Strength Train Off the Bike, Not On It

Cycling is an interesting sport, for several reasons to be honest. It is one that I’ve both loved (winning races on a MTB rocks!) and loathed (countless bouts of poison oak!) in the last six years.

 

The way I can get crushed uphill by “Clydesdale Category” riders when I race “intrigues me.” Why some people are awesome for :15-:30 but can’t climb worth a lick (HELLO!! HAND RAISED!) make me curious. Why other people get crushed in a sprint, but can out climb a mountain goat brings about the same feelings about body type and performance.

 

I think the thing that fascinates me the most are all of the training aspects of how you get faster on the bike. Some make sense to me, others not so much given how the body is supposed to move, and what happens to it as it begins to break down.

 

I completely, utterly and thoroughly understand why you have to train the energy systems (aerobic, lactate, VO2 max) to go faster. Without hill repeats and intervals, life is a lot harder on the bike and at that point what’s the point?

 

However, from the “not so much” category, the methodology of doing “strength training” on the bike to get your legs stronger in bigger gears uphill is something that I honestly feel is mislabled. Especially since this is the only “strength training” a lot of riders do. If anything, it should be called “potential joint dysfunction reinforcement training” if the appropriate measure off the bike aren’t being taken to combat the repetitive stress of being on it.

 

I’m a big form over function guy, meaning I feel “how” you move is much more important that “what” you move when you train. Watch people go up a hill and you will see everything from poetry in motion to the visually offensive as a rider tries to drive power to the pedals.

 

People wearing braces on every joint in their body that moves, flexes or extends in an effort to provide enough stabilization to propel the bike forward. Shoulders almost above the ears, chins almost over the front of a wheel and backs rounded out like a turtle shell has been surgically implanted on someone’s back are but a few of the things you’ll see on any given hill each weekend.

 

 

Since we know that seated machine strength training environments shorten muscles, cause imbalances, create losses of mobility and joint dysfunction, it is hard to find a reason to recommend them outside of a therapeutic/rehab setting.

 

 

If you think about it, riding a bike is pretty similar to a leg press, ham curl, etc. You’re sitting down (or at least supported) on a machine, very often attached to the machine, potentially making things worse, moving your legs in a single plane of movement. One of the only differences being the balance component to keep a bike upright.

 

So sitting down to lift weights to make your legs stronger and riding uphill in big gears in my mind are the same thing: movement in uniplanar fashion in the saggital (front of the body) plane in a seated position to make the legs stronger. Plus, in the cycling environment, you also introduce the elements of potential exaggerated thoracic spine flexion, shoulder elevation and protraction as well as cervical spine flexion making it worse than machines at the gym.

 

Sounds like I’m saying don’t ride a bike doesn’t it? Well, rest assured I’m NOT.

 

I LOVE riding a bike, especially when the tires are knobby and the singletrack flows underneath them. What I am saying is that when you ride a bike, train to ride a bike, etc you have to understand exactly what it is you’re getting into, and what you have to do to take care of/prepare your body to do to be able to do it long term without pain/injury.

 

Actually wouldn’t that be nice if bikes came with warning stickers that stated:

Side effects of riding a bike include loss of flexibility, loss of glute of function, low back pain,  IT band syndrome, developing dysfunctional joint patterns, loss of joint mobility, upper and lower cross syndrome and dysfunctional breathing patterns. Now THAT my friends would be some truth in advertising! And running is bad for you, yep.

 

Now, I get the fact that if you want to get stronger climbing, you must, well, climb. I get that, and I won’t dispute it. Specificity of training if anything else.

 

What I don’t get is why the process doesn’t begin by getting stronger off the bike before beginning a program to ride better on it. If you can deadlift, single leg squat, step up, etc a pretty healthy load, then pushing the pedals down on a climb gets a hell of a lot easier, not to mention a lot more effective. If you can easily incorporate the lats, spinal erectors, glutes and core muscles through proper neural programming prior to riding, being on a bike becomes a lot more fun.

 

If someone has balance issues in a either a single leg or narrow stance kneeling position with one foot in front of the other, there is a pretty good chance there is movement dysfunction somewhere in their kinetic chain. When that in fact is the case, what is the advantage of getting on a bike, moving with the aforementioned dysfunction uphill under load and making those negative movement patterns stronger? There isn’t one, and if there is, its temporary at best.

 

And if you do build strength doing this, other than the cardiovascular benefits, there is very little (I mean almost none) functional carry over in a real world 3D environment which is much more important. Does it help you get in and out of a chair better? Can you rotate at your thoracic spine better? Does it make it easier to pick things up off of the floor? Does it strengthen the patterns of pushing and pulling? No, but it will go a long way to breaking down those movement patterns like nobody’s business.

 

 

Your brain only knows movement, not muscles. If it has to give a command to “walk,” it won’t care if you’ve got a sprained ankle or plantar fascitis it only knows you want to move. It will find way to get your muscles to move your bones regardless of how bad it looks and what it ultimately has to do get you to walk. If you’ve ever had and ingrown toenail on your left foot, and eventually developed pain in your right knee and eventually left hip, you know of what I speak.

 

This is why functional strength training for cyclists is critical. If you don’t move correctly off the bike, once you do get in the saddle to ride it will be a lot harder to get the most out of every ride if you have trouble:

 

  • Keeping your upper back flat with your hands on your bars (especially in the drops on the road).
  • Performing a basic hip hinge to make riding in the saddle easier.
  • Breathing correctly to more efficiently deliver oxygen to your body.
  • Activating your lats when your legs are under load to both stabilize and provide more power.

 

However, if you can do these things, the chances of you being spit out the back of your next group ride will go down exponentially! If you are still in the process of developing fitness on the bike, the above mentioned things will make it a lot easier to develop a life long love affair with two wheels.

 

The point of this post is pretty simple. Do all of you major lower body strength training off the bike, and allow that to give you a much higher quality of training on it!