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Laura Crump Anderson: ‘You Are Going to Fail!’

Laura Crump Anderson is an Equestrian Fitness Specialist at InForm Fitness Leesburg. She is certified as a personal trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine and specializes in working with riders of all ages and disciplines. She is EN’s fitness columnist. If you missed her series on “lateral work” for rider strength, check out the Beginner NovicePrelim, and Advanced editions. 

This title is not about any New Year’s Resolution you may have set for yourself. Though I have always disliked the concept of “New Year, New You,” I do advocate setting SMART goals to attain success. But working towards any goal, you may (and should) stumble.

This title is about not giving up. Fortunately (and unfortunately), we learn significantly more from our failures than we ever will from our successes. And, as my professional expertise is in a protocol of strength training that embraces failure, namely muscular failure, I want every equestrian to embrace and learn from it too.

Muscle failure, or more commonly referred to as “failure,” is the point at which you can no longer complete a strength training exercise. The muscles are worked to a point of true, deep fatigue. The challenge is to achieve this point of failure without sacrificing physical or executory form. Once muscular failure is achieved, another rep or anymore such stimulation of the same muscle, would be tantamount to trying to relight a fire that has already been lit. What your body craves and needs instead is the proper rest and nutrition to reap the benefits of the exercise. I like to think that once that fire is lit, rest and nutrition are the wood and the air that keep the fire going.

My protocol of strength training practices a philosophy of “one set to failure.” Ideally, the first repetition should feel challenging, but doable. The second repetition should feel significantly heavier, and then heavier again with each passing second. Should you start to shake towards the fourth repetition, rejoice that you are getting closer. Eventually, you can no longer complete the exercise. Instead of pointing the weight down at this point, it’s critical that you continue to push into the weight for an additional 10 seconds. That last 10-second effort should be with everything you have left! Then, set it down. And the added benefit of one set to failure is… YOU ONLY NEED TO DO ONE OF THEM!

Perfect execution is not easily attained. I advise everyone to seek progress rather than perfection, and remember that this a learned skill set. As you hone this skill set, your tolerances for discomfort should fortify as well. If you set the weight down in one exercise and realize you actually had a little more left to give, push yourself harder on the next exercise. Make no mistake, in addition to being physically demanding, strength training to muscular failure requires mental determination as well.

Beware of the pitfalls when maintaining ideal form. Common ways people sacrifice form are speeding up or jabbing at the weight, and moving and wiggling to engage different muscle groups. Moving and wiggling are much easier to correct. However, and especially if training on your own, extra attention must be paid to cadence, as the urge to speed up is strong. Also, any heaving or jabbing at the weight serves the same purpose – you are essentially utilizing acceleration and momentum to move the weight, and not the targeted musculature. These temptations are wrought with risk, as acceleration and momentum increase the potential for injurious force.    

Another example would be finding opportunities to rest in the exercise, such as locking out at the joint. Locking out at the joint also increases the risk of injury, and actually gives the muscle at work a chance to briefly rest. But why delay the inevitable, if true muscular failure is our goal? We won’t be ceasing the exercise until failure is reached, so why delay at the expense of our safety? Again, after achieving true failure, the muscle is stimulated sufficiently and will begin to rebuild stronger, thicker muscle fibers.

The burning sensation you will begin to feel is just the beginning of fatigue. Burning does not mean that you should cease the exercise. Burning is not failure. You must push through the burn. Be clear, a slowly building fiery sensation is very different from acute pain. If you feel any sharp or shooting pain, stop the exercise immediately and consult a doctor before continuing.

Example Exercise: Tricep Extension

This is a great off the horse exercise to improve the half-halt and core strength as well as tone and definition in the arms.

Photo courtesy of Laura Anderson.

Sit on an exercise ball

Photo courtesy of Laura Crump Anderson.

Walk your feet forward and allow the ball to roll up between your shoulder blades.

(Holding here is a great exercise on its own, engaging the core and glutes, or what I like to call “the keys to an independent seat”.) Keep your belly button engaged towards your spine and your glutes squeezed.

Photo courtesy of Laura Crump Anderson.

