What exercise will make a cyclist stronger?
When answering this question it is important to recognize what kind of cyclist you are/you are dealing with as well as what the lifestyle is of this person?
Who is the cyclist?
Each person lives a different life and we all have different postures, strengths, weaknesses, needs, desires, physical insecurities, likes, dislikes, ages, injuries, etc. This is before we have even considered the mind and just how complex this is and linking it to the physical body.
And then, we have the.... cyclist!
Questions to consider:
Who is the cyclist and what kind of riding are they specifically doing?
Is it road riding, tri sprint series riding, or mountain biking riding?
Is the training weekend warrior training or everyday training?
Is it a mountain biking adventure racer who tows, pulls, and pushes teammates with a backpack?
Is it mountain technical bike riding for multi-race events?
Is it a pro-rider or elite rider wanting to podium?
This will give you insight into the kind of position and the intensity that the rider is cycling.
Let's keep rolling. When cycling the whole body is working to keep you stable on the bike all while you are propelling forward. This means that the whole body needs to be strong and flexible in order to have a comfortable ride and to perform optimally.
When we choose exercises to benefit cycling the aim is to work on what the cyclist needs on the bike while still considering who this person is and what their needs are. Addressing the “whole” mind and body is equally important. Everyone’s physical and mental needs are different, just as understanding where a cyclist is in their training program. For the sake of looking specifically at a “typical” cyclist, let us take a look at what is needed: aerobic endurance, muscle efficiency, balance, and core strength. In other words, the cyclist is moving through an unstable environment which requires trunk stabilization to maximize efficient power from the limbs as the cyclist gives force to move through space. A strong core will allow the cyclist to keep form and efficiency as the cyclist begins to fatigue over the endurance of their ride. The core is the stabilizing platform from which all your power is generated. Without core strength, the structure will be forced to compensate and overuse injuries have the potential to develop.
What will BASI (Body Arts and Science International) Pilates give a cyclist? Pilates will develop a strong and sound platform so that efficient movement and pedal stroke can continue even through cycling fatigue. A good training program identifies the muscles and structure which require endurance and strengthening and the way in which they need to stabilize and or move while cycling. Cyclists put their bodies under huge stress with highly repetitive movements mostly in the sagittal plane (dominantly in the forward flexion position). A training program also has to consider functional, postural health for a cyclist's body for ‘normal’ daily living. This all needs to be considered while gradually progressing through appropriate exercises.
This mind-body conditioning will strengthen the spine and improve spinal mobility, relieve muscle tightness, and joint stiffness, improve glute strength (especially imperative for quad-dominant cyclists), develop strength in the deep intrinsic muscles of the core and spine, increase the stability of the core and alignment, strengthen the shoulder girdle (particularly important for endurance events), correct muscular imbalances, give faster recovery from strains and injury, and very importantly increase self-awareness of which muscles in the cyclist’s body are overworking or may not be firing efficiently.
The muscle focus for a cyclist From a strength perspective, cycling requires force repeatability. The cyclist must be able to generate a consistent amount of force over and over again. Although debatable, cycling can also be viewed largely as a single-leg sport because each leg produces force independently. A cyclist will only get strong in the ranges of motion that they train. That means that considering the full range of motion that happens through your knees, hips, and ankles during the pedal stroke is important. Exercises will be most beneficial in mimicking those same joint angles. This needs to be done all while considering the amount of stabilization, and balance that it takes to support the body through the leg movement.
The muscle focus for a cyclist
Quadriceps in the upper leg
The gastrocnemius and soleus in the calf
Tibialis anterior and posterior
Abdominal and lateral flexor stabilization
These muscles need to both be strengthened as well as well stretched.
Putting together a program
The following program is a framework of BASI Pilates mat exercises and some strength training gym exercises that will help cyclists become stronger and more mobile both on the bike and off the bike. It will, however, be important to remember that each individual's lifestyle and needs are different, just as their postural needs are. The goal in the Pilates class is to address the whole - mind, body, and spirit of the cyclist.
