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Cycling strength circuits: get strong for the saddle

Do these circuits at home or the gym to be faster and more injury-proof on the bike

Ben Ince
19 Jan 2021

Photography: Danny Bird

Nothing beats time in the saddle for improving your cycling, but with the NHS now advising two strength sessions a week for general fitness, and recent research highlighting the benefits for cyclists (see issue 108), there has never been a better time to embrace off-the-bike training.

Strength training is a crucial part of every pro’s arsenal, but this hasn’t always been the case. Despite their status as elite endurance athletes, previous generations had a higher propensity for osteoporosis later in life, having never done the load-bearing work required to increase their bone density.

‘People think strength training is all about building muscle to ride faster, but it’s also crucial for correcting imbalances and preventing injury,’ says coach Richard Lord from Espresso Cycle Coaching.

‘A total-body strength training programme will challenge your neuromuscular system and make you more economical on the bike. It will also help improve your handling skills, keep fatigue at bay, minimise aches and pains and boost recovery.’

You don’t need to spend endless hours in the gym lifting heavy weights to see the benefits either. ‘Circuit training is a great way to incorporate strength sessions into your weekly routine,’ says Lord.

‘You can easily perform an effective circuit-based workout at home, with minimal equipment, in 30 to 45 minutes. It’s especially practical during the winter when you’ll likely be spending more time indoors and less in the saddle.’

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The tailor-made cycling circuits on the following pages provide everything you need to kick-start your strength training and hit the ground running in 2021.

‘You’ll definitely notice the benefits in your riding,’ says Lord. ‘Just four weeks of quality strength training will make a big difference.’

Circuit 1

Fire up your whole body

This circuit features a range of exercises that target all the major muscle groups and movement patterns required to correct imbalances, build bike-specific strength and reduce the risk of injury. What’s more, they can all be performed safely and easily at home with basic equipment – no gym membership required.

‘Doing these six exercises back-to-back with minimal rest will help keep your heart rate elevated throughout the workout, improving your aerobic and anaerobic fitness and building endurance and explosive power,’ says Lord. ‘Once you’ve completed the reps for all six exercises, rest for 60-90 seconds then repeat for a total of 3-5 rounds.’

If you’re new to strength training, start by performing this circuit twice weekly for 3-4 weeks, leaving at least a two-day gap between sessions. Once you’re comfortable with this, replace one of the sessions with our second circuit workout over the page.

1 - Bodyweight squat

A classic compound exercise that works all your major leg muscles and replicates the hip and knee extensions you perform when you’re pedalling.

• Stand with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing outwards slightly.

• Keep your back upright and weight on your heels.

• Squat down until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor.

• Drive back up through your heels.

Perform 15-20 reps

Expert tip: ‘To maintain a strong stance, imagine that you’re standing on a big piece of paper and trying to tear it apart with your feet,’ says Lord.

2 - Plank

This move strengthens your core, which helps to reduce the risk of back pain and discomfort during long rides.

• Get your body in a straight line from head to heels, with your elbows beneath your shoulders and your head looking down.

• Hold the position without letting your hips sag.

Hold for 30-60 seconds

3 - Split squat

By isolating each leg, this exercise helps to improve hip stability and improve power transfer and efficiency when pedalling.

• To get into the starting position take an exaggerated step forward, slightly lifting the heel of your rear foot.

• Slowly lower yourself towards the ground by bending both knees, keeping your spine in a neutral position and ensuring your front knee doesn’t pass your toes.

• Return to the starting position and complete the prescribed number of reps before switching your stance to the opposite side.

Perform 12-20 reps on each leg

Expert tip: ‘Once you’ve mastered the split squat with correct form, try holding dumbbells in each hand,’ says Lord. ‘This will increase the resistance and difficulty.’

4 - Mountain climbers

This exercise improves hip mobility, which helps to activate your hip flexors and stave off fatigue when you’re riding out of the saddle.

• Assume a press-up position with your body straight from head to heels and hands beneath your shoulders.

• Bring one knee in towards your chest, now jump that leg back while bringing the other knee in.

• Pump your legs back and forth explosively while keeping your body as steady as possible.

Perform 12-20 reps per leg, alternating sides

5 - Swiss ball hamstring curl

Many cyclists suffer from weak, injury-prone hamstrings. This move will strengthen them and help balance out muscle strength with your quads.

• Lie on your back with arms outstretched and palms facing down.

• Place your heels on the Swiss ball and squeeze your glutes to raise your hips so your body is in a straight line from shoulders to heels.

• Drag the ball towards you by bending your knees and lifting your hips then slowly return to the starting position.

Perform 12-20 reps

*If you don’t have a Swiss ball, replace this exercise with glute bridges, where you lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor then raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from shoulders to knees.