Straighten your arms up towards the ceiling. Ideally, you have a friend to hand you the weights once you are in position. A work around would be to place the hand weights on your torso, until the body is in position.

Note: When your elbows are straight, you are in the locked-out position. You can hold this position all day, because the elbow joint is bearing all the weight and not the tricep muscle. 

Photo courtesy of Laura Crump Anderson.

Slowly, taking a full ten seconds, lower the weights down toward your ears. Keep your elbows pointed straight up towards the ceiling. After slowly changing direction, take another full ten seconds to raise the weights back up, to a point just shy of the lock-out position. 

Failure. Photo courtesy of Laura Crump Anderson.

In the photo above, Haley has reached failure. She is pushing with everything she has, but the weight is not going anywhere. This is the ultimate goal.

If in doubt as to whether or not you have reached failure, lower the weight again, and try to push up slowly one more time (same pace as the first rep). If it moves, you’re not quite there. Once stopped, push for a full ten seconds into that weight. Even though it’s not moving, your triceps are still engaged.

Tip: To keep your elbows pointed up towards the ceiling, have a friend hold your elbows in place.

Time Yourself : Use a stop watch and time yourself. If you can do the exercise for anywhere between 90 seconds and two minutes, keep the weight the same and pushing for more time in the exercise. If you are able to perform the exercises for longer than two minutes before reaching muscular failure, then increase the weight by two pounds.

The Correct Weight: For women, a good place to start is anywhere between 2lbs and 12lbs for the tricep extension exercise. For men, 6-15lbs is plenty.

Both Haley and I use 6lb free weights and could probably manage 8lbs with fresh arms. However, we also both train with professional strength training instructors. If you are exercising without the benefit of a trainer or companion, always opt for a lighter weight. You will require more exercise time to reach failure, but this is preferable to struggling to get in position or maintain form with a heavier weight. The same is true even with a companion. Increasing the weight is pointless if you cannot maintain proper form and cadence.

Remember only one set to failure, so give yourself a week of rest and recovery and then try it again 5-7 days later.

“In sports, you must learn to fail successfully.” – Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence

Advanced ‘Lateral Work’ Exercises for Rider Strength

Laura Crump Anderson is an Equestrian Fitness Specialist at InForm Fitness Leesburg. She is certified as a personal trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine and specializes in working with riders of all ages and disciplines. She is EN’s fitness columnist and returns this week with the finale of her series on “lateral work” for rider strength. If you missed them, check out the Beginner Novice and Prelim editions. 

As equestrians, we respect the importance of regular exercise, combined with sufficient rest and recovery, for our horses. Regretfully, we tend to forget that we are athletes too and require the same care and attention to perform optimally.

For you, the athlete, regular strength training outside of the saddle will lead to a better connection with your horse, an improved seat, a stronger core (to help hold galloping position), prevention from injury and greater endurance. Just as we keep conditioning schedules or logs for our horses, we need to honor our own conditioning schedules too … even if just for the horse’s benefit.

Laura’s client Haley Carspecken. Photo courtesy of Laura Crump Anderson.

That said, I know few riders who have time to spend 30 minutes most days of the week in the gym. The good news is that science is proving that you don’t have to. Even fewer riders know when during the week is ideal time, for them to strength train outside of the tack.

Take a leap of faith and go against the conventional; try a “less-is-more approach” 20 minutes once or twice a week and you may be amazed with the results. Just like a green horse new to jumping, one must exercise more often than an experienced person until they become confident and proficient at it. Once a week is enough for an individual who is experienced and dedicated, training with a quality personal trainer who emphasizes ‘one-set’ to momentary muscle failure and the paramount importance of maintaining good form. On our own, without instruction, it’s simply more challenging to get the same results with a once a week program.

A perfect example is one of my clients, Haley Carspecken, who has been strength training consistently at InForm Fitness for the last three months. Haley had a big year, professionally, having been named to the USEF 2018 Eventing 18 Program. Haley also got the ride on Center Stage, a competitive Holsteiner gelding, and the pair is currently competing at Preliminary/CCI* level.

