I was an elite athlete. For years I was determined and dedicated to achieving the highest level of success in my sport — the Olympics. I recently retired from competitive rowing, but the habit of daily exercising is still ingrained in my routine. So when I, a Division 1 NCAA Champion, four-time ACC Champion, All-American, and three-time World Rowing Champion, walked into Mike Barthélemy's gym in Wellington, Florida, to mimic a top rider’s workout (specifically, Italian dreamboat Lorenzo de Luca), I thought it would be a piece of cake.
Upon entering Limitless Performance, LLC, I took stock of the surroundings ropes, weight machines, 200-pound tire, and inspirational quotes plastered on the walls. A couple off-season National Football League and Canadian Football League players hovered nearby as I introduced myself to Mike, whose client roster is a who's who of top riders: Eugenio Garza Pérez, Taylor St. Jacques, and Ellesse Jordan Tzinberg, to name a few. I had stepped into the holy grail of elite rider gyms. I admit I was a little intimidated.
'Do I have a six-pack yet?'
Before we started, Mike talked me through the workout and his philosophy behind his training. I could tell he knew his stuff, yet he had a unique perspective. I was accustomed to the typical rower's workout: low-intensity, endurance-heavy cardio paired with power-based, low-repetition, explosive lifts. Mike, however, keeps the focus on form and isolation of the muscles, and he tailors each session to his client’s specific needs and fitness goals. These aren’t your typical exercises consisting of squats, power cleans, and bench press — these workouts were all eccentric and emphasized strength through stabilization.
Part cardiovascular and part strength — let’s call it “strength endurance” — caters to horseback riders to keep them fit and balanced in the saddle. Riders are required to have a strong, stable core and sturdy stabilizer muscles in order to control the 1,200 pound animal underneath them (with subtlety and finesse, of course). Although it’s trending for top riders to hit the gym hard following a long day at the barn, riders of all ages and levels are reaping the benefits of regular, focused workouts. We treat our horses like elite athletes, but it’s equally important to treat yourself like one, too.
“Your body is like the horse's. If you want to be good enough and ride well at the top level, how do you do it with the horses? You take really good care of them, you make sure they eat well, and train well. You have to do the same for yourself,” Mike explains. “We want to teach our clients how to take care of themselves and be mindful and how to be a better version of themselves.”
Mike demonstrated each exercise before I was tasked with doing it myself. He made it look so easy, so naturally I thought I had it in the bag, but soon I was dripping with sweat.
1. 10-Minute Warmup
Warming up is key when it comes to strengthening your muscles. You don’t take your horse out of its stall and immediately gallop, so why wouldn’t you take the time to prepare your own body for exercise? My choice of warmup was between the Assault bike or the SkillMill (a curved, self-powered treadmill). I chose the SkillMill as I’ve been focusing on running lately.
2. Earthquake bar single leg squats (4x15 each leg, 30 second rest between sets)
This was the first time I’d ever encountered an Earthquake bar. As someone who’s been in multiple real earthquakes, I didn’t think it was possible to replicate the feeling in the gym. Wrong. With the bar on your shoulders and a weight dangling from a resistance band on each end, this exercise promoted core strength, balance, and engaged glutes. With one leg perched on a bench behind me, it wasn’t possible to rush through the set or else I risked losing my balance. Patience, young grasshopper.
3. Banded adductor lateral squat side steps (4x15 each direction, 30 second rest between sets)
If you’re holding the squat position for an extended period of time, you can feel the heat, right? Try adding a resistance band around your legs, slightly above the knees, and take small steps to the left, then repeat moving right. This seemingly simple exercise was a major booty burner! Try to channel your inner Lindsey Vonn on this one and embrace the pain cave.
4. Split lunge pulse jump (4x15 each leg, 30 second rest between sets)
By this point of the workout, I could tell where my strengths and weaknesses were. Isolating each movement and focusing on one leg at a time, it was obvious my left side is way weaker than the right (this explains a lot of crookedness in the saddle). For this exercise, the small pulse into an explosive jump emphasized my balance and core, as well as strengthening my glutes and quads. Five reps into each set, I was ready to take a break, but alas, mind over matter. Keep going, you’ve got this!
5. Split lunge medicine ball slams (4x15 each leg, 30 second rest between sets)
This was my favorite exercise by far. From a static lunge position, I picked up a 12-pound medicine ball and slammed it from over my head to the ground. This exercise is the perfect outlet to relieve frustrations at the world while building core muscles and balance (we call that multi-tasking).
6. Leg raises with resistance bands
Mike wanted to torture me at this point, but the show had to go on. As a rider, it’s imperative to focus on core muscles as they do a lot work in the saddle. Imagine you’re riding a noodly young horse while doing this exercise. Place a band around your ankles and “try” to do leg raises while your partner pulls the band in random directions. The key is to resist the pull of the band and stay aligned in the middle. Do I have a six-pack yet?
7. 20-minute cooldown
Whew! That was one tough workout! But as much as I wanted to escape from the gym immediately (and collapse onto the couch with a bag of chips), I finished up with an easy cool-down while my heart and breathing rates returned to normal. Again, I was faced with the option between the SkillMill and Assault bike. The SkillMill seemed like the smart choice. Besides catching my breath, cooling down also gave me the opportunity to steal some more cardiovascular fitness. A major plus (and one more excuse to get at those chips).
All in all, I came out of this workout with a new perspective on training. It reaffirmed the notion that every sport requires a different type of training and conditioning program for optimal performance. But a dedicated exercise routine doesn’t apply only to the elite athletes. Whether you’re a junior or amateur, beginner or professional, rider fitness is just as important as having a fit horse. So get out there and hit the gym! You’ll notice a difference in the saddle (and the endorphins are pretty fun, too). Trust me!
Read this next: Tips for the Rider Who Hates to Go to the Gym
Photos by Leslie Threlkeld.
Written by Alice Collins
Alice Collins is a freelance equestrian media consultant and journalist, specialising in dressage and sport horse breeding. She has reported from top shows all around the world, from the Rio Olympics to World Cup finals and European Championships. She is a rider and active competitor at Prix St Georges level and splits her time between London and Florida. Fun facts: she is also a qualified equine artificial insemination technician and an HGV driver.