Cycling is a great form of exercise which not only gives you a full body workout, but also allows you to enjoy the outdoors. It also requires serious strength and endurance. While most of your pedal power comes from having strong leg muscles, the abdominal and lower back muscles are the vital foundation from which all of your movement, including the pedal stroke, originates. To pedal in a way that recruits the auxiliary riding muscles efficiently, a good rider must learn to hold his or her posture steady, something which requires core strength.
A solid core will also help to correct any unnecessary, energy-wasting upper-body movement, ensuring that all the energy is delivered into a smooth and fluid pedal stroke. An efficient pedal stroke allows you to apply force with the big power producing muscles, such as the quadriceps, without over using and risking injury.
One of the best ways to strengthen your body is to do special weight training for cyclists, especially anything that focuses on your quadriceps, hamstrings, and core. Kickboxing is actually a fantastic way to work all of the muscles you use for cycling, not only from the perspective of the kick, but also from that of building core strength and endurance.
Your Power-Producing Muscles: The Legs
According to www.ultracycling.com, the primary muscles used in cycling are the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteal muscles, and calf muscles. The quadriceps, also called quads, are the large muscles which run along the front of the thigh (femur) and whose action is straightening the leg and pushing the pedal downward. The largest muscle of the quadriceps, rectus femoris, also flexes the hip.
The hamstrings run along the back of the thigh and extend the hip (opposite of flexion). They also work to flex the knee, and along with the calf muscle, work to lift the pedal from the bottom of the pedal stroke. When you are riding, the hamstrings are extending the hips while flexing the knee and the quads extend the knee while flexing the hip.
The gluteus maximus and medius are two of the strongest muscles in our body. They are located in the buttocks and attach to the outer hip. Their action works to push the pedal forward at the top of the stroke. Working together, your leg and gluteal muscles give you power and lower body propulsion when pedaling and endurance for your more strenuous and longer rides. For a breakdown of the pedal stroke, you can read this article on Active.
Leg Training for Power on the Downstroke
Tip: Train your legs in a way that teaches you to drive your power from the hips and not the knees.
Note: Anytime you squat down, make sure your knee is over your ankle.
Single Leg Squats
Single leg squats work on individual leg strength you need for standing pedaling. In addition, working one leg at a time helps you identify strength imbalances.
Preparation: Single Leg Box Squat
- Have a chair or bench behind you.
- Keep one heel planted on the ground to reduce stress on the knee.
- Lift the opposite leg off the ground and sit back, keeping the standing leg heel grounded and the knee over the ankle, with the foot still off the ground.
- To get back up, lean slightly forward, hinging at the hips, push through the grounded heel and stand up.
- Do this several times.
As you get stronger, you can progress in the exercise by lowering the bench. Eventually, you will lower yourself to the floor.
Single Leg Squat
Remember to keep your knee over your ankle.
- Lift the opposite leg off the ground and sit back, keeping the standing leg heel grounded and the knee over the ankle.
- Raising your arms out in front of you challenges your balance and increases core strength. At the same time, raise your arms out in front of you and lower down until you are parallel to the ground.
- To get back up, lean slightly forward, hinging at the hips, push through the grounded heel and stand up and bring your arms back down.
A pistol squat adds weight to the movement, further challenging your core strength and balance.
Keeping your knee over your ankle, hold the weight perpendicular and close to your body, extending it in front of you as you lower down.
Single Leg Deadlift
Because you pedal with one leg at a time, a single leg deadlift is considered to be really effective strength training for bikers. This exercise mimics the way you would efficiently pedal a bike, i.e., recruiting hip strength instead of forcing knee strength and risking strain. The single leg deadlift is also good for strengthening your core and back muscles. If you are not used to this exercise, you might want to try this preparation set below:
Single Leg Touch the Wall Deadlift with Forward Reach
This exercise encourages a long, strong spine while increasing your hamstring, core and gluteal strength. Your goal here is to drive forward from the hip, keeping your spine straight as you extend and reach for the wall.
- Stand on one leg about 3 or 4 feet from a wall – enough to challenge you.
- Drive the standing heel into the ground.
- Lightly slide the toe of the other leg along the ground as far as you can, as you reach forward toward the wall.
