strength was in 2009 when a bodywork practitioner recommended that I begin doing daily 5-10 minute headstands with various leg positions. Six months after including a long headstand in my daily routine, we were taking a break from cycling to hike and I commenced doing push-ups and sit-ups to maintain my core strength for cycling. I was dumbfounded with my first crack at sit-ups because they were absolutely effortless. Stunned, I finally realized that the intense isometric abdominal contractions needed to hold my torso rigid while upside down and slowly changing my leg positions was a dynamite ab workout.

Two years later the effectiveness of 5 minutes of daily headstand in strengthening my abs was underscored again when I attempted the "Ab Ripper X" sequence in P90X. This workout dishes out 350 sit-ups of various forms in sets of 25 in 15 minutes and I had no trouble completing all 350 the first time. What a kick: 5 minutes of daily headstand with leg variations was as effective as 15 minutes of almost continuous sit-ups for developing or maintaining ab strength. Once again I had been clueless as to my current level of core strength.

In 2012 I was surprised to discover that I had again unknowingly achieved a new, higher level of very useful core strength. The awareness was instantaneous when I mounted my loaded bike for the first time and felt how stable I was. None of the familiar wobbles presented themselves and minutes later when I tackled the steep grades to the pass, I could tell that my torso strength was in a whole new league than ever before. Four days later when we hit the 7th hour of moving time on a hike that required almost another hour on the trail, I noticed how strong and resilient my torso and upper body were. "Core strength" immediately came to mind.

At the end of that unusually long and demanding hike my legs, especially my calves, were very weary but the upper half of my body felt like it had hours more to effortlessly give to the task. I had none of the usual upper body weariness that I typically experienced during exceptional efforts. Normally in this situation I'd feel a ripple of weakness go through my torso with every step as it failed to properly counter the motion of walking and I'd be shifting my pack around vainly trying to be more comfortable. Instead my upper body felt sturdy and able to carry its load so the legs could better manage through their fatigue until we made it in for the night.

Our Outdoor Laboratory
Serious athletes repeat routines or courses over and over again, monitoring and measuring various indicators of speed, energy output, and efficiency. We definitely don't count ourselves among the serious athletes but, like them, we do benefit from knowing what works and doesn't work for improving our performance. But the sheer tedium of repeating the same routine or course over and over again largely prevents us from getting training feedback in the traditional settings. We are interested but not that interested. But biking and hiking some of the same passes and trails in the Dolomites year after year has recently given us some of the most potent feedback we've ever stumbled upon for guiding both our general and sport-specific conditioning.

Training with the P90X DVD workout series for the first time a little over a year ago was an epiphany: only once we were back in the mountains did we discover that we were in better condition for cyclotouring having used that living room workout 8 hours a week than when we cyclotoured 20-30 hours a week. We arrived in the Alps in 2011 with a 6 month lapse in cyclotouring and minimal other cycling but with 2 months of P90X workouts behind us and we rode more powerfully than all of the other years when we'd spent 4 months biking our way to the mountains. It took us weeks to believe what had made the difference but we were finally convinced though weren't quite sure why it worked so well. (An unloaded cyclist was sure that we had electric bikes because we so effortlessly sped past him on the Austrian bike path we shared.)

Our experiences in 2012 were even more dramatic than in 2011. We'd not cyclotoured for 9 months, ridden even less during those months than in 2011, and had only done 6 weeks of the DVD workout instead of 8 and yet were even stronger than in 2011 when we hit the mountains. This time we understood in minutes instead of weeks that it was the guided workouts that were giving us the performance edge but were still stunned by the results. We were baffled as to how we could be stronger with even less time spent doing the routines than in 2011.

While making our way to the pass in 2012 in our first hours back on the bikes and reveling in our new pizzazz, we finally realized that the real power of the program for us for both years had been in building our core strength: strength in the back, the abs, and the pelvis. Our daily exercise routines kept our backs and abs in above average condition but something about the P90X workouts was taking the strength of those muscles to a new level or integrating the strength in a new way. P90X, or at least intense core strength work, apparently was the cross training tool we should have been using for all those years when we thought we were strong enough.

In the past I had had a subtle sense that my torso was kind of 'noodly' on the bike, that I had a strong grip on the bars and plenty of power in my legs but that those power centers weren't well connected. I felt like there was a weakness in my torso that improved with touring. Clearly the stresses of loaded touring did toughen up my core, but not as much as I really needed and I was clueless as to what more I could have been doing. Finally I learned that it took exercising those core muscles in a different way with the P90X workouts to get my core strength to the next level for touring.

Riding up to Passo Gardena this year as we do almost every summer underscored how much stronger we both were. I had none of the usual wobbles, none of the rippling sense of weakness in my body. We passed by a few favorite rest stops and arrived at the top with more power to spare than usual. More interesting, without the unusual stresses of cyclotouring in familiar places, we wouldn't have known how effective those workouts were for us and where in our bodies we were most benefiting. Inadvertently, the Dolomites had become our outdoor laboratory for evaluating and testing our haphazard conditioning programs, of which core strength was the new star.

