Adapted from Ride Strong: Essential Conditioning for Cyclists by Jo McRae
One of the best things about riding a bike is that it reminds us what it feels like to be a kid. It gives us back the sense of pleasure and play that can be lost because of the pressures of modern life and being a grown-up. A bicycle can take us to amazing places, both physically and metaphorically. And often a reintroduction to the bike can kick-start a love affair with health and fitness too.
But I have some bad news that I want to get up front straight away. In many ways the human body is not designed to ride a bike.
The good news is that Ride Strong will give you the understanding and know-how to keep you riding your bike happily and healthily long into the future. Here’s a few key exercises to get you started…
Supine knee extension – strap assisted
Of all the muscle groups that a cyclist ought to learn how to stretch properly, for me the hamstrings come top of the list. Running along the back of the thigh from your pelvis (sitting bones) and down behind the knee, they are a muscle group that can become chronically short and tight in response to sitting for longer than is natural.
Hook a strap around the instep of your foot. The strap needs to be solid (not elastic) and long enough to work with comfortably. In these pictures Paul is using a martial arts belt.
Lie flat on your back and raise one leg directly above your hip, holding the belt at the knee with both hands (shown). Your lower leg should be relaxed. Relax the straight leg down at the back of the knee.
Your goal is to maintain a slight curve in your lower back in order that you target the stretch most effectively to the lower hamstrings behind the knee. Don’t allow your back to flatten completely or your hips to lift as you go into the stretch or the effective position will be lost.
From this start position, slowly extend your leg directly upwards, keeping your foot relaxed and maintaining a curve in the small of your back. As you move into the stretch, feel for the point where if you go any higher you will be unable to maintain this curve, at which point pull firmly on the strap to increase the stretch sensation, and hold for 1–2 seconds. Using your knuckles against your knee as a solid anchor point can help you find and hold the effective position repeatedly. Then, release your lower leg back down to the start position, relaxing the hamstrings but maintaining the knee-over-hip position.
If you are performing the stretch well, you will feel the focal point at the back of the knee. It can take some time to learn to maintain a curve in your lower back while at the same time extending your leg, but if you persist your control in this exercise will improve, as will its effectiveness. It’s important that you focus on the ‘feel’ of the stretch rather than trying to get your leg higher than is optimal for you at any time.
Dumbbell dead lift
The dead lift is the most important conditioning exercise for cyclists to strengthen their back and hips. Learning correct movement technique in lifting and bending movements, and strengthening the muscles involved is vital if you want to prevent back problems getting in the way of your cycling. Strengthening your back and glutes by dead lifting will also provide more power to each pedal stroke when you ask for it, particularly when climbing, accelerating, or pushing hard while seated in the saddle.
Place the dumbbell between your feet and adopt a shoulder-width stance either side of the weight. If you have a dumbbell with a flat end it might be easiest to rest it on that end, but if you are working with a spinlock dumbbell you will have to lay it on its side.
Tip forwards towards the weight using the ‘short stop’ technique. Keeping the dumbbell close to your body is good practice, and if you are presented with an object that you need to lift, keeping it as close as possible will help you lift and move it more effectively.
In order to reach the dumbbell and lift it off the floor, first arch your lower back as much as you can, as you tip forwards from the hips. Then bend your knees in a squatting action to reach the weight. As you bend towards the floor, keep your knees in line with your feet, and look down at the dumbbell.
Using your legs and back together, and engaging your abdominals by drawing your navel in, push with your feet and stand up tall with the dumbbell, keeping your back neutral. If you struggle to keep your back neutral to pick up the dumbbell from the floor, throughout the set work only within the range through which you can maintain an natural curve in the lower back, and then use your legs in a squatting action to place the dumbbell back on the floor at the end. With practice, and together with some stretching, you will find that you are able to increase your range of movement with good form.
Repeat this movement, tipping forwards from the hips towards the floor as far as you can maintain a neutral spine, and then pushing through your legs to stand up tall and straight. Your knees should always bend slightly to support your back throughout the movement, but not so much that the exercise becomes more of a squat than a bend.
The prone cobra
The prone cobra works all the muscles along the back of the body, but notably isolates the upper-back muscles. The way the exercise is performed here, with the thumbs turned backwards, also works the external rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder, which can become weak through hours spent holding the bars.
Start by lying flat on your front, head turned to one side, and your arms at the sides of your body, with your little fingers close to your sides and thumbs pointing away from you.
Lift your upper back off the floor, turning your thumbs backwards as you move, and squeezing your shoulder blades together. The goal is to turn the arms backwards as much as possible, keeping them close to your sides and stretching the front of your chest. Leave your legs on the floor if you can, and keep your neck long at the back so that your chin is tucked in and you look down towards the floor. Focus in extending the most through your upper back, by arching through the upper back and opening your chest forwards.
These three exercises combined can help cyclists target the poor posture associated with spending a lot of time seated on a bike or at a desk. ‘Pre-stretching’ the hamstrings allows the cyclists (who tends to have shortened hamstrings) to get into a good deadlift position to strengthen the back and the hips. The Prone Cobra exercise targets the postural muscle of the back and shoulders to correct for the ‘slumped’ posture that can be common.
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