The best exercise for cyclists during the off season
by Kierstin Kloeckner
As a personal trainer, I am frequently asked what are the best exercises cyclists should do. Although I don’t believe in “silver bullets,” I do believe there are a few exercises everyone should be doing year round, but especially during the off season.
In previous columns I’ve outlined basic exercises to help keep you injury free and also strengthen your core. Now I’m going to focus on one specific area: the butt/glutes. It’s important to understand why working these muscles is so important, what role they play in cycling (and so many other daily activities) and how to best manage your time while working them.
First, let’s chat about the gluteal muscles. Some of you might be surprised these are three very separate muscles: the gluteus maximus, minimus and medius. The gluteus maximus is one of the largest muscles in the body and its main functions are external rotation and extension of the hip joint as well as supporting the trunk over the pelvis when balanced on one leg.
The main role of the gluteus medius is abduction of the hip (preventing the hip from rolling inward), and lateral rotation of the thigh (which helps prevent the knee from rolling inward).
The gluteus minimus works hand in hand with the glute medius to prevent the hip from rotating inward and also helps with medial rotation of the thigh.
Without getting too technical, I’ll briefly layout why it’s so important to strengthen all of these muscles and the best ways to do it.
Strengthen the climbing muscles
I want you to imagine yourself climbing a long, steep hill on your bike. Think of the position in which you are most comfortable doing so. Also think about where you feel your body is doing the majority of the work.
Does it hurt your knees or lower back when you climb? If that’s ever the case, hopefully you scoot back on your saddle, relax your upper body, allow your heels to drop on the downstroke slightly, and power your way up by using your glutes.
When I teach people how to power up a short hill, I often allow them to get out of their saddle or scoot closer to the nose of the saddle while staying seated. This allows the quadriceps (thighs) to do most of the work and, again, works nicely on short hills. But if this technique is used on long climbs, the quads will tire and the knees will often become strained.
So if you scoot back and allow the glutes to do their job, you’ll have a lot more power over a longer period of time. This also allows the shoulders and arms to rest as well as the lower back. Glutes are made for climbing.
Think about where you feel sore the day after climbing a lot of stairs or a long. hilly hike or run. Essentially, if you aren’t using or activating your glutes, you are using the wrong muscles for the job of climbing. If smaller muscles have to step in to do the job, injury will likely follow.
Get both sides firing
O.K., so now you know why it’s so important to have strong glutes while riding, lets get into how to get them strong. Before anything else, you need to test your ability to “fire” them. Clients of mine often think they are using their glutes when they’re primarily firing their hamstrings and lower back muscles.
I suggest lying on your back with your legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Find a spine neutral position and relax your upper body. Try squeezing one glute at a time without tilting the pelvis, changing your spine or activating the hamstrings first.
One side will most certainly fire more easily. The weak side may not fire at all. This is something physical therapists often call “glute lag” or “glute laziness.” Having one side that fires and one side that doesn’t is bad news. It means you a) rely on one side to do most of the work and b) may have a tilted pelvis, twisted spine or pinched nerves, not to mention weakness up and down one side of the body.
So before you begin any major glute strength work, it’s important to get both glutes firing close to an equal amount (within 75 to 80 percent of each other).
Time for squats
Once both sides are firing comes the all important squat. Forget all the stuff you see in magazines about doing single-leg squats on BOSU balls. (At least forget it until you can properly do double-leg and single-leg squats.) Unless you have an active knee injury or not enough flexibility to keep your spine neutral while squatting, it’s important to be able to drop lower than a right angle since the gluteus maximus doesn’t fire until that point.
Think of how little kids pick things up. They never bend at the waist or spine. They always bring their feet wide and sink low from the tailbone. Kids can really teach us something here. They are almost always balanced and strong in their glutes because they use them properly. Once we start bending forward at the waist or climbing stairs on the balls of our feet instead of pushing through our heels, our glutes become lazy.
So once you master the double-leg squat without allowing your knees to bow in or out, try doing a single-leg squat. If your form breaks down, go back to a double-leg squat. Your goal is three sets of 15 reps on several nonconsecutive days per week.
Once you’ve got the single-leg squat down, then you can start working with non-stable platforms such at balance pads and BOSUs. But if at any point your form breaks down and you can’t correct it, take a step back. If you continue to do your squats improperly, you wind up training the wrong muscles and put yourself in a worse situation.
Of course there are a thousand other ways to work the glutes through lunges, side walking with a band around the legs, back bridges on physio balls etc. I encourage you to explore these exercises, too. But remember the motion you do most throughout the day, and that is to squat (getting in and out of desk chairs, on and off the toilet and picking things up).
If you can get the basics down, you will find that your power and endurance pedaling up hills goes way up and the prevalence of lower back pain goes way down. I consider winter the perfect time to master strengthen glutes, and I hope you do, too.
Kierstin Kloeckner used to race bikes and now commutes by bike to work as a personal trainer and yoga/pilates instructor in Madison, Wisconsin. She blogs at twowheelsfromhome.blogspot.com.