Haley Carspecken and True Grace. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

I’ve thought at length as to the best prescription for Haley’s exercise program while she winters in Ocala, FL. Her travels down south will therefore be your gain, as I create an exercise program that will work for her, even without InForm Fitness’ specialized equipment. The solution: Haley will need 20 minutes of high intensity exercise every 4-7 days, to ensure that she gets the results we desire.

My first consideration when building an exercise program will be Haley’s planned competition schedule. It is very important that the exercise program does not interfere with her ability to perform. It is imperative when scheduling your personal fitness workouts to schedule at least one full day of rest before the competition and a full day after a competition or a very intense schooling day. Remember plans can be changed, but if there is no plan you are planning to fail.

With the typical Saturday and or Sunday competition schedule in mind, the ideal day to exercise may be Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. During the weeks when you are not competing, consider adding an additional routine that focuses on core strength on Saturday or Sunday. With some of the winter season horse trials like Full Gallop and Sporting Days being held on a weekday, resort back to ensuring a full day of rest before
and after each competition. You would not dare make your horse go a whole month without a day off. So, listen to your body if you are not feeling strong.

Overtraining is very real and will be detrimental to your improvement. We tend to come out of the gate strong, with a more-is-better mentality. If you are training twice a week, consider trying the once a week routine. I know as event riders and horse owners, we tend to work hard every day, and making time for rest and recover is a challenge. That rest, however, is an essential piece of building muscle.

The Advanced Lateral Work

One reason I love this exercise it is such a great way to work and stabilize your glutes, while engaging through your core. At the same time working on balance and finding a rhythm in the movement, this exercise also applies direct resistance a rider’s chest muscles, which tend to be particularly underdeveloped in equestrians, compared to our trapezius muscles. Note, I would much rather someone do Beginner Novice lateral work with perfect form and control, than even attempt this exercise in the Advanced version. The real challenge is maintaining perfect form for the whole time.

Haley Carspecken at Mara Depuy’s Willow Bend Farm. Photo courtesy of Laura Crump Anderson.

 Start on all fours
 Lift in your core
 At the same time, lift your left hand and right leg, keeping your shoulders and hips parallel to the floor
o Be careful not to rock back in your hips — keep your hips poised over top of your planted knee

 Move at a smooth controlled pace (think Tai Chi) of 10 seconds up

Haley Carspecken at Mara Depuy’s Willow Bend Farm. Photo courtesy of Laura Crump Anderson.

 At the top of each movement
o Finish the movement through your fingertips keeping your arm straight
o Flex your toes back towards you, engaging the muscles from your glutes to your heels

Haley Carspecken at Mara Depuy’s Willow Bend Farm. Photo courtesy of Laura Crump Anderson.

 Slowly at a pace of one inch per second, bring your knee to meet your elbow (typically about 7-8 seconds in)
 Move back up to the top with the same controlled pace
o At the top squeeze and contract all the down the back of your leg, finish the exercise through your fingers like you are reaching out straight ahead

Haley Carspecken at Mara Depuy’s Willow Bend Farm. Photo courtesy of Laura Crump Anderson.

 Then lower yourself down to starting position
 Switch so you are doing the same exercise right hand and left leg
 Perform this continued movement until you can no longer maintain good form. If you struggle with form, make sure you are maintaining the perfect Prelim Lateral for at least two minutes on each side, prior to trying this exercise.

Prelim ‘Lateral Work’ Exercises for Rider Strength

Laura Crump Anderson is an Equestrian Fitness Specialist at InForm Fitness Leesburg. She is certified as a personal trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine and specializes in working with riders of all ages and disciplines. She is EN’s fitness columnist and returns this week with a new exercise for event riders.

I am in favor of No-Stirrups November, but it does not count as exercise! Photo by Lee Rouse.

It’s time to get real and tell you something that as a certified personal trainer is embarrassing to admit: I HATE TO EXERCISE.

Even in college while my friends were marching happily off to Longwood University’s state of the art facilities, I would find any excuse to get out of it … typically, my horse. Unless it was a course which absolutely, positively, no if’s-and’s-or-but’s required my presence, you would not find me in the gym. Intellectually I knew how important exercise was for my overall well-being, but I hated it!