We also concluded that our month's long lapses between doing the P90X workouts when we were engaged in our sports must not have mattered as much as we had feared. Our improved core strength must have been maintained to some degree when doing our regular activities because we both felt that we weren't starting from zero when we popped in the Day 1DVD back in June and because we were stronger than in 2011 when we had completed more weeks of workouts. Another observation suggestive of having maintained some of our new core strength was the marked decrease in need for snacks when biking or hiking, especially for Bill. We are guessing that a stronger core translated into more stability with less effort and hence fewer calories burned.

We've nick-named this "Bottles" & it feels important to do.
Core Exercises
Almost any online list of core exercises looks about the same with some assortment of push-up and sit-up like exercises. Most commonly core exercises are done on the floor, either face up or face down. In either of these 2 positions you then either anchor your hands/shoulders and feet on the floor and lift your torso or anchor your middle section on the floor and lift your arms and legs. 'Superman' is an example of a popular face-down pose with lifted limbs whereas 'V Sit' is a face-up pose with the limbs lifted. The positions then either require doing fast-paced reps, like with standard sit-ups and push-ups, or reps of sustained holding like are done with Superman and V-Sit.

Fast paced reps are the classic core strength form most of us are familiar with but I suspect the sustained holdings are superior for building core strength, or at least should be included in the mix. Many of the core muscles are postural muscles that do their job by isometric contraction, which is holding. The nice, rock-solid feeling in my torso between hours 7 and 8 of our big hike was from the postural muscles doing their thing of sustained contraction, as was the total lack of wobbling or feeling weak in my torso on my loaded bike.

Some lists of core strength exercises include diagonal movements, like if you were picking up a heavy rock from the ground beyond your left foot and putting it up on a wall above your head on your right side without sidestepping with your feet. I'm guessing that these twisting-with-weights moves are what I need more of because I can't think of anything I regularly do that is a similar challenge. Working up to doing this move for 4-6 minutes with 4 lbs of weight quickly became our favorite core exercise because it felt like it is worked so many parts of the body at once.

How Much, And Of What, Is Enough?
For over a decade I thought I knew when I had sufficient core strength and when I didn't but I was very wrong: I could tell when I had enough core strength to protect myself from injury but I didn't realize that more would have significantly improved my performance. My day to day life on the bike and on the trails would have been so much easier, so much more joyful if I had had more core strength all of these years. I would have experienced little of the familiar deep weariness during and after big events if I'd been a little (or a lot??) stronger in my core--quite the missed opportunity during this active phase in my life. Strong torso muscles provide the foundation for all movement and their effectiveness at providing that stability is only easy for me to feel when I am at my edge of strength or endurance.

I'd love to have a way to know which specific exercises in the P90X series made the big performance shift for me and what the minimum amount of time was needed to bump my core strength up to my current level and keep it there, but I can only guess. I know that doing the P90X DVD workouts significantly heightens my core strength and that there are at least a few core strength moves in all of the sequences, even the rest-day stretching routine. I am also convinced that I must be maintaining some of the enhanced core strength by using the newly stronger muscles out and about in the world because I don't regress to my starting point when I take breaks of many months from the living room exercise program.

Almost all of the experts sharing their opinions about core strength online have similar guidelines, guidelines that recommend doing their various regimes for 15 minutes a day 3 days a week--which isn't a big commitment for what it delivers. Some routines require special equipment like a Swiss ball (huge exercise ball), a medicine ball, and exercise bands whereas others require no equipment at all.

Based on the difficulty I've had in knowing whether I had sufficient core strength or not, I'd recommend everyone add core strength exercises to their fitness regime for 6 weeks or so to see if it makes a difference during a peak activity, whether that is a long walk, a big hike, or a challenging bike ride. I can only perceive the benefits of increased core strength when doing a stressful event but at those times the sense of improvement is astounding. And though the "increased core strength" message only flashes in neon for me when exerting at my edge, it surely must be making my life easier most of the time that I am in motion.

At this point, I've settled upon doing 7-8 minutes of core work most every day when we aren't doing the P90X workouts, giving me the equivalent of 15 minutes, 3 times a weeks. I do diagonal or twisting moves one day, like the "on the shelf" exercise with weights and on the alternate days I do more in-1-plane exercises, such as push-ups or plank. If I am hiking or biking difficult routes, I skip my core exercises the day of the event and the prior day so my core muscles are strong rather than pooped. When we aren't hiking or biking on an almost daily basis, like when at home, then we do a P90X workout everyday which includes core moves.

