Do you cycle with your quads or your glutes? Both, probably. But while a lot of cyclists generate power through their quads, those at the front of the field activate their gluteals. In this article, Matt Fitzgerald looks at how to strengthen your glutes to develop your power.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
Eric Cressey, CSCS, a strength coach based in Boston, Mass. works with a number of endurance athletes and is familiar with research showing that the right types of resistance training enhance cycling performance. One of the key differences between the best cyclists and less proficient cyclists is that the best cyclists activate their gluteal muscles more during pedaling, while less proficient cyclists rely more on their quads. But simply willing your butt to work harder won’t help you ride any better. You have to increase the capacity of your glutes to contribute to your pedal stroke with resistance exercises that specifically challenge these muscles.
In an initial evaluation, Cressey determined that Griesbauer’s glutes were not strong enough to contribute optimally to her cycling performance. Therefore, strengthening her glutes—and hamstrings, which work cooperatively with the glutes—became a high priority of the twice-weekly resistance workouts Cressey led her through beginning last January.
You can make similar gains in your cycling performance by developing the powerful muscles on the backside of your body. But unless you’re pro athlete who gets paid to train, you’re probably not too excited about the idea of adding yet another type of workout to your schedule.
Fear not. There’s a time-efficient way to incorporate resistance training that complements the bike training you’re already doing. Cressey makes resistance training time-efficient by having his athletes do brick workouts consisting of a short, intense resistance-training session followed by a short, intense ride.
The benefits of such hybrid workouts are scientifically proven. Researchers from the Waikato Institute of Technology in New Zealand divided a pool of 18 club-level cyclists into two groups of nine riders. One group did its normal base training for four to five weeks. During the same time period, the other group replaced some of its rides with hybrid workouts combining explosive jumping exercises and 30-second high-resistance intervals on stationary bikes. On average, members of this group improved their 1km power by 8.7 percent, their 4km power by 8.1 percent, their peak power by 6.8 percent, their lactate-profile power by 3.7 percent and their energy economy by 3 percent, while members of the other group made no improvements in these measures.
There are various ways you can combine resistance training and cycling into a single workout, but according to Cressey you’ll get the best results if you use the following parameters:
1. Do the resistance portion of the workout first
2. Perform resistance exercises that are functional for cycling (see examples below)
3. Follow the resistance session with a ride featuring high-intensity intervals. A total workout time of one hour (30 minutes in the gym, 30 minutes on the bike) is plenty, although you can ride longer if you’re fit enough
4. Do two resistance sessions per week, perhaps following the second weekly resistance session with a high-intensity run.
Here are examples of three exercises to strengthen glutes and hamstrings and thereby improve cycling. One or two sets of each exercise per session will suffice. Combine these exercises with a couple of core exercises and one or two upper-body exercises that are functional for swimming and you’re good to go.
1. Glute-ham raise: Lie face down on the floor and have a partner press your lower legs down into the floor so your body can only move from the knee up. Contract your hamstrings and lift your body (from knees to head) upward until you are in a fully upright kneeling position. Lower yourself back to the floor. Try to keep your torso erect throughout the movement, and then use the hamstrings to pull your body up and the glutes to finish the movement (by tilting the pelvis back; just think of popping the hips forward to get your body upright).
2. Single-leg box jump: Balance on your left foot facing a sturdy platform (such as an exercise step) that’s 10-18 inches high. Leap up onto the platform, landing on your left foot, then immediately leap back down to the floor. Do 12 repetitions and then switch to the right foot.
3. Suitcase deadlift: Stand with your arms hanging at your sides and a dumbbell in one hand. Push your hips back and bend the knees as you do in the lowering phase of a standard deadlift. Reach the dumbbell down as close to the floor as you can without rounding your lower back, and then stand up again. Don’t allow your torso to tilt to either side while performing this movement. Complete 10 repetitions, rest for 30 seconds, and then repeat the exercise while holding the dumbbell in the opposite hand.