Strength Training for Riders: Why Go Slow?

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. Read more of her EN fitness columns here

When we think of strength training, most of us think of explosive movements of Olympic-type lifting. As the name indicates, explosive movements of any kind carry an inherent risk of injury. I would hypothesize that the best way for equestrians to train is by slowing things down. Way down. You are an athlete engaging in an incredibly dangerous activity every time you step into the barn or swing a leg over a horse. It should not be your exercise program that injures you and sidelines you from competition. In this blog post I hope to convey the advantages inherent in strength training … slowly.

Beginner Novice Push-Up: Haley Carspecken demonstrates a Beginner Novice Push-Up at Mara Depuy’s Willow Bend Farm. Photo by Laura Crump Anderson.

Increased Intensity — I am starting here because in a sport where an athlete is required to display his/her blood type on their arm, the safety aspect is not going to be the biggest attractor. MOVING SLOWLY IS MORE PHYSICALLY DEMANDING AND CHALLENGING THAN RELYING ON MOMENTUM TO MOVE THE WEIGHT.

Olympic lifting, such as the snatch and the clean and jerk, is a skill which requires years to learn and perfect. Conventional weight lifting relies on a quantitative value: you do three sets of 10 or 12. But how much work have you performed?  When you seek a qualitative goal in strength training — like working to muscle fatigue — you can truly measure the work performed and significantly increase the demand on your musculature and the physiological change to your body.

Efficiency – This slow-motion protocol of strength training — when done correctly — only requires 20 minutes once or twice a week! Let’s be honest: professional riders rarely have enough time to cook dinner at the end of the day. I am not going to say that this is an easy 20 minutes, but all rider should prioritize 20 minutes once a week to dedicate it to their own health and fitness. For less time than it takes to watch your favorite sitcom on Netflix you could be making a difference in both your riding, and your horse’s performance.

Prelim Push-Up: Kaitlin Clasing of Clasing Equestrian demonstrates a Prelim Push-Up at Hermitage Farm. Photo by Laura Crump Anderson.

Efficacy – The reason I believe so strongly in this protocol of exercise is because, put simply, it works. High intensity, slow motion strength training is an incredibly effective way to build muscle. Within six weeks of training with this protocol I noticed a dramatic reduction in chronic back pain, improvements in my sitting trot, and stamina.  However, don’t take my word for it. Listen to what CIC2* rider Haley Carspecken has to say:

“My goal was to strengthen my core to help me produce a better riding position while in the saddle. My workouts are an intense 20 minutes once a week and my body feels like a noodle every time … I have not only felt stronger in my core but my entire body feels much more secure in the saddle while riding horses. I believe the program works for any type of person looking to become stronger, especially equestrians who have a very busy schedule.”

When done correctly all we truly need is 20 minutes, seeking muscle failure, to have a significant impact on our health, our riding, and our horses.

Safety — It should not be our exercise program which injures us. I know many riders who have done more damage to their bodies by repeatedly pounding the pavement while running, all in the interest of being more fit for their horse. There are many options which offer a commendable level of intensity. To be sure, the slow-motion protocol is not the only thing which works. But let’s be clear: because the force involved in any movement is reduced, there’s a significant drop in our exposure to injury.

Try the difference for yourself!