They spend as many as six hours a day hunched over while pumping their thighs and gripping handlebars. Back pain? Cyclists may be more intimate with the spasms and aches that afflict areas swaddling the spine than most people.
Back agony, in fact, nearly ended the career of professional cyclist Tom Danielson, who was the highest-placing American in the 2011 Tour de France (he finished eighth). About six years ago, after an injury, the more he rode, the more piercing and constant the misery.
Together the pair developed a series of exercises that for the most part protect the back by strengthening the core. The approach, he said, rid him of the crippling pain and boosted his overall performance.
"The core is so often neglected, but it's such a huge part of rehabilitating injuries, of preventing injuries, of performance on the bike. And off the bike, too," said Danielson. "This is about overall body performance. If you are a professional athlete, this will really help you, but if you are just an average person it will be of great benefit, too. A lot of these exercises are new. We created them ourselves."
Their work has led to a book, "Core Advantage: Core Strength for Cycling's Winning Edge," that argues for a different kind of core training than the traditional parade of crunches.
"I have a section called, 'Stop doing crunches,'" said Westfahl. "If your core routine mainly consists of crunches, you are training for bad posture."
And worse — you are setting yourself up for chronic back problems.
Pain in Danielson's spine compelled him to see Westfahl, who found his problem wasn't rooted in his back, but in his glutes. She had him stop doing crunches — his primary core workout — and switch to other exercises, ones that, among other things, would persuade his glutes to start working properly when he rode.
"Once we got his glutes to fire and show up for the job, it took the load off the low back," she said. "If the glutes aren't firing, the low back will step in."
What do the glutes have to do with core muscles? They are part of the core region, said Westfahl. The core, she said, is "any muscle that attaches to either the spinal column or the pelvis. It's a lot, which is why the quadriceps and hamstrings are part of the core."
She pegs the number of core-related muscles to between 150 and 200, but said the inventory varies, depending on how muscles are counted. Is a series of small muscles considered one muscle, or 30?
Either way, everybody should think about core differently — it's not just a few bands of big muscles that with enough crunches turn into six-packs (in fact, Westfahl said achieving six-pack abs has much more to do with diet than it does with exercises).
The broad range of muscles that connect to the core explain why "if you look at a low-back injury in a cyclist, it could be because his hamstring isn't functioning properly, because hamstrings stabilize and move the pelvis," she said. Or it could have something to do with the trapezius muscles, a pair of large, triangular muscles that extend over the back of the neck and down the shoulders, part of the shoulder girdle and an area that Westfahl recommends strengthening in a balanced workout.
The book, however, is not just for cyclists. For the people who spend half their days hunched over, Westfahl and Danielson's approach may seem like a gift. But the style of training works for everybody who exercises, and especially those who are getting older and are familiar with nagging back issues.
In many cases, Westfahl said, the familiarity with aching spines is the result of muscular imbalances that, in many cases, arise out of a poor training regimen.
"For most people — he's mildly fit, goes to the gym, but he has a nagging back thing — it is typically due to a postural problem and/or muscular imbalances. It's a chicken-egg thing, you can't have one without the other. You have poor posture because you have muscular imbalances, or vice-versa. You treat it the same way. You treat it by working out muscular imbalances in your core."
The best core strategy, Westfahl said, revolves around equilibrium. If some core muscles are strong and others are weak, the body will respond in ways that could lead to poor posture and pain.
"When you are thinking of core strength, which is key for back health, it is important to create balance between muscles. So you want to be doing a variety of exercises, working on moving through different planes of motion, side to side, front to back, and twisting."
To get started, Westfahl recommends people begin by jettisoning all crunches. Just drop them. Once crunches are gone, start strengthening the obliques, which are abdominal muscles, by doing twists.
"Get it out of your head that you have to be lying on your back to strengthen your core," she said. Of the 50 exercises in the book, only a few involve lying down.
Westfahl spends most of her waking hours helping clients deal with exercise regimens; many of her conversations are about different areas of pain. One of the most common complaints, from pro athletes and people just trying to stay in shape, is about the lower back.
The focus on the lower back does not surprise Westfahl.
"We all get tight as we age, and the muscles in the hips and low back become almost frozen," she said. "You lose your range of motion. Keep in mind that muscles are what move joints. Joints don't move on their own — they don't have power. You have to have a muscle pulling on a joint to move it. So if your muscles aren't functioning correctly or if they are weak, then that is going to affect the joints they are attached to."
Back pain? Chances are, it visits now and again, if it hasn't taken up permanent residence. Getting rid of it might involve just a handful of new exercises. And the elimination of one — crunches.
Douglas Brown: 303-954-1395, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/douglasjbrown
Back pain? Here are three exercises for your core that can help
Three exercises from "Core Advantage" recommended by Allison Westfahl that, performed together, offer a well-rounded core workout.
Time Trial Final Sprint. This exercise will help you extract every ounce of strength and stamina from your core by teaching your core to hold still while your arms are sliding back and forth. Grab two small hand towels for this exercise. Fold the towels a few times, and place one under each elbow while you are in a plank hold. Without moving your lower body or rocking your hips, slowly slide your right forearm forward 3 inches while pulling your left forearm back 3 inches. Continue to slide your forearms back and forth, being sure to keep the rest of the body as still as possible. Hold this position for as long as you desire. Remember to breathe.
Competition Check. This exercise improves balance, stabilization and intramuscular coordination of core muscles; it also decreases the risk of crashing when looking over your shoulder on your bike. Start in a push-up position with shoulders directly over your hands and your tailbone slightly tucked. Keeping your hips low, pick your right foot up off the ground and start to bring your right knee in toward your right elbow while you simultaneously turn your head to look at your knee. This should create a crunch on the right side of your body. Return to starting position and repeat on the right side for the designated number of repetitions, then switch sides.
Musette. This exercise improves rotational strength and stabilization with an emphasis on the internal obliques. Start in a seated position, your knees bent and heels lightly touching the ground. Lift your chest and feet to knee height, pull your shoulder blades down and together and keep your neck neutral. Make a fist with your left hand pushing into your right palm, keeping both hands in the center of your chest and 6 inches away from your body. With your legs held steady, twist your upper body (still pushing that left fist into the right palm) as far to the right as possible. When you reach your twisting limit, push your left fist into your right hand with as much force as possible for 15 seconds. Come to center and switch sides, this time making a fist with your right hand and pushing it into your left palm.