- Return to standing.
Single Leg Deadlift
This is a one leg forward bend with weights. Work within your range of motion on this exercise, placing the weight on a block if necessary in order to keep a straight spine.
- Place the weight on the inside of the standing foot.
- Following the same movement as above, push the opposite foot along the ground as you bend forward, squat down, and pick up the weight. Keep your core engaged as you do this exercise.
- Stand up bringing the back leg forward again.
- Do the same movement to place the weight back down.
Both cycling and the weight training for cyclists will cause muscle soreness and fatigue. If you experience this kind of discomfort after riding or working out, using a foam roller is a really good way alleviate the pain yourself. By learning the proper techniques of foam rolling, you will be able reach those juicy sore spots that you can’t get to without one.
Core Exercises for Cyclists
Although a cyclist’s legs provide most of the pedal power, the abs and lower back are the energetic and stabilizing foundation from which all movements originate. A strong core will also help correct any unnecessary upper body movement and the subsequent waste of energy needed for a smooth pedal stroke. The exercises below use your body weight, but you can also add weights as you get stronger.
- This exercise works all of your abdominal and lower back muscles.
- Lie on a stability ball with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your feet flat and stable on the floor.
- If you place your hands behind your head, don’t pull on the back of the neck.
- Keep your chin tucked.
- Draw your naval toward your spine and lift your upper back off of the ball.
Repeat this several times. At the top of the movement, rotate your body, clockwise and counterclockwise, as you get stronger.
This exercise works your hip flexors, lower back, and gluteal muscles and stabilizes your core. You may recognize this exercise if you have ever taken a yoga class. This is a great pose to counter the effects of repetitive strain caused by your upper body position while riding.
- Lie on your back
- Bend your knees, placing you heels near your buttocks.
- Place your arms at your sides with your palms down.
- The movement:
- Squeeze your buttocks as you push your heels into the floor, lifting your lower body and mid-back off the floor. Keep the core strong. Hold for a few seconds and lower down. Repeat the movement several times.
Yoga is also a good way to allow your body to fully recover after long and strenuous rides. By doing a more strenuous style of yoga such as a Vinyasa power flow, you still keep your body moving while lusciously stretching all of the muscles you use for riding.
Hip extensions work your lower back, gluteal muscles, and hamstrings.
You can do this on the floor or use a stability ball.
- Place your hips and stomach on the stability ball and place your hands on the floor, directly under your shoulders. Extend your legs behind you and rest your toes on the floor.
- Keeping your spine straight and your shoulder blades down and back, lift your legs slightly higher than parallel. Don’t put too much strain on the low back. Hold for a few seconds and lower your legs.
Plank exercises increase core strength, something which increases your endurance on long rides. If you have ever had your back give out before your legs, then this exercise will help alleviate that problem.
You can do this exercise from the elbows or from a push-up position.
- Lie on your stomach and place your elbows directly under your shoulders and rest your forearms and hands on the floor.
- Squeeze your glutes, and engage your legs and core to lift your hips off the floor. Keep your back straight and your core engaged.
- To get the feel for your core strength, disengage the core and see what happens. Do this again with your back and then leg muscles. Re-engage all of the muscles one at a time to get the feel for muscle recruitment.
Your gluteal muscles are a group of three muscles: the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus.
- While holding weights, stand on a step with your foot firmly planted and allow the opposite leg to hang freely.
- Lower down as if you were going to squat or lunge.
Side leg raises
This exercise activates and works the gluteus medius. Learning to recruit this muscle keeps you from stressing your IT band (the muscle that runs along the outside of the leg) and reduces strain on the knee.
You can do this lying down or standing.
- Lying on your side with your legs straight, raise the top leg as high as you can, while pointing your toe downward and then lower down. Repeat this until you are fatigued.
From standing, use a body band around the ankles. Stand with your feet far enough apart to create tension.
- Do side to side leg lifts and alternating jumping jacks.
The stronger your body is and the more effectively you learn how to use your muscles, the better you are fit to take on new challenges in cycling. Learning to use your core and activate your muscles with strength training, such as the deadlift exercises, will keep you riding for a lifetime. Remember the words of Mario Capollni, “If you brake, you don’t win.”