The more force you can place on the pedals, the more power you will produce, and the faster you will go. That’s what most of us are after, right? We’re all seeking the ability to go faster with relatively less effort. The stronger your legs are, the less percentage of your overall strength will be required to turn over the pedals. It may be obvious that muscles such as your quadriceps need to be strong, but there are many smaller muscle groups that, when strengthened appropriately, can help to relieve some of the strain from the larger muscles. In order to know exactly what exercises will benefit a cyclist the most, we must first examine the needs of the sport.
The Physiological Demands of Cycling
From a strength perspective, cycling requires force repeatability. In other words, we must be able to generate a similar amount of force over and over again. It is also largely a single-leg sport because each leg produces force independently. Since cycling requires a balance element, stabilization and balance should also be cornerstones of your strength routine. Finally, you should remember that you only get strong in the ranges of motion that you train. That means that you should consider the full range of motion that your knees, hips, and ankles go through during your pedal stroke, and you should work to mimic those same joint angles in the gym.
Back Squat/Goblet Squat
Squats primarily work the quadriceps and glutes, which are also primary movers in your pedal stroke. If you a confident weight lifter then you can work on heavier weights in the traditional back squat. If you are a little more apprehensive, then hold a dumbbell in your hands and complete a goblet Squat.
Aim to squat to 90 degrees in order to reach the range of motion in which you produce power in your pedal stroke. (Keep in mind that you aren’t producing power at the top of your pedal stroke when your pedal is at 12 o’clock). By the same logic, it’s not necessary to do a full or deep squat. Additionally, think about really pushing up powerfully during your squats. Cycling is a sport that requires concentric power. The concentric portion of the squat is going from the down portion back to standing, so it’s important to emphasize that phase.
Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, place two dumbbells in a front rack position: one end of the dumbbells resting on each shoulder. Lower yourself down into a squat position, then power upward and push the dumbbells overhead.
Just like the squat this will target the quads and glutes, but will also add an element of speed or power. The ability to produce this type of power will be especially important anytime you need to sprint or get on top of the pedal stroke. Additionally, the overhead press element of this exercise will help to work the pectorals, deltoids, and traps which can help to control the bike if you are a sprinter or mountain biker.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
With a dumbbell in each hand, and arms by your side, keep a flat back, and hinge at the waist keeping only one foot on the ground, and allowing your arms to stay pointing downward as your body goes horizontal.
This exercise works on the back muscles, hamstrings, and glutes. The hamstrings will play a key role in the pull portion of your pedal stroke and, while often forgotten, make a huge difference in your ability on the bike. Additionally, this exercise requires balance and stability requiring stabilizing muscles such as the glute medius to activate.
Bulgarian Split Squat
With dumbbells in your hands, place the top of your back foot up on a bench, your front foot should be out as if you are going to lunge, and then complete a split squat. This exercise can feel like the ultimate leg burner because it can really get all of the muscles firing. It can easily show you what muscles may be your limiter. The single-leg aspect makes it especially relevant for cyclists.
Dumbbell Renegade Row
With your hands on dumbbells in a pushup position, complete a single arm row while maintaining that position. Bonus points if you complete a pushup between rows. This exercise helps to work on core strength and stability while moving, which will pay back dividends on the bike. The ability to maintain a stable or neutral upper body while powering down on the pedals will help to save energy that will come in handy at the end of races or rides. The push-up will work on the pecs and the row will work on the lats which will allow you to maintain your position and even pull up on the bars for sprints.
Lunges are an excellent exercise for cyclists because they work the hamstrings, hips, glutes, and quads. Adding the walking element takes them up another notch by accentuating the single-leg element and requiring balance and stability. Watch to ensure your front knee does not drift inward as you step and lunge.
Weighted step-ups are also a single-leg exercise. The step-up, specifically, is a largely concentric motion that mimics the way that we push down on the pedals. When completing your step-ups, really focus on pushing on the leg that is stepping up and not aiding with the foot on the floor.
Box jumps are a great power exercise that can easily be completed without extensive training or weight-lifting experience. Box jumps require great muscle fiber recruitment and by adding these into your workouts you’ll likely experience significant neuromuscular adaptations. This type of explosive power will be critical for sprinters or mountain bikers that need to be able to create all-out pedal strokes to get up and over obstacles. Start with a shorter box and increase the height as you gain confidence and increase your ability.
Working your quads and hamstrings, kettlebell swings certainly fit the bill for a good cycling exercise. In order to keep the kettlebell in motion, you’ll need to produce force, but if you’ve ever done kettlebell swings before then you probably know that one or two swings won’t suffice. You’ll need to work on your endurance or ability to repeatedly produce force to complete more repetitions.
Finally, the Turkish get-up rounds out the list of best weight lifting exercises for cyclists. While this exercise can be a little bit tricky to start, that’s kind of the point. The Turkish get-up is a full-body exercise that also has a single leg, and single-sided components, while also working on stability, core, and upper body. The Turkish get-up will help a cyclist work on coordination in the gym which can transfer nicely to coordination on the bike.
Now You Try
Maybe you noticed a bit of a pattern between all of these exercises. I hope this list gets you brainstorming about all of the great gym routines and circuits that you could form to help supplement your cycling workouts. Remember to always start small and build your way up to heavier weights as your body adapts.
USA Cycling named Hannah Finchamp to the 2021 Olympics Games U.S. long team for mountain biking. Hannah is a professional cyclist for the Orange Seal Off-Road Team, a Board-certified athletic trainer, and a USA Cycling-certified coach.