Toolbox: With the hot, humid days of August drawing to a close and gravel rides and cyclocross upon us, our on-bike demands of our bodies is going to change. Yet many of us don’t. We continue to treat the bike as the bike, one and the same, which often leads us to lower back, hip, and shoulder pain as we change our style of riding.
The Northern Hemisphere winter season is on the way
I gotta be honest with you, while I love riding during the summer (road, I’m too much of a wuss for mountain, but thank goodness for gravel!), my absolute favorite time of year to ride is the fall. Warm days perfect to start off with some arm and knee warmers, but with temperatures comfortable for super long rides, and epic stories.
But as my riding years have accumulated, so have the aches and pains, and questions of “what can I do to make X stop hurting”, and “why can’t I put out the power in the fall like I can during the summer?”.
As they say, you can’t buy experience, but it sure as hell is expensive to get it. Well, I’ve got a lot of experience from both myself, and the thousands of athletes I’ve worked with over the last 1.5 decades, and today you’re going to get one of my simple, yet extremely potent fall workouts.
Taking 15 min 3-4 days a week for a few simple exercises can significantly decrease your pain, and increase your riding abilities this fall.
While this isn’t the EXACT workout that athletes will receive as each strength program is built specifically for that athlete’s needs, this workout hits each of the major areas you need to address to help the body “unwind” from a full season of riding.
Learning to Breathe
Through our position on the bike, and the hours upon hours we love riding, the Latissimus Dorsi, aka “the lats” become shortened and tight. Often times this tightness leads to loss of the ability to lift your arm straight overhead, without hinging at the lower back. And while it’s not much of an issue day to day, over the course of a few months, this can lead to back pain, neck pain, and eventually even “frozen shoulder”.
Add to this our crouched over position on the bike and how it can negatively affect our breathing patterns, and we have a need to not only open the lats, but also to “reset” our breathing patterns.
Learn how to breathe, while opening your lats:
1 arm Deep Squat Breathing
2 sets of 4 deep, full breaths each side. Each breath in should take 5 seconds (through nose), hold for 3 seconds, then out through your mouth over 5 seconds. Let your hips sink down lower with each breath out, but do not raise up with the next inhale.
Activate the Abs
The next 2 major obstacles for us as riders, is getting the muscles of our natural “weight lifting belt” or “abdominal hoop” fired up, and able to do their jobs. While “the plank” seems to have been deemed the magic pill for lower back pain and abdominal “strength”, many of us actually perform it incorrectly, but that’s a topic for another time.
Instead of planking for minutes on end, what we actually want to do, is learn how to BRACE our midsection, firing the internal and external obliques, transverse abdominus, and rectus abdominis, along with the pelvic floor and diaphragm, in order to produce tension and bracing throughout the midsection.
*If you have hypertension, hemorrhoids, or any other medical condition which indicates you should avoid strenuous physical activities, DO NOT DO this exercise.
Learn to activate your deep abdominals:
2 sets of 5 breaths
Recruit the Glutes
Once we’ve got the torso and midsection sorted, we need to move on to activating the glutes.
Oftentimes cyclists mistakenly believe that they have great gluteal recruitment, only to find out when trying this exercise, that either their hamstrings or quads (thigh muscles) are doing the work of the gluteals. Not ideal by any means.
Try this exercise in a quiet room, with no music or distractions. Many of my athletes find it helpful to use headphones along with a white noise app such as “Sound Machine” to listen to the sound of rain, or another whitenoise of their choosing, so that they can focus in on muscle recruitment.
Learn how to activate your glutes:
Prone Glute Activation
3 sets of 5*5 second squeeze and hold each side. If you cannot activate each side individually, squeeze both sides, together, for 3 sets of 3 times 10-15 seconds.
Now we begin to put everything together, and to begin to orchestrate everything working together from the top-down, in order to allow movement at the lower body, while keeping a rock-steady midsection and ribcage.
While the hamstrings tend to be well developed in many a cyclist, at the sacrifice of glute recruitment, we need to teach the midsection how to brace just enough to keep the hips and rib cage locked together, while the legs move…..can you say “Hello shiny new climbing power numbers”?
Learn how to use your deep abdominal muscles to stabilize your hips, while the hamstrings work:
Prone Hamstring curls with band
2 sets of 15-25 repetitions, OR when you can no longer maintain a slightly braced midsection to stabilize the hips.
Now that we’ve got everything connected and the nervous system fired up, it’s time to learn how to use your new “power center” to ABSORB forces.
Yes, you read that right! ABSORB forces.
One of the quickest ways we can move your progress along over the coming weeks, is to get the muscles to learn how to fire QUICKLY and TOGETHER.
The key here is NOT the height of the box. In fact, going to a higher box can lead to injuries, or poor movement pattern development, which can retard your progress and even lead to injury. The same goes for increasing the repetitions “until you feel it”. LESS IS MORE. Max height for the “box” is 12 inches (about 20cm), minimum is 6 inches (15cm).
Make sure you are ABSORBING the forces with your glutes, quads and slightly braced midsection. Hold the “Absorb” position for 2 seconds, before standing tall.
Learn how to absorb forces through your hips and quads, with good posture:
Drop off Absorb
3 sets of 3 step-offs each leg (leading with RIGHT foot 3* + leading with LEFT foot 3* = 1 set)
Strength & Endurance
Lastly, we will challenge your hamstrings, glutes, and spinal column musculature to a strength-endurance task, and one of my favorites: the Founders Pose.
This exercise series not only is great for cyclists now, but it can be used year round after long rides that end away from home, as you need no equipment and can use the hood of your car to help you get into the position.
Learn to move from the hips and glutes with great posture:
Use this series 2-3 days a week, ideally with 1 day of rest in between, for 3-5 weeks. As always, if you feel sharp pain, numbness, tingling, loss of sensation, or a deep ache, STOP the exercise and contact your family doctor or physical therapist to determine if the exercises are right for you, or if you need a more personalized approach.
Until next time, remember to Train Smarter, Not Harder, because it IS all about YOU!
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Menachem Brodie is a USA Cycling Expert Level coach, SICI certified bike fitter, and NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist. For the last 10 years he has been working with athletes from around the world to get fitter, faster, and stronger through strength training and in-sport training plans. He has presented on Strength Training for Cyclists & Triathletes internationally, and is the author of 2 authoritative online courses: