The secret to a stronger performance on the bike? It has nothing to do with your time in the saddle
If you're hooked on cycling—indoor or outdoor—you've found a powerful, heart-pumping base for a lifetime of activity. But you can’t stay fit on spin alone. "You can't get everything from one thing. The body doesn't like to be unbalanced," says Charles Poliquin, owner of Poliquin Performance in Arizona and strength coach to multiple Olympians, including cyclists. "If you only overload certain areas of the body, the brain will say, 'you're going to be asymmetrical, so I'm going to shut down your rate of progress.'"
When upper-body strength training is incorporated, Poliquin says, his cyclists see progress not just up top, but in their legs too. And your time on the bike needs more than just quad strength—your core, low back, triceps, and even your neck take a lot of strain from long bouts of pedaling.
With just a few simple strength sessions a week, you’ll pedal harder and longer, reduce pain and tightness that builds up on the bike, and create a more balanced body out of the saddle. Here's what to do:
Get to the Core of the Matter
If you've ever left spin class or a long ride with a sore back, a weak core is to blame, says Shawn Arent, Ph.D., director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Rutgers University. "People don't keep their core activated, so they let it sag," he says. "The low back starts to carry the bulk of the work."
In fact, a strong core can be the most important factor in having a strong, long ride, says Dan Ownes, owner of Hyper Fit Training in Wall, New Jersey, and cycling coach for the Full Throttle Endurance triathlon team in New York. "You'd rather have your legs and lungs give out than your core," he says. "When you're driving down in the pedal stroke, your core has to support your body."
To simulate the extended core stability needed for a long ride, Ownes has his clients perform long sets of exercises like the side plank and reach—holding for up to three minutes.
To do it, lie on your left side with your feet stacked, your left elbow directly beneath your left shoulder. Prop yourself up on this elbow and stiffen your body so it forms a straight line from head to heels. Hold this position as you extend your right arm straight toward the ceiling. Maintaining a rigid body, bring your right hand down and thread it under the space beneath your left armpit. As you do this, your hips will rotate until your lower core faces the ground. Bring your right arm back to the top, and repeat, trying to continue for as long as you can—up to three minutes. Switch sides, and repeat for the same amount of time.
"Not everyone will be able to do it for that long at first, but it's the endurance factor of the plank that's important," he says. "Your core is engaged the whole time."
Ownes' other favorite core move for cyclists is called "stir the pot." To do it, grab a stability ball and prop yourself up in plank position—elbows on the ball, feet on the floor, and body forming a straight line from head to heels. Maintain this body line as you move your elbows beneath your shoulders to rotate the ball in a small clockwise circle beneath your chest—your hands will look as if they're stirring a pot. Give it all you've got, take a rest, and then do the same number of circles in a counterclockwise rotation.
Hit Your Hamstrings and Stretch Your Hips
Pro cyclists and advanced racers don't just push the pedals, they pull them back up too. But without a pedal stroke coach, you're likely to train your quads at the expense of your hamstrings, Arent says.
To give yourself even strength in the fronts and backs of your legs—and the strength to pull the pedal up for faster times and better endurance—try the stability ball leg curl, Arent suggests.
To do it, lie flat on your back with a stability ball under the back of your ankles, palms facing up. Squeeze your glutes to raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from shoulders to heels. Use your hamstrings to pull your heels in and roll the ball towards your butt. Roll it back out to full extension, drop your hips to the floor, and repeat.
"Work in a higher rep range,” Arent says. "On the bike, much of what you're relying on is muscular endurance," and longer sets of this exercise will help build it in your hamstrings. The extension of your hips at the beginning of the move also provides a stretch to the front of your hips—a portion of your body that gets tight from hunching over the handlebars. To give it another stretch, add in a rear-foot elevated split squat, Ownes says.
To do it, place a six-inch or taller step, chair, or bench a few feet behind you. Reach your left leg back and place the top of your left foot on top of the step. Your right leg should still be under your torso so that, except for your left leg, you're standing straight. Keep your hips square and chest up as you push your hips back and bend your knees to descend until your front knee forms a 90-degree angle. Keep your front knee tracking directly over your ankle, not thrusting forward beyond your toes. The bottom of this exercise will look similar to a lunge, but the elevation in back will provide an extra stretch for the front of your hip. Press back to the top. Do all your reps on this side, then switch sides and repeat.
Don't Forget Your Arms
While cycling is mostly lower-body work, your triceps, the fronts of your shoulders, and even your chest can fatigue from holding the handlebars for an extended period. "It's the top-of-a-pushup position," Arent says. "You need upper-arm endurance. That's going to help you maintain that upper-body stability when you're on the bike."
To build that endurance, Arent suggests longer sets of exercises like close-grip bench presses with a bar or dumbbells (pictured below) to target the chest and triceps simultaneously and dumbbell shoulder presses and lateral raises for the fronts of the shoulders.
The backs of the shoulders are also important. To hold your body weight up while standing in the saddle, you'll need to strengthen your rhomboids—the muscles between your shoulder blades, Poliquin says. To do so, he suggests horizontal pulling exercises like a cable or dumbbell row.
Don't Love to Lift? Create Your Own Off-Season
If you love the bike specifically because it's not the gym, all this advice may taste a little sour. But you don't have to devote your entire year to strength training to get these benefits, Poliquin says. In fact, the best cyclists don't either. "I only get 11 or 12 weeks of strength training a year when I'm working with Olympic medalists," he says.
Dedicating just part of the year to training in this way can provide lasting results. "If you do it properly, you can maintain 90 percent of that strength over the course of the year with just one strength session per week."
So do like the Olympians do: Create a 12-week off-season. Pick a few months where you'd be unlikely to bike as often anyway—the cold winter months in the northeast or the hottest summer months in the south and west—and dedicate yourself to getting stronger without pedaling.
"Train your lower body twice per week, and your upper body twice per week for three months," Poliquin says. "Once you're back on the bike, you'll be amazed. When you strengthen the upper body, it actually allows you to use higher loads on the lower body." And you can maintain it with one strength session per week the rest of the year.
When building your weekly session, Poliquin recommends using a few exercises from four categories:
1. A pulling move, like dumbbell or cable rows.
2. A press, like traditional pushups or the aforementioned close-grip bench press
3. A squat or step-up. The previously mentioned rear-foot elevated split squat is a great option.
4. A leg curl of some kind. The stability ball hip extension and leg curl described by Ownes is a perfect fit.
You will lose some strength over the year with a program like this, Poliquin says, but not much. "In 12 weeks, you can go from 60 pounds to 95 pounds on your squat," he says. You'll feel the difference in the saddle and maintain most of that strength with your once-weekly session. "Over the year, it will only go down to around 88 pounds. You can then do the cycle again—improve a little more for 12 weeks, and maintain the rest of the year."