Ever since elementary school I could be found in the barn, riding every possible moment, spending countless hours doing barn chores, and working at all things horse-related. In a strange twist of fate, I suffered from a chronic overuse injury from doing too much. Yes, it’s true: I ended up with overtraining injuries without ever doing any training!

What does that look like, you may ask?

Left: what a cervical spine should look like. Right: what my cervical spine looks like. X-rays courtesy of Advanced Corrective Chiropractic.

My back pain grew so severe by my sophomore year of high school that I quit riding for nearly a year. I only picked it up again because I had a 3-year-old homebred Connemara cross, with a lot of potential, hanging out in my parent’s field. I will forever be grateful to that wonderful horse for breathing a passion for riding back into my life. So I faced a dilemma: How do I do what I love, and remain injury-free?

The answer was simple: exercise.

Today I’m an “adult” and even now there are a myriad of things I would rather do than exercise. Ask my colleagues: I complain the entire time I exercise. If I am honest here, I humbly admit that if did not have them to hold me accountable it would be a challenge to ever work out.

None of my colleagues are strangers to exercise, conventional or otherwise. They even seem to ENJOY it. They say awful things like, “As soon as you get past the first exercise it gets easier,” or “Just do it!” That’s not me. I HATE EXERCISING. I hate the first exercise just as much as the last. The only thing which my colleagues and I agree on is this: It does feel great to be done. Yet I still intellectually know that exercise isn’t just good for me, it’s one of the most important things that I engage in.

How do I know?

I began studying exercise science because I learned firsthand how important fitness is for the equestrian. As eventers we tend to be more fit than most people, but are we fit enough for optimal performance on our horses? As eventers we have extremely demanding schedules. Between riding, caring for our horses, driving, going to work and/or school, and trying to put together something that resembles a life outside of the barn, we tend to exemplify what it means to be an overachiever.

Yet, there are still only 24 hours in the day for us … where can we possibly fit in exercise?

Contrary to conventional exercise philosophy, 20 minutes of high intensity, slow motion strength training done once or twice each week will make a profound difference in your riding. Some words of caution: rest and recovery are important. As it is with our horses, it’s critical to not undermine a sufficient period of rest.

Even when we cannot make it into a training studio like InForm Fitness, there are some simple things that we can do on our own, utilizing high intensity training principles, to develop greater strength, stamina and connection in the saddle.

The Prelim Lateral Work is the next step up from “Beginner Novice ‘Lateral Work’ Exercises for Rider Strength.” This works similar muscle groups, however, requires more focus and balance. If you struggle with this exercise, especially keeping your hips parallel to the ground, perfect this control at the Beginner Novice before attempting Prelim.

Haley Carspecken at Mara Depuy’s Willow Bend Farm.

Prelim Lateral Work

  • Start on all fours
  • Lift in your core
  • At the same time, lift your left hand and right leg, keeping your shoulders and hips parallel to the floor.
    Be careful not to rock back in your hips — keep your hips poised over top of your planted knee
  • Move at a smooth controlled pace (think Tai Chi) of 10 seconds up, and 10 seconds down

Haley Carspecken at Mara Depuy’s Willow Bend Farm.

  • At the top of each repetition
    • Finish the position strong through your fingertips keeping your arm straight
    • Perform a two-second squeeze at the top, flexing your toes back towards you, and engaging the muscles from your glutes to your heels

If failure does not occur within two minutes, consider adding weight to your ankles and hands the next time.

Remember: perfect repetition requires a smooth controlled pace, with no acceleration at the top or the bottom of the rep. Increase resistance two pounds at a time; it is much better to have too little weight and go longer, than too much weight and sacrifice form.

Want to read more from Laura? Click here.

Beginner Novice ‘Lateral Work’ Exercises for Rider Strength

Laura Crump Anderson is an Equestrian Fitness Specialist at InForm Fitness Leesburg. She is certified as a personal trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine and specializes in working with riders of all ages and disciplines. She is EN’s fitness columnist and returns this week with a new exercise for event riders.

