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Despite being geared mainly for running and climbing, the body can also usually adapt quite well for cycling; which is a highly Quad and Glute dominant activity. Research has shown that strengthening the quads and glutes, as well as the accessory muscles of the legs and core can significantly improve cycling performance and reduce injury risk. The biggest improvements have been found in the low-rep strength-focused rep range (3-6 reps per set), with 2-4 sets performed 2-3x weekly.
So what are the best gym exercises for boosting your cycling? Research has found these to be the most effective…
1. SINGLE-LEG LEG PRESS
The peak force pushing through your leg into the pedals occurs when the cranks are horizontal, with your front foot pushing down. Anatomically your hip is flexed and knee bent in this position, with a forward trunk lean. A leg press replicates this position perfectly, with single leg leg-press working even better as it:
1. Prevents one leg pushing harder than the other each lift
2. More accurately replicates the pelvic torsion of one leg pushing at a time while cycling
Start at 3 sets of 10 each leg, and after a few weeks increase the weight to make it challenging to get through 4 sets of 5 reps with each leg.
A ‘conventional’ deadlift is excellent at strengthening the glutes, quads, and hamstrings, and is perhaps the best exercise for strengthening the lower back extensors. Reduce your lower back ache on the bike and improve your leg strength with this one. Try holding the bar just wider then shoulder width, with a pronated (palms towards you) grip. It’s worth consulting a trainer when performing this lift to make sure your technique is safe.
Start with 3 sets of 12 through full range, graduating to 4 sets of 8 after a few weeks.
3. GASTROC-BIASED CALF RAISE
The gastrocs are recruited as an accessory muscle in cycling, making life a little easier on the quads and glutes. Stronger gastrocs not only look great, they also take a lot of stress off the knee and ankle joints. To hit the gastrocs efficiently, try doing a calf raise over a step through full range at the ankle, keeping the knee fairly straight (but not locked out).
I like doing this one leg at a time, holding a heavy dumbbell.
Alternately try a similar thing with both legs at once, using a smith machine
Try doing 4 sets of 12 reps, avoiding going fast and ‘bouncing up’, each rep should take at least 4-5 seconds.
4. CABLE HIP FLEXION
Hip flexors are a commonly injured area in cyclists, and are usually surprisingly weak when tested clinically. Find a good ankle or foot strap, connect it to the lowest rung on a cable machine, and drive the knee forwards and up. Holding on to a bench or other machine makes this one a lot easier.
Start with 3 sets of 10, progressing to 4 sets of 6 reps each side after a few weeks.
5. ABDUCTION WALL SQUAT
Some cyclists, especially when fatigued, will have the knees knock inwards as they push through the pedals. This wastes a small amount of energy, and can put the knees and hips at risk of developing RSI type injuries. This exercise strengthens the hip muscles that hold your thighs in good alignment while cycling.
Stand close to a wall, holding a basketball against the wall with one elevated knee, and squat deeply on the other leg.
Aim for 4 sets of 6 slow reps each side.
6. BOSU STIFF-ARM PLANK
A plank is a reasonable way to improve core control and endurance, which is important for comfort when riding a bike for any length of time. Doing the plank on a bosu with elbows slightly bent will make it a lot more relevant for cycling as it activates more of the same muscles that you would use.
Hold for 60secs. Once it gets too easy, challenge yourself with doing very slow pushups on the bosu while keeping the plank position.
To further enhance cycling performance, see a good cycling coach or cycling-specific physio to talk about the latest training mechanisms, and ride stronger, for longer.