I’m sure most of you have weight loss or exercise of some kind on your goals for this year, but perhaps you’ve found it hard to work out without a plan or guidance if you aren’t working with a trainer. While some people–myself included–prefer resistance training using body weight exercises (push ups, crunches, planks, etc.), some of you may feel like that type of training just isn’t for you, and don’t know where to start with all of the equipment that can be found in a gym. Since I have nothing to offer in the way of weight training, I asked my bestie, Caitlyn, to give you all some help and pointers! Even if you aren’t sure weight lifting is for you because you’re afraid to get too “bulky,” keep reading, and you might be surprised to find that weight training doesn’t have to mean bulk. Caitlyn has been big on lifting and weight training for a few years now, but recently upped her training to compete in bodybuilding competitions. Caitlyn has also been riding since she was a child, and put together some training tips and suggestions that will help improve your balance in the saddle, as well as your strength so that you can improve your riding through outside exercise! Please keep in mind that though Caitlyn does have a lot of experience in a gym, she’s not a professional trainer, and the tips below are not meant to be professional advice but simply helpful suggestions based on her own experience.
Howdy! My name is Caitlyn and I run ChickWhoLifts. Heather and I have been friends since I moved to San Antonio back in 2009, and we rode together for a few years before heading off to college. While I occasionally still get to ride, my horse was diagnosed with navicular disease in 2009 and has been retired ever since. I picked up on a new hobby in college: Weight training. I began training to be a bodybuilding competitor back in 2014, and I recently competed at the City Limits Championships in Waxahachie, Texas.
Being physically fit to ride is incredibly important both for your performance in the saddle as well as your horse’s performance under saddle. It’s not just about being strong enough to stop a headstrong jumper or light enough to not throw off your horse’s balance over fences; being physically fit improves your mental performance in and out of the ring. By being fit, you improve your brain’s ability to multitask easier, managing more movements and tasks with less mental and physical demand–in other words the little things become second nature so that you can focus more on the big stuff.
So, what muscle groups do you think are most important in riding? Biceps, triceps, quadriceps? After riding for nearly two decades, I think the only muscle group that is lacking for me is my hamstrings. Most riders have “drummer’s calves”- the anterior portion of the gastrocnemius muscle that wraps around to the front of the tibia is overdeveloped and stands out when you put your heel down as if in the stirrups. Needless to say, I’ve always had larger calves than my boyfriend who is a strongman competitor (yes, I hold that over his head lol). Also, when I began lifting, I was told I have “wings”- my latissimus dorsi muscles are broad and stick out when I flex; so fear not ladies with “back fat” under your bra straps- it may actually be muscle! All of these muscles I earned and built up riding over the years.
Understanding your musculoskeletal anatomy is not only great for your personal knowledge, but it’s also helpful for when you begin to adapt to the exercises you’ve been doing; after the adaptation period, you can use what you know about each muscle to change the exercises to keep building that muscle. For example, hammer curls target the brachioradialis muscle and the long head of the biceps brachii muscle more than regular bicep curls because of your hand position. Every muscle group is important in riding. You never know when a horse will challenge your body’s limits- no matter what discipline you ride. Here are some of my favorite exercises for building strength to stay in the saddle when the going gets rough:
- Hip ab/adductors (machine) 4-6 sets of 12-20 repetitions of both abductor and adductor work
- Leg press 4-6 sets of 10-12 repetitions
- Seated calf raises 4 sets of 12-15 repetitions
- Banded side shuffle 4 laps of 20 steps*
- Squats 4 sets of 5-10 repetitions
- Walking lunges 4-6 sets of 20 steps (add weight for an even greater challenge!)
*In this exercise, you wrap and tie a resistance band just above your knees, squat to about a 70 degree angle, and step out with one foot and step together with the other foot. Repeat for a total of 20 steps, about face, and step out with the other foot first.
Changing the position of your feet, the speed at which you perform the movement, and the depth of the movement are all ways you can increase the intensity and target smaller accessory muscle groups during these exercises. Turning your toes in, then out, and back to parallel (or neutral) are ways to target different portions of your calf muscles, and it’s a killer calf work out if done back-to-back. Single-leg, wide stance, and neutral leg press are all different variations of the same exercise that targets your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings respectively. Squats (front or back) are the nearly all encompassing lower body lift. Front squats focus on your quadriceps and improve upper body posture, whereas back squats put more emphasis on hamstrings. Both types of squats, if done correctly, will work glutes as well. However, understanding proper squat form is INCREDIBLY important! Make sure before you try any new compound weight lifting movements (deadlift, squats, power cleans, etc.) you do in-depth research on proper form for the movement- find Youtube videos of the movements being performed by PROFESSIONALS, not just your neighborhood bodybuilder-wanna-be. Alan Thrall with Untamed Strength is a great reliable source to use.
For upper body work, consider the muscles that you use when you are stopping, turning, or directing your horse: Latissimus dorsi muscles, triceps, biceps, trapezius muscles, etc.
1. Bicep curls superset* with bench dips 4 sets of 10-12
3. Tricep extensions superset with hammer curls 4 sets of 10-12
4. Cable rows 6 sets of 10-12
*Supersets are exercises done back-to-back with no rest between sets or exercises.
For each body part, you have to achieve balance by working a muscle (or muscle group) that performs an equal and opposite action. For example, bicep curls flex the elbow (close the elbow) and tricep extensions extend the elbow, or leg press extends the knee via your quadricep femoris muscles and leg curls flex the knee via your bicep femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus muscles (aka your hamstrings). Balance of muscle groups and actions is important in preventing injury, not just for making sure you don’t look lopsided.
You don’t have to use olympic weight lifting techniques or even olympic weights to begin seeing changes or improvements in your strength.
I know this sounds like a lot of lifting, and it is, but stretching and cardio are equally as important. Be sure to perform dynamic stretching prior to lifting as well as after to prevent injury, reduce soreness, and prevent shortening of the muscle groups you work. When we think of “cardio” we tend to gravitate towards running or swimming- something that we believe requires long-term and long-distance commitments. Honestly, walking on a treadmill with a mild incline at 3-3.5 mph for 30 minutes can be enough to improve your cardiovascular health significantly. Running sprints, using the stair stepper for 30 minutes, or performing walking lunges around the curves on a track and sprinting the straight aways are all great exercises for improving your cardiovascular fitness without boring your brains out on a treadmill!
I hope these exercises prepare you for a successful summer show season! Good luck to you all!