Haley Carspecken at Mara Depuy’s Willow Bend Farm.

If someone says they are doing a high intensity exercise program, extreme or dangerous activities may come to mind. High intensity exercise is not scary, but it is an effective way to build muscle. High intensity just indicates the level of physiological demand from the exercise program, and one can do high-intensity exercise in a very safe way.

Despite what some think, there is no such thing as a long and intense workout. Our bodies can either do short and intense, or long and steady. Studies have shown that endurance athletes are at a higher risk for cardiovascular events. After 20 minutes of intense exercise the physiological adaptation risks begin to outweigh the benefits.

Some females are afraid of strength training because they do not want to bulk up. However, while there is a genetic component that determines how much an individual will or will not bulk up, few females naturally bulk up. Most people will not look at me and think, “I do not want to strength train, because Laura looks like the Hulk.” However, I strength train regularly, using a high-intensity method. I have never been injured while strength training at InForm Fitness.

Photo by Ellen Zangla.

What is the secret? To move through the resistance very slowly…

A traditional repetition of is about four seconds in total. The individual uses a lot of acceleration and momentum to move the weight through their range of motion. A perfect repetition takes between 16 and 24 seconds, the ideal being 10 seconds up and 10 seconds down. It is important to note: The pace should be identical in the positive and the negative direction. So, it is not eight seconds up and 12 seconds down. The turnarounds are the most important part of the exercise; one should be very aware of the urge to speed up.

Adam Zickerman’s “The Power of 10.”

Moving slowly has two advantages. One, by slowing down the repetition the muscles must do more work to move the weight through the full range of motion, instead of relying on momentum to move the weight. The second is a greatly reduced risk of injury, as moving the weight slowly allows you to focus on form and control. The way this works is to fatigue the muscle through inducing momentary muscle failure. If you have tried the exercises in my previous two blogs, you understand the sensation. (Blog 1) (Blog 2)

In short, momentary muscle failure, or popularly termed “failure,” is literally the point at which you work so hard that your muscle can no longer complete the exercise in good form. What is more, you will not need to do multiple sets, as one set to true failure is enough to stimulate change.

Haley Carspecken at Mara Depuy’s Willow Bend Farm.

Beginner Novice Lateral Work

  • Start on all fours
  • Slowly elevate your left hand, keeping your shoulders parallel to the ground, stretching your arm out straight
    o Move at a pace of 10 seconds up and 10 seconds down

Haley Carspecken at Mara Depuy’s Willow Bend Farm.

  • Return to all fours
  • Then lift your right leg up, as high as you go can while maintaining your hips parallel to the ground
    o Move at a smooth rate of one inch per second
    o Keep your core engaged (belly button to your spine)
    o If your left hip starts to elevate or drop, this where you stop, and smoothly lower your leg back down
    o Same rate of one inch per second
  • When you can lift your leg parallel to the ground, while keeping your hips parallel …
    o Contract in your glutes and flex your toe back toward your face engaging all down the back of your leg
    o Actively squeeze like this for a two second count
    o Lower the leg 10 seconds down

Haley Carspecken at Mara Depuy’s Willow Bend Farm.

  • Repeat alternating arms and legs until failure is achieved or you can do this exercise for two minutes
  • Next, switch and do the same thing with right hand and left leg

If failure does not occur within two minutes, the next time you will need to add weights to your hands and ankles. Start at 2 lbs. and increase in the smallest increments you can find. Remember, that good form is much more important than moving heavy weights.

Place yourself in front of a mirror or have a friend watch you to make sure you are keeping your hips and shoulder parallel to the ground. When in doubt slow down!

Try doing this exercise every 5-7 days. This is a good exercise for working your glutes, core and across your chest. In two weeks, I will be releasing the Prelim and Advanced Lateral work exercises but I want everyone to have perfected the form of the Beginner Novice first. Do this exercise before you do the plank (see “The Plank: One Exercise Every Eventer Should Do“); during a 20-minute strength training session a plank to failure is always a great way to close.