Only time and a tough challenge will tell if my 7-8 minutes of daily core work will give me the extra stability I've learned that I need.
We still don't really know how much core strength is enough or if our new core maintenance routines will be sufficient. We are resigned to both trying to increase our base level of core strength and to only knowing in hindsight how we did. Maybe we've arrived or maybe we've just begun getting enough core strength to support our activities and in reality we need a lot more--we don't know which is true.

And When Core Strength Isn't Enough
It was when we hit the slopes on our bikes in Austria in 2012 that we fully understood at what point core strength was no longer a substitute for cycle-specific training: it was those repeated grades in the 12-15% range on that brought us to our knees. Those days were hard in the past when we hit them on 9 month cyclotours, but only riding intermittently over 6 weeks as we did in 2012 made them brutal.

It was especially difficult when we rode those steep grades back-to-back, as in 2 days in a row. Bill broke the climb to Obertilliach, Austria into 2 days of similar elevation gain, which resulted in the first day being a little under 30 miles and the second day being only 12 miles. But the more than 2000' elevation gain each day and temperatures in the 90's meant that we logged almost 3 hours of pedaling time to complete the 12 mile ride and then we were wiped out. We couldn't imagine how we could have ridden a difficult route the next day if that had been demanded by our itinerary.

Much to our surprise, the next day we had little trouble hiking. During the first few minutes on the trail we both complained of weak, tired legs but quickly hit our stride as we charged up a series of very steep pitches for 30 minutes without pausing, blasting by all the other hikers. It was clear that we wouldn't have been able to perform well if this had been a 3rd day on the bikes but we readily racked up 2400' in 3 1/2 hrs of hiking at elevation. We knew we weren't at our very best, but we were clearly in better hiking than cycling form. So it wasn't a general lack of strength or endurance or core strength that was dogging us on the steeper grades on the bikes, it was a lack of something biking-specific.

Next year we'll try again with non-cycling conditioning for cycling using the P90X routines. Bill recalled that the DVD workout series has a tough leg strengthening day in the 2nd month of the program that we only did twice this spring. He always dreaded that sequence but now thinks that including it from our first week might give us the boost we need for the 15% grades. We'll return to our outdoor laboratory in the Alps in the summer of 2013 to put our revised training program to the test, both for our core strength and our 'steep ascents on the bike's' needs. Maybe then we'll have more answers than questions.

Post Script: Knees & Low Backs

Recent online searching in hopes of learning which aspects of core strengthening had benefited us most had me detouring to reading about knees--always a topic of interest for me. In that detour I learned that medical research started coming out in the mid-2000's indicating that increasing core strength was generally more effective than focusing on the knee to solve knee problems. It was counter-intuitive but I was coached 25 years ago to always first look to the joint above and below a problem area, which with a knee, would mean looking at the hips and ankles, so I was intrigued.

Even more recent research from running clients was revealing that many, or almost all, knee problems could be improved or fixed by core strengthening, specifically in the hips. Strengthening the hip abductors was considered by some as THE best thing you could do for knees, with strengthening the hip external rotators next in line. Strengthening these 2 muscle groups would often reduce or eliminate low back pain as well. And one study suggested that decreased hip abductor strength was the single most profound strength difference between 20 and 80 year old women.

Coincidently, earlier in the day Bill and I both jogged on a balance-beam-like curb with ease. It was the first time I had been able to jog it rather than walk and I went substantially farther before falling off than usual. Two days prior I had been stunned by the ease with which I could stand in the one-legged yoga "Tree Pose" which has always been difficult for me. After reading about the hip abductor research, I realized that the exercises I had added to my morning routine that targeted the abductors the last few weeks was surely the reason for my new and unexpected successes with the curb and standing exercises.

Bill's discovery the following morning was even more profound. He gave an exercise for the hip external rotators called "clamshell" a try and discovered that those muscles were extremely weak in him. The exercise wasn't particularly challenging for me and we finally surmised that the difference in our strength of those muscles was probably due to our posture differences: I'm using them all the time with my excess low back curve and he never uses them standing around because he flattens the curve out. Bill is quite optimistic that targeting these muscles for a few weeks will likely take the struggle out of standing and sitting more upright and make his back stronger and more resilient on the trails.

And a few days later, our hunch was confirmed: even early efforts at strengthening these 2 hips muscles were enough to substantially decrease our risk of back injury when schlepping luggage. We hauled our 2 suitcases on and off 6 buses and trains with rushed connections in 5 hours without nary a back tweak. One of us always gets at least a minor back injury when jostling our heavy luggage. There could be no doubt: a few minutes of hip abductor and external rotator exercises every day or every other day was transforming our posture and our performance on the trails and on the streets--yeah ha!

Here are some search phrases if you want to see what strengthening these muscle groups might do for you:
hip external rotator strength exercises ("hip" is important or you'll end up with shoulder exercises)
hip abductor strength exercises (note it is aBductor, not aDductor, which works in the opposite directions)
core strength and knee pain
gluteal amnesia (a label that describes Bill's situation)