Q I live in an area where the weather makes it difficult to ride in the winter. When springtime comes around, I find it difficult and time-consuming to get back into riding shape. What can I do during the off-season to stay fit to ride?
MARGARET STRAUGH, Michigan
A If you maintain overall fitness all year long, it’ll make a big difference anytime you take a hiatus from riding. Focus especially on your core and lower body through resistance training, but also keep your muscles supple and pliable through stretching. Here I’ll outline some body-resistance exercises that you can use every day in your home or even your barn to improve overall strength and keep yourself fit to ride, even through the winter.
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Core work is crucial; your core is your powerhouse and gives you the stability to move. Your core isn’t just your abdominals in the front, but also your back muscles, which protect your spine and provide stability, plus the obliques on either side of your abs. So, don’t neglect any part of your core.
A plank is an effective core workout as it engages both your abs and back, and even works your triceps and quads as you stabilize. The starting position is similar to a modified push-up. Start on your knees with your elbows and forearms on the ground and hands clasped to form a tripod. Your elbows should be aligned directly below, and at the same width as, your shoulders. (See “Plank” photo, above.) Engage your core by tightening (not pushing out, but squeezing) your abdominal muscles (no sagging hips or butt in the air). Don’t be intimidated by these. Even if you can only hold a plank for 10 to 15 seconds initially, you can add a little bit of time every day. Add two to five seconds each session. It won’t be overwhelming, and you’ll be surprised at your progress.
As you feel stronger, progress to more difficult versions of the plank. Try raising your knees off the ground, but keeping your arms in the tripod position, until eventually you’re able to hold a plank in a complete push-up position (arms straight and hands flat on the ground). (See “Full Plank” photo.)
You can’t ride effectively without engaging your lower body, period. Strong quads, hamstrings, and adductors (inside of your legs) allow you to squeeze to remain seated and shift from side to side or forward and back in the saddle to cue. Your glutes allow you to squeeze and roll your hips to signal for a stop or to control speed.
Squats are great because they work your entire lower body, including the major muscles such as the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Sumo squats are wonderful; their wider stance enhances your range of motion, and allows you to squat deeper, which focuses more attention on the adductor muscles that are essential for riding. Begin with your feet farther than shoulder width apart. (See “Sumo Squat Start” photo.) As you squat down, think about sinking your hips straight down rather than simply “lowering yourself,” which often causes your torso to inadvertently drop forward. Instead, keep a tight torso, and upright chest throughout the movement. (See “Sumo Squat End” photo.) The sumo squat is a great variation of a common exercise that works and stretches your hamstrings deep into the movement while mimicking the wide-leg position that you have in the saddle.
Lunges work the major muscles of your legs as well as your core as you stabilize. Start with your feet at shoulder width apart. Then, step your lead leg forward and your back leg backward, so that you’re in a lunge start position. (See “Lunge Start” photo.) Again, lower yourself and think about sinking your hips straight down to maintain equal weight and tension in both the front and rear legs. There should be a 90-degree angle in both your lead and rear legs as you reach the bottom of the movement. (See “Lunge End” photo.) Keep your torso upright throughout the movement, and don’t allow your back knee to slam into the ground as you lower yourself. Complete one repetition of the movement by returning to the start position, and then switch legs (your lead leg will now become your rear leg for the next rep). Try modifications such as stepping backward instead of forward, “walking” your lunges (stepping forward into the lunge, then stepping forward with your rear leg to your start position before lunging again with the alternate leg), or stepping to either side to focus more on your glutes and the outer portions of your quads.
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It may not seem intuitive, but a strong upper body is crucial to maintain good position while you ride (chest up and open, shoulders back, and torso upright).
Push-ups work your back, biceps, and chest. As with planks, you can scale push-ups (start easier and get more advanced) by completing them on your knees or with your hands elevated (on a fence, for example). Keep your core engaged and tight throughout the movement, and maintain a straight line through your hips and butt (rather than allowing them to rise or sag). (See “Push-Up Position” photo.)
Dips are also effective and easy to incorporate into your routine, because you can complete them on a chair inside or on a tack trunk or hay bale in the barn. Dips work your triceps and your upper chest. Place a chair behind you (or box, fence, or other convenient implement), and grasp with your palms while your fingers grip the edges. (See “Dip Start” photo.) Your knees should be bent, just passed 90-degrees, so that your legs can extend slightly. The majority of your weight should be on your heels, rather than being completely flatfooted. Bend your elbows and allow your hips and butt to sink straight down, until there’s a 90-degree angle through your elbows and you feel tension into your chest and armpits. (See “Dip End” photo.) Extend your elbows to return to your start position. To make the movement more difficult, elevate your feet on a box or bucket, for example.
What to Do With It
Supersets (several movements done consecutively) and circuits are quick, effective ways to incorporate strength training into a conditioning, cardio-based session. For example, you can complete 10 squats, five push-ups, and a 15-second plank in sets or back-to-back for a period of time (as many sets as you can in 10 minutes, for example). Varied, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts can provide total-body conditioning using implements around the house or barn to train.
Take it one day at a time. Fitness will take time to develop, but if you stay active throughout the entire off-season, it’ll make your first rides more comfortable, with less soreness, so you can focus on your horse’s conditioning and preparation instead of your own.
Kelly Altschwager lives in Wellington, Colorado, with her husband, Andy, and two sons, Cash and Cole. She’s an ACE-certified personal trainer; PiYo instructor; fitness expert at Fitness1 Club Wellington; and owns and operates Western Workouts, a personal-training service geared toward helping the busy horseperson. Western Workouts provides short, high-intensity routines that use everyday implements for fitness around the home. Learn more at westernworkouts.com.