The program is structured by working through the BASI Pilates Block System: Warm Up, Foot Work, Abdominal Work, Hip Work, Spinal Articulation, Stretches, Full Body Integration 1, Arm work, Full Body Integration 2, Leg work, Lateral Flexion and Rotation, and Upper Back Extension. Many of these exercises fit into more than one block and you can pick and choose an exercise from each block. Make sure you have included isometric (held static position) and isotonic (moving through the exercise) movement. This will make the rider stronger and more functional in the more stable isometric core and isotonically moving legs.
Something to consider is that specific gym strength training has periodization. The structure of this periodization can be included in the Pilates workout with good form and alignment but should never be the entire Pilates focus. Corrective, functional movement, and stabilizing are valued over mobility in each Pilates session. Having an understanding of how to include this within a program can benefit a cyclist.
The periodization phases include:
The preparatory phase
Each of these will very briefly be explained for your benefit.
Preparatory Phase (1-8/10 weeks): All strength training programs should begin with a preparatory phase for these neuromuscular adaptations to take place. The preparatory phase helps the body to adapt to weight training as it learns how to synchronize muscle fibers and how to recruit more muscle fibers.
Hypertrophy Phase (+ 4 weeks): The hypertrophy phase targets muscle growth or an increase in muscle size. Muscular hypertrophy will help to increase the cross-sectional area of muscle fibers. Increases in muscle size may not always be the first thing that cyclists think of when wanting to improve but increased muscle size can translate to increased force production.
Strength Phase (+ 4 weeks): The strength phase targets increasing the maximal force that your muscles or muscle groups can produce. The strength phase will require fewer repetitions at higher intensities.
Power Phase (+ 2-4 weeks): The power phase is thought to be an explosive phase because power involves the rate at which the movement is produced. The power phase requires good form and focus. Speed remains the most important element of the power phase. This phase can be especially important for sprinters or mountain bikers who need the ability to produce short bursts over difficult terrain. The power exercises can be integrated into the workouts of other phases.
Endurance Phase (+ 4 weeks): The endurance phase works on a muscle’s ability to repeatedly produce force.
Maintenance Phase: As on-the-bike workouts become more demanding and racing re-enters the cyclist's program, maintenance workouts become more important. Every time you are fatigued, it can limit the cyclist's ability to perform on the bike. It’s important to find a happy medium. The maintenance phase is exactly what it sounds like; you are working to maintain what you have already built. That means you should not add anything new during this phase. There will be a decrease in strength sets and repetitions as extra time and energy are better invested by putting the power into the pedals.
To perform all of the below exercises you will need:
Mat, wall, big ball, wobble cushion, jumping box, foam roller, hand weights, kettlebell, ankle weights, purple disks, ankle theraband, yoga block, pillow, box.
Warm-up: The main goal is to challenge balance and proprioception
Roll down on one leg
Roll down on one foot’s toes and the other foot is just balancing on toes
Jumping in different directions
Standing on squishy and going down with one leg at a time
Standing on one leg and catching a ball (add challenge and stand on a squishy).
Footwork: The main goal is to challenge mobility, strength, and good alignment through the ankle and lower leg.
Rising up and down on toes (parallel, baby V, wide V)
Solus strength - In lunge position with the front foot on squishy and lift and lower toe to work the soleus
Theraband around foot and point and flex and inversion and eversion (Jodee price rehab exercises).
Abdominal work: The main goal is to give the rider a stronger core (isometric and isotonic exercises).
Holding onto a big ball in cycling rounded back position (assimilating road/tri bike position) and moving legs in and then extending leg up
Over roller to get a beautiful extension to release the upper back and work abdominals.
Hip work: The main aim is to release tightness/tension in the hips and specifically the inner thighs which sit in flexion and work incredibly hard to move the body forward.
Reformer series over the foam roller or over a big ball
Leg circles standing
Spinal Articulation: The main aim is to release the lumbar spine and upper back that typically sit in a rounded spinal position.
Pelvic curl (beginner)
Stretches: The cyclist is typically strong but tight. Depending on where the cyclist is in their training block you are going to spend a bit more time here making sure the cyclist has a range of movement.
Shin/foot stretch - Dorsiflexion stretch sitting on feet and lifting the knees off the ground, then sit on feet (plantar flexion) and lift up knees
Calves (both gastroc/soleus) by putting hands on the wall and one leg back (extend this leg bend the knee and move from side to side).