6 - Press-up

This exercise is perfect for strengthening your chest and triceps muscles, both of which will help improve your bike-handling ability.

• Start with your hands shoulder-width apart and your body straight from head to heels.

• Lower yourself until your chest almost touches the floor and press back up without letting your hips sag.

• Try to keep your elbows reasonably close to your body.

Perform 6-12 reps

Expert tip: ‘If you can’t complete a minimum of five press-ups with good form, start by resting on your knees rather than your feet to build up the required strength,’ says Lord.

Circuit 2

Take it to the next level

This circuit follows the same principles and offers the same on-the-bike benefits as the first one, but it also features a selection of more challenging exercises to help keep you motivated as you improve.

‘Doing the same workout over and over can get boring pretty quickly,’ says Lord. ‘This session provides more variety, working the same muscle groups but in a slightly different format.

‘Moves such as overhead squats and Bulgarian split squats build on the basic movement patterns that you worked on in the previous circuit, while some of the harder, more explosive exercises such as kettlebell swings and burpees will boost your power endurance.’

As with the first workout, aim to do all six exercises back-to-back with minimal rest, then take a 60-90 second break and repeat for 3-5 rounds. Always ensure that you leave at least a two-day gap between strength sessions to improve your recovery and reduce the risk of injury.

1 - Overhead squat

A variation of the basic squat that forces you to stabilise your upper back throughout the movement, helping to improve your form.

• Hold a towel or a broom handle with a wide grip with elbows locked just behind your head, keeping your biceps in line with your ears.

• Stand with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing outwards slightly.

• Keeping your back upright and weight on your heels, squat down until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor.

• Drive back up through your heels.

Perform 15-20 reps

Expert tip: ‘Ask a friend or family member to film you doing this exercise side-on so you can check your back is straight,’ says Lord.

2 - Renegade row

This exercise improves strength in your back and core to ensure you can maintain a stable and aggressive position on the bike for longer.

• Start in a press-up position holding the handles of a pair of light dumbbells (hexagonal dumbbells will help with stability).

• Row one dumbbell upwards, pulling it towards you so that your thumb touches your armpit, then lower it back to the start.

• Repeat on the other side, aiming to stay parallel to the floor throughout rather than twisting your torso.

Perform 10-16 reps with each arm, alternating sides

Expert tip: No dumbbells? Do the exercise without any weights but do a press-up between each pair of rows.

3 - Bulgarian split squat

This advancement on the split squat corrects imbalances and strengthens your stabilising muscles, helping to ensure an even pedalling stroke.

• With your torso upright, core braced and hips straight, rest one foot behind you on a chair or box.

• Your leading leg should be at least 50cm in front of the chair.

• Keeping your back upright, lower down by bending your knees until your front thigh is horizontal, keeping your knee in line with your foot. Don’t let your front knee travel beyond your toes.

• Push through your front foot to return to the start.

Perform 8-16 reps on each leg

Expert tip: ‘Perform this exercise without shoes on,’ says Lord. ‘This helps keep your feet flat to the floor to improve your form.’

4 - Kettlebell swing

This exercise is perfect for building the kind of power endurance needed for short, sharp climbs or for closing gaps.

• Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, your knees slightly bent and a kettlebell in front of your feet.

• Hinge forward at the hips and grip the kettlebell. With shins vertical and your spine straight, pull the kettlebell back between your legs.

• Stand up powerfully, pushing your hips forward, to swing the kettlebell forward and upwards in front of your body.

• Control the kettlebell by bracing your trunk, then pause at the top of the swing before pulling the kettlebell back down.

Perform 15-20 reps

Expert tip: If you don’t have a kettlebell, a small backpack filled with books can be used as an alternative.

For more home gym equipment, see our guide here.

5 - Bird dog

This exercise helps to improve your glute activation during hip extensions, which is crucial for efficient pedalling.

• Start on all fours with your hands beneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips.

• Slowly reach forward with your right hand and back with your left foot, keeping a straight line through your heel, knee, hips, shoulders, elbow and hand.

• Hold for five seconds then slowly return to all fours.

Perform 8-12 reps on each side, alternating from one to the other

6 - Burpee

A great full-body exercise that works all your key joints, burpees also help improve explosiveness when you’re riding out of the saddle or closing gaps.

• From standing, lower into a squat and place your hands on the floor directly in front of, and just inside, your feet.

• Shift your weight onto your hands and jump your legs back to softly land on the balls of your feet in a plank position. Your body should form a straight line from your head to heels.

• Jump your feet forward so they land just outside of your hands.

• Jump explosively into the air, reaching above your head.

• Land and immediately lower back into a squat for your next rep.

Perform 10-15 reps

Expert tip: ‘For an extra challenge try adding a press-up when your feet are back in the plank position,’ says Lord.

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