How 20 Minutes Per Week Can Improve Your Performance In the Saddle

Laura Crump Anderson is an Equestrian Fitness Specialist at InForm Fitness Leesburg. She is certified as a personal trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine and specializes in working with riders of all ages and disciplines. She is EN's fitness columnist and returns this week with a new exercise for event riders.

Photos by Tylir Penton

To be successful in eventing you must be able to navigate a dressage test with accuracy and precision, breathe and jump around a quick but demanding show jumping course, and withstand the endurance component as well as the technicality of cross country. So why is it that, unlike in many other sports, most equestrians do not cross train?

Intermediate Event rider Haley Carspecken cross trains at least once a week, she knows that her fitness is just as important as her horse.

Cross Training

What do I mean by cross training? I mean exercise outside of the saddle to improve overall performance in the tack, not just at shows, but also in training rides. Exercise is essential for the athletes performing at the top level of this sport but it is just as important for those looking to become a better rider. If you are not looking to improve, I would ask why are you still riding?

I will be the first person to admit that the best way to get better at riding is with time spent in tack. There is no substitute for sitting on a real live horse and riding as many different horses as possible. This will train your body to respond to the specific needs of each horse. It requires a lot of skill, as well as, fitness for a rider to look like they are barely doing anything at all.

However, times are changing and you will notice that more professionals are addressing their strength, flexibility and endurance outside of the tack to improve their ability to be effective when it matters while riding a horse.

Fiona Coulter riding in a clinic with Lars Petersen. Photo by Laura Crump Anderson.

Every Day is Pay Day

A few weeks back I had the privilege to audit a clinic with Olympic dressage rider Lars Petersen. He said something that stuck with me: “In riding, every day is pay day. You get paid for how you rode the day before.”

Our goal should be to put the best foot forward each day and ride to the top of our ability. Our horses are out there each day and working just as hard as we are. We need to respect our horses by treating ourselves like the athletes that we expect them to be.

The Struggle Is Real

All horse and rider pairs are learning each time they work together, with or without a coach on the ground. It is a fact that a rider struggling with their own fitness will be less successful than when they are fresh. You may feel this in your own riding when you are in the tack struggling to get your seat plugged in correctly but when you take a walk break and come back to it feels more doable and in turn the movement goes better.

DO NOT feel discouraged by this. It is amazing working through the struggle and achieving success,. This is also what makes good riders great. Plus, if it was easy, I imagine many eventers would find themselves quite bored!

Strength training is an essential piece to success in the saddle. The number one excuse I hear eventers say is that they do not have time. If that is you, watch the amazing time management lecture above from the late renowned Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch.

Everyone can find 20 minutes in their week to improve their health, increase energy, reduce pain and improve core strength. It is worth finding the time to exercise, especially when it is only 20 minutes once or twice a week.

The second most frequent response I get from eventers — and this one makes me a little crazy — is: “I know so many other riders that really need to work on their fitness, but I do not need too because … (insert excuse here).”

Any excuse is just that, whether you are a working student, a trainer, an amateur or have an amazing horse. These are all excuses. I am aware there is a lot of work that goes into maintaining a barn. However, if you are going to sit on a horse, your fitness is important and this is a fact. Exercising regularly, at least once a week, will improve your riding.

Kaitlin Spurlock of Clasing Equestrian demonstrates a wall sit. Photo by Laura Crump Anderson.

The Wall Sit

Making things overly complicated is going to greatly reduce the consistency and stickability of any exercise program. So I present to you a great exercise to safely learn the sensation of momentary muscle failure, which should be the goal each time you exercise.

  • Stand with your back against a flat wall with your feet out in front.
  • Let your back slide down the wall so your legs are at a 90-degree angle (like you are sitting in a chair).
  • Keep your back straight and your arms by your side or in your lap. Do not push on the wall to try to hold yourself up. Never sacrifice form to increase time!
  • Hold this position for as long as you can. This is when momentary muscle failure occurs.
  • When you can do longer hold your form, slide down the wall gently until you are sitting on the floor.

