If you’re looking for ways to find extra power and strength on the bike, there’s one obvious place to search: the gym. Functional strength work, when added to endurance training, has been shown to improve both power and cycling economy—essentially making you stronger, faster, and more efficient on the bike.
Lower extremity muscle power is obviously important to cycling: With each downstroke of the pedal, the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings contract to extend the knee and hip. The hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps then kick on to flex the knee and hip during the following upstroke. And don’t forget about all of those stabilizing muscles! The lateral hip, spinal, and trunk muscles need plenty of endurance to hold posture, maintain overall balance, and provide a base for power generation through the legs. A good bike-specific gym routine shouldn’t overlook the upper body, as the scapular and shoulder muscles must work to support your weight, and the neck muscles must be strong enough to hold up your head to see the road without causing undue strain.
This bike-specific workout is designed to work on all of those things, and improve the strength and power of the pedal-moving leg muscles and the endurance of the stabilizers. The end result? You’ve found an improvement in cycling performance and durability.
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Barbell Back Squat
The classic back squat uses the same primary movers (quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings) as the pedal downstroke, and it also activates the trunk muscles (spinal muscles, abdominals, scapular muscles) to stabilize the movement.
Start with your feet about shoulder-width apart and a barbell across the back of your shoulders. Try to really load this exercise. Bend the hips and knees to move into a squat position, aiming to get the thighs parallel to the ground. Make sure to really push your hips back; the knees should not come forward of the toes, or collapse inward. Push up through the heels to the starting position. As you become proficient at the movement, aim to increase the weight and do this under heavier load. Perform 3 sets of 6–8 repetitions.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift works all of the posterior chain muscles that are used in cycling—including the hip extensors that generate power and spinal extensors that help maintain posture. The quads are at work, too, although to a lesser degree. Performing the single-leg version isolates any imbalances, activates the lateral hip muscles, and challenges the core to resist rotation.
Begin this exercise by standing on one foot, while holding a relatively heavy kettlebell or dumbbell in the opposite hand. Bend the standing leg knee slightly (about 15 degrees). Keeping the back and neck neutral, knee angle constant, and knee pointing forward, hinge forward while kicking your opposite leg back (like a pendulum), lowering the weight towards the floor until you feel a pull in the back of the stance leg. Return to the starting position by driving your hips forward. Perform 3 sets of 8 repetitions on each leg.
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Step-Up to Overhead Press
Step-ups are effective at working the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, and they help develop power and symmetry. Holding single-limb balance at the top also activates the lateral hip muscles. Adding in an overhead press further challenges the deep abdominal and spinal muscles and integrates the scapular stabilizers and shoulder muscles.
Begin by standing, facing a step that’s approximately knee height (if you don’t have a gym step available, two standard-height stairs work well). If knee height is too challenging or causes joint strain, use a lower step height. This exercise challenges balance, so you may wish to initially have a railing or wall nearby. Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell at shoulder height on one side. Step up onto the step with the weight on your non-stepping side, push evenly, and straighten your knee and hip to raise yourself up. Establish your balance. Then, press the weight up toward the ceiling, keeping your head looking forward. Lower the weight, then slowly step back down. Start with a light weight and perform 3 sets of 12 repetitions on each leg initially, working toward 3 sets of 8 with a heavier weight as strength and stability improve.
Ball Plank with Hip Extension
The standard plank effectively activates all of the major core, trunk, and scapular muscles, but using an unstable surface and hip extension further elevates the activity of these muscles and draws in the glutes and hamstrings. To perform, lay prone over an exercise ball, with the ball just above your knees, walk your hands out until the ball is underneath your lower legs and your hands are beneath your shoulders with the elbows straight. Your body should be in a straight line. Positioning the ball further down your legs (closer to your feet and ankles) increases difficulty. Without letting your hips sag, lift one leg several inches off of the ball. Place it back down, and repeat with the other leg. Continue to alternate legs. Perform 3 sets of 12–15 repetitions on each leg.
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Hinge Hold with Shoulder Extension
Cycling requires plenty of endurance of the spinal stabilizers, which are predominantly slow-twitch muscles. This exercise aims to work on their endurance in a functional, cycling-specific position. Adding in shoulder extension increases trunk and core muscle activation and draws in the scapular stabilizers.
Grab both ends of a light resistance band positioned in front of you with the elbows straight. Move into a hinge position with slight hip and knee flexion and with a neutral lower back and neck (ears should be in line with shoulders). Hold for five seconds, then—keeping the elbows straight—pull back on the band, drawing the shoulder blades together. Hold this position for five seconds; return to the starting position and repeat. Perform 3 sets of 12–15 repetitions.