Quad stretch - standing and holding one foot
Upper back/rhomboids/neck - “Thread a needle”, arms parallel up against a wall and reach the arm up and over, back up against ball and reach the arms up to the ceiling and then back down
Neck strengthening and stretching up against the wall
Lateral flexor stretch - standing perpendicular to the wall and arm furthest from the wall lifts and reaches for the wall.
Full Body Integration 1 (FBI1): The idea is to work the whole body, usually with a shorter lever compared to FBI 2.
Cat stretch - to stretch lower back and work upper back.
Then in cat stretch position - round upper back and work serratus and lats.
Then add a wobble cushion or knees off the floor.
Arm work: The aim is to stabilize the upper body or use the arms to be functional to steer the handlebars. For example, a triathlete will be using their shoulders more to stabilize, while a mountain biker on technical terrain will be using their arms to stay on and steer the bike.
Kettlebell swings - explosive - improve endurance and pedal stroke.
Plank and hold position.
Full Body Integration 2 (FBI2): As the cyclist gets stronger the aim is to challenge stability and strength to improve the endurance on the bike.
Front support - builds strength and muscular endurance
Burpees - a great way to get HR up
Burpee - one leg and jumping out and back in and curling up on the same leg
Over big ball/bosu hip flexor strength with theraband around the feet.
Leg work: While nothing beats time in the saddle to make a cyclist faster; it is also this reason that a cyclist is most probably already suffering from tightness in the legs. It is important to stretch the legs well to avoid injury and equally, we want to make the legs stronger. Knowing where the cyclist is in their training is especially important for this block.
Quad work - Double leg jump on the box, Leg on the ball, and explosive jumps
Hips, quads, and hamstring work - Lunges (can add a challenge with stability)
Explosive power and building bone density - Jump squat
Glutes and hamstring work - Pelvic curl, Shoulder bridge prep, and shoulder bridge (can add elevating the leg onto a box or a wobble cushion to add another element of the challenge).
Hips and hamstrings - Single leg deadlifts (works legs independently checking in on imbalances) - Dumbbell Deadlift
Hamstring work - Standing on a box with an ankle weight - pulling leg back and laterally taking the leg out to the side.
Three-step squat - right leg back, middle, left leg back.
Glut med - Purple discs for curtsy, Sumo walk, Gluteal side-lying series, Gluteal series on hands and knees with a band around ankles/ankle weights.
Quads - Stepping up and down onto a box/stair with weights in the hands to add load.
Laterally stepping up on the box with the leg closest to the box and then the other leg laterally lifts and lowers back down. Have weights in your hands.
Lateral lunge with overhead press
Calf work - Calf raises, progressing to single leg calf raises.
Lateral flexion/rotation: Stretching the lateral flexors and strengthening for stability.
Adapted side plank. (over a box with a cushion between arm and box, yoga block between knees to keep you in neutral). https://cyclingtips.com/2020/04/7-strength-exercises-you-can-do-at-home-to-improve-your-cycling/
Side plank (bent knees and adding long legs).
Back extension: Strengthening the upper back that sits in a rounded position.
Back extension - over a ball
The benefits of Pilates
Smoother pedal stroke
Increased upper body strength
Prevention of lower back pain
More efficient recovery of the leg muscles
Better riding endurance through focused breathing
Pilates targets the core muscles while still addressing the whole body and the client’s needs. By giving the cyclist a more stable ride on the bike, the limbs can move independently. This gives cyclists an increase in power output as well as a more stable, efficient, and ultimately faster ride.
Cited websites/courses and people’s intellect credited:
Study Guide Mat Work Course Body Arts and Science International
Pilates by Rael Isacowitz
Return to Life by Joseph Hubertus Pilates and William John Miller
7 Strength exercises you can do from home to improve your cycling by Paul Argent https://cyclingtips.com/2020/04/7-strength-exercises-you-can-do-at-home-to-improve-your-cycling/
Pilates for Triathletes by Ashley Ritchie
Strength training for Cyclists by Selene Yeager
Velo News by Hannah Finchamp