The Plank: One Exercise Every Eventer Should Do

Laura Crump Anderson is an Equestrian Fitness Specialist at InForm Fitness Leesburg. She is certified as a personal trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine and specializes in working with riders of all ages and disciplines. If she had to pick one exercise to help event riders, it's the plank! Read on to learn how to incorporate the plank into your exercise routine.

One exercise every eventer should do. Photo by Laura Crump.

Imagine if there was one exercise that could help improve your sitting trotting, galloping position and take you one step closer to mastering the ideal independent seat connection with your horse. The good news is this exercise does exist, and it is a timeless one that does not require any fancy equipment, magical device, or even your horse — just your own body and a lot of persistence and determination.

Not that kind of plank …

It is the plank!

The plank is excellent because you must engage your abdominals, lower back, shoulders, arms and glutes. By the end of a properly executed plank, you are begging for a well-deserved rest. The other great thing about the plank is one can easily modify the intensity by changing their body position.

While this exercise will not turn you into a whole new rider, it will improve your ability to engage your core, which is essential for everything you do on your horse.

Kaitlin Spurlock, Advanced level eventer, demonstrates the Beginner Novice plank. Photo by Laura Crump.

Beginner Novice Plank:

  • On your knees, place your hands directly under your shoulders.
  • Hold you head in a neutral position.
  • Maintain a straight line from your knee to your shoulders.
  • If you can hold this position comfortably for two minutes, go to the Preliminary plank.

Haley Carspecken, Intermediate level eventer, demonstrates Preliminary (The Classic) Plank. Photo by Laura Crump.

Preliminary (The Classic) Plank:

  • Place your elbows underneath your shoulders.
  • Squeeze your glutes to keep your back straight and strong.
  • Remember to breathe and “embrace the burn.”
  • If you feel a sharp pain in your lower back, work on improving the Beginner Novice plank for at least six weeks, then come back to this exercise.
  • When you start to shake, that is OK. Maintain this plank until you are no longer able to keep you back straight.
  • Time yourself. When you are holding this plank for over two minutes, move up to the Advanced plank.

Kaitlin Spurlock demonstrates the Advanced Plank. Photo by Laura Crump.

Advanced Plank:

  • First, master the Beginner Novice plank and Preliminary plank positions.
  • Keep your arms straight and hands under your shoulders.
  • Squeeze your glutes and keep your back straight.
  • Keep your feet planted.
  • Slowly and controlled, move your left hand to meet the right hand. Hold for three seconds.
  • Bring your left hand back to the start position.
  • Slowly and controlled, move your right to meet the left hand. Hold for three seconds.
  • Return to start position and continue switching back and forth. Make sure the motion is in control and with intent.
  • Push yourself to a point where you feel the burn.
  • When you can no longer maintain the correct position, lower yourself back down onto your stomach.

Advanced Plank Hints:

  • Try to touch the ground as softly as possible. Don’t slam your hands down.
  • Keep your back straight and try to keep your shoulders parallel with the ground.

Push To True Muscle Fatigue:

Hold every plank for as long as you can in good form. Keep a timer near you and keep a record of these times. This way you can see concrete evidence of your improvements. The goal is to hold the plank for at least two minutes. If you can do them for longer, well done. If you can only hold them for 10 seconds, that is a great starting point!

No matter which plank you are doing, it is important that you always push yourself to that absolute point when you can no longer maintain your form.

Riders can come up with a list of reasons why they do not have time to exercise. However, studies have shown that exercise outside of the saddle can improve the functional ability of an equestrian athlete significantly.

Whether you are a professional riding 12 horses each day or a weekend warrior with one horse, the plank will help improve your core strength. Riding is very physically demanding and strength is a necessary piece of the puzzle to continue in this sport safely and effectively.

How Often?

This is the part that you may need to take a leap of faith. You should only need to do the plank once or twice per week, leaving you with more time to spend in the saddle! Rest and recovery is an essential part of any exercise program, and I promise that you will start noticing a difference if you are consistent in doing the plank every four to seven days.

The easiest way to do this is pick a day once a week: “Every Wednesday We Plank.” Put it in your calendar and do it!