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Pedal Pushers

Key muscle groups to strengthen for an improved biking

Performance Leg presses build strength in the hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes, muscles that power pedaling.
  • Performance Leg presses build strength in the hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes, muscles that power pedaling.

Whether you want to travel around town faster or are training for intense competitions, many exercises done off the bike can improve performances on it.

  It helps to understand the primary muscle groups involved in cycling. Research by Dr. Andy Pruitt, an athletic trainer and founder of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Colorado, indicates that 10 percent of the power for bike pedaling comes from hamstrings, 35 percent comes from quadriceps and 55 percent comes from the gluteus maximus, the largest muscle in the butt. However, pedaling is just one piece of the puzzle. To maximize your performance on the bike, it's necessary to train the whole body. For example, a strong core stabilizes the upper body, and forearm strength helps riders control the bike.

  "That's kind of a misconception, that it's just your lower body," says Cheryl Schoen, a trainer at One to One Personal Training who took up cycling when she began training for a triathlon after losing 212 pounds. "You need the core to stabilize; you need your back and your upper body to have control of your bike."

  Liam Kraus, a trainer with New Orleans Athletic Club, also notes that grip strength and forearms come into play.

  Fortunately, all these muscle groups can receive individual attention when a rider is off the bike, and Schoen — a big believer in the "just do it" philosophy — recommends getting started cycling to determine which body part needs the most strengthening.

  "The weaknesses will kind of show themselves: What's sore?" she says. "When I first started, I noticed my neck and shoulders were sore. The more I had the basic strength, the easier it got."

  With any weight-bearing exercise, you can adjust how you perform it to increase power or endurance: Generally, heavier weights and fewer repetitions increase power, and lighter weights and more repetitions increase endurance.

  It also helps to understand what extracurricular training cannot do. Randall Legeai, president of the Louisiana and Mississippi Bicycle Racing Association and longtime member of the New Orleans Bicycle Club, says riders must venture outside the gym to understand their unique pedaling strokes and riding strategies.

  "The important thing for most cyclists is to develop a very efficient pedal stroke," Legeai says. "There are points in the pedal stroke where, basically, both legs are pushing at the same time. The traditional method for developing a smoother pedal stroke is using relatively low gears and a relatively high cadence. It's not a power thing, it's an efficiency thing."

  Moreover, properly fitting your bicycle to your body can make cycling more safe and effective. On rainy days or for those who aren't ready to invest in a bike, Kraus says spinning classes are a suitable substitute. "Spinning class is much more representative of what it's like to bike than just sitting on a stationary bike," he says. "I would not put (personal training clients) on a stationary bike, because that's vague."

  Following are several exercises and methods that can increase strength and help you become a bicycling behemoth. A combination of trial and error and learning from trainers, seasoned cycling veterans and experts will help cyclists improve their skill, endurance, strength and drive to not just finish, but finish powerfully.

  "It's interesting to get to that point (where) you're the first person on the top of hill," Schoen says. "The better you get, the better you realize you can be."


To ensure proper form, Schoen recommends executing the leg press on a machine. Begin the press with knees parallel and legs bent at a 90-degree angle. With a slow, controlled movement, extend legs until they are almost straight, but keep the knees slightly bent. Ideally, you'll feel every muscle in your leg react at different points in the exercise. Using the same controlled movement, return legs to a 90-degree angle.

  Daryl Ducharme, a personal trainer in North Carolina, says individuals should work up to lifting twice their body weight with both legs or their entire body weight with one leg. When training for endurance, Kraus suggests reducing the weight by half and performing the exercise until the muscles fatigue. "It's the same thing for toning in general, but you've got to do it until it burns and you cannot do it again," he says. If one leg is disproportionately stronger than the other, reduce the amount of weight on the machine and use one leg to help even out leg strength.


For clients looking to improve core strength, Richard Driskell, a bike fit consultant at Bayou Bikes, considers Pilates to be very effective for quickly developing both abdominals and back muscles.


Kraus recommends doing calf raises using your own body weight as the best way to develop calves. Place the balls of your feet on the edge of a platform, stair or curb. With the body completely straight, move only your ankle joints so your heels dip below the platform; you'll feel the stretch. Again, moving only ankle joints, lift your heels as high as possible, hold for a few seconds at the highest position, and return to the original position.


"You can't have enough forearm strength," Kraus says. This essential muscle group can make the difference in holding and controlling the bicycle. He suggests using a light dumbbell and with both arms hanging naturally at your side, twist each wrist left and right until they are fatigued.

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