The importance of muscle in your overall health cannot be overstated. There is a direct correlation between muscular strength and improved athletic performance. And that is why making your body stronger is the central focus of my rider fitness program. The aerobic and sport-specific training that you are already doing in the saddle is your foundation—the baseline of both good rider fitness and development of your riding skills. But strength training is like an amplifier for your fitness: it turns everything up. Building muscle not only supports cardiovascular function, which helps you meet the demands of our very physical sport, it also reduces pain and improves your reflexes, coordination, ability to communicate with your horse, resistance to injury, and resilience when injury does occur.
Although riding horses naturally builds muscle, it also creates asymmetries, or strengths in some parts of the body and weaknesses in others. I have developed exercise routines through years of experience working with riders to help balance out these common asymmetries and take your rider fitness to the next level, whatever that looks like for you. Like many people I know, you’re probably cringing at the idea of dragging yourself to the gym to spend your precious time lifting heavy weights. But I believe that you can do a lot to build strength with body-weight exercises—using your own body weight for resistance—that you can do from the comfort of your own home or at the barn. If you think the lack of equipment means the routines won’t be challenging, think again: Body-weight exercises produce results as impressive as those you’d see from lifting weights in a gym. And research shows you only need to do strength training two times a week to reap all the benefits it offers. You have time for that!
Strength building might not be the most fun and exciting form of exercise. In fact, you will need to push yourself to the point where your muscles are fatigued deeply enough to make them stronger. This requires discipline and a willingness to keep going when you’re bored, unmotivated, sore, or tired. But the health benefits of adding muscle mass are unparalleled. And while improvements to your performance in the saddle won’t be instantaneous, within a couple of months in this program you will really feel a difference.
How Long, How Hard?
When it comes to building muscle, the intensity of your workout is actually far more important than the duration. It’s the interplay between intensity and frequency— consistently pushing your muscles to the limits of their strength so they adapt and grow through high-intensity work—that will lead to results. The goal of high-intensity strength training is to get your heart rate up quickly and keep it up throughout the workout. You should be working to a point where you experience difficulty breathing because the work you are doing is so challenging.
A common way to identify the intensity of exercise is the rate of perceived exertion (or RPE). RPE is a universal language that is used by many fitness experts and amateurs alike. The RPE scale starts at 1, which is “no effort”—think of a leisurely walk or playing with your dog outside. Activities like riding fall in the middle where your breathing is elevated but you can still speak a full sentence. The scale ends at 10, which is all-out, maximum effort, like a sprint. Your strength training sessions should be conducted somewhere between an RPE 7 and an RPE 9, while hopefully spending more time closer to RPE 9.
As you progress in your workouts, you will get stronger and, therefore, the exercises that you are doing will get easier. When this happens, you need to up the intensity by increasing the amount of load you are applying to the muscles. This can be done in one of two ways: by increasing the amount of weight you are using or increasing the number of repetitions you are doing. The beauty of the routines I recommend is that you can continue to increase the intensity of the same exercises almost indefinitely by doing more repetitions!
So, how long should your workout be? You can exercise for an hour on an elliptical machine and not get the benefits you need to be a better rider. Strength training for 20 minutes at a high intensity is a much more effective workout and will lead to a much stronger, more balanced body and a dramatic boost to performance on horseback.
I think you’ll like what I have to say next: You only need 30 minutes to get in a productive strength-building workout. In the amount of time it takes to watch a show on Netflix you could be making a huge difference in your fitness—a difference you and your horse will notice. And I know you want to be the best rider you can be for your horse—let that be your motivation.
When time is of the essence, strength training gives you the best return on your investment. And all you need is 30 minutes, twice a week. No gyms or equipment required, so no excuses. If you do nothing else after this, I hope you will add a strength-training session to your schedule. In addition to the many benefits we’ve discussed, building muscle is also an important weapon in the battle against aging. As we age, we naturally lose muscle, which leads to all kinds of problems. Through strength training, we can actually halt the atrophy process and build new muscle on the body.
Now…Try These Exercises to See What I Mean
Front Plank with Lauren Sprieser
- Sit on your butt with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your arms behind you with your hands on the floor and your fingers pointing toward your body (Photo 1).
- Press up through your palms and raise your hips and butt off the ground, resting on your heels. Maintain a straight line with your body from your shoulders to your feet (Photo 2).
- Hold for as long as you can, building up to 90 seconds.
- For an extra challenge, raise one leg off the ground and hold for 30 seconds, then switch legs.
Pec Press with Kaitlin Clasing
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms in field-goal-post position (Photo 1).
- Keeping your elbows at shoulder height, bring your arms forward until your elbows and hands meet in the middle (Photo 2).
- Return to goal-post position, and repeat for two minutes.
One final note: I’m not saying you shouldn’t work with weights. If you have the time, the skills, and the equipment, go for it. But there’s a lot you can do with your own body weight in your own home or barn to maximize results and minimize the chance of injury and the time required.
This excerpt from Ultimate Exercise Routines for Riders by Laura Crump Anderson is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com).