Core Strength Training for Cycling

Time trials are excruciating events. As a race against the clock, a competitor must ride at their limit from start to finish. There are many components of a time trial that contribute to a good ride; these can include equipment selection, mental attitude, aerodynamic position, and nutritional status. However, success in the time trial is most dependent on the athletes’ physical ability to generate power to the pedals. This ability is dependent on a combination of strength, power and speed of movement. Strength refers to a force that one can apply against a resistance, such as lifting weights; and power refers to the ability to exert that force at speeds characteristic of cycling. Studies have shown that the combination of strength training and power training result in greater gains in each.

You can help to develop your ability to deliver power in time trials by performing long intervals. During interval training you are targeting the cardiovascular system to help generate power, but where does that power originate? In this article we will review two ways to build strength and power for a time trial event. The first is to increase core strength, which will help put more power to the pedals by providing a solid platform for the lower body to push against. Riding with an undeveloped torso is similar to riding a bike with a cracked frame, the power will dissipate elsewhere. Secondly, we will address transferring strength gains from the weight room into power production to the pedals through on the bike strength training.

Core Training

In the last few years, there has been a big increase in the emphasis on strengthening the “core” of the body. The body’s core, which includes the back and abdominal muscles, can be a weak link for many time trialists. Because of the extended aerodynamic positions, cyclists may be able to generate ideal power early in the event, but then low back fatigue and pain contribute to a loss of power. Most riders give away significant pedal power because of weak low back and abdominal muscles.

The legs perform most of the work in cycling, but a strong core will increase stability on the bike and increase power transfer to the pedals. In addition, a strong lower back will allow you to remain in a more aerodynamic position for longer periods of time without discomfort. Here are a few things to keep in mind when working to strengthen core muscles:

  • Begin your core training with simple exercises – abdominal crunches, back extensions, leg raises and bridging exercises (see list below).
  • Progress to more complex exercises as you increase your core strength. Include a variety of exercises to minimize the risk of injury and keep you motivated.
  • Explore the option of completing some of your exercises on an unstable surface such as balance boards or stability balls.
  • Spend equal time training the muscles in your lower back as you do the muscles of your abdomen. By omitting one you will create an imbalance in muscle strength and increase the risk of injury.

In addition to the exercises listed below, check out your local fitness center, they may offer classes for learning more exercises that will help to strengthen your core.

Crunches (abdominals) 

Lie on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Press your lower back into the floor. Extend your arms and place your hands on your thighs. Exhale and crunch forward 3-5 inches. Keep your head in a neutral position; don’t let your chin move toward your chest! To increase the level of difficulty, crunches can be done on a stability ball instead of the floor. As you become more adept at using the stability ball for crunches you can begin to bring your feet closer together thus increasing the instability factor and recruiting more core muscles.

Prone bridge (also known as elBows and Toes) 

Lying on your stomach on a mat, balance on the tips of toes and elbows while attempting to maintain a straight line from heels to head. Start with 20-30 second efforts, rest 30 seconds and repeat. Work your way up to 4 or 5 repeats of 30-sec each.

Lateral Bridge (obliques) 

In a sideways position on the floor, balance on one elbow and the side of one foot while attempting to keep the body aligned in a straight line. Be sure to concentrate on the pelvic position – keep it all aligned. Start with only 10-15 sec, and gradually increase to 4 repeats of 30 sec on each side.

Stability Ball Trunk Extension (low back) 

Lie face down on a stability ball with your knees slightly flexed and your legs spread out for balance. Place your arms next to the body, off to the side (less resistance), or overhead (more resistance). Begin with your trunk flexed, with tension in the muscles that run on either side of the spine. Pull your shoulder blades together and down toward your buttocks as you begin to lift your torso off the ball. Slowly extend one vertebra at a time. Hold and then slowly lower your trunk back to its original start position. Repeat 10-20 times.

Stability Ball Hip Extension and Leg Curl (low back and hamstrings) 

Lie on your back on the floor and place your lower legs on a stability ball. Put your hands flat on the floor at your sides. Push your hips up so that your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Without pausing, pull your heels toward you and roll the ball as close as possible to your butt. Pause, then reverse the motion-roll the ball back until your body is in a straight line, then lower your back to the floor and repeat.

On-the-bike strength training

During the off-season you can develop a solid strength base in the gym, however, strength training alone will not make you a better time trialist. By adding on-the-bike resistance training to your program, you will transfer the strength gains from the gym to pedal power. The combination of a well-designed strength training program and on-the-bike strength training will maximize your potential.

Most of the power delivered from your legs to the pedals comes during the first half of the pedal stroke. The muscles that are active during this phase include the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteus maximus (your rear end). The gluteal muscles are used to a much greater extent in the time trial due to the aerodynamic position. These muscles are most active during the first half of the down stroke, providing substantial power when it is most needed. The following drills allow you to target these muscle groups and transfer the strength gains made in the gym to specific on-the-bike applications.

One leg pedaling

This strength and skill drill will help to increase power through the top center and bottom dead center of your pedal stroke. This drill is best when done on an indoor trainer and should be ridden at a moderate intensity level. To specifically target the muscles used in a time trial, complete the drill in your aero position. After a thorough warm-up, pedal with only one leg at 50-60 rpm in as hard a gear as you maintain for 30 seconds to one minute. The pedal stroke should be made as smooth as possible. Alternate and ride with your other leg for the same time period. Rest for 2-4 minutes between efforts by riding with both legs at a faster cadence (95 – 110 rpm). Repeat the drill 4 to 8 times for each leg.

Muscle Tension Efforts

These workouts can be performed on a steady climb (5-8%), against the wind on flat roads, or on a stationary trainer. The idea is to maintain a low cadence (55~65 rpm) while pushing against a high resistance. The purpose of the lower cadence is to allow you to limit heart rate, increase the muscle tension and force you to concentrate on your pedal stroke without the benefit of pedal momentum. It is important to stay seated and in your aero position during the entire effort. Try to get an even amount of power output throughout the entire pedal rotation. Initially, pedaling this slow with this amount of resistance is going to cause your pedal stroke to be uneven. If these are done on an indoor trainer, you will hear the wheel surging and slowing through each pedal stroke. Try to eliminate this surging by “scraping the mud off your shoes” at the bottom of the stroke, then pulling up through the back, and extending over the top into the downward push back to the bottom. These high muscle tension efforts can be ridden for 10 to 15 min, allowing the same time for recovery. Start with 2 or 3 repeats and increase up to 4 or 5.

Power Starts

Designed to help increase your power to the pedals, this workout needs to be done on a flat section of road. Select a large gear, possibly a 53 x 12-15, but adjust accordingly depending on your level of development. You want to begin this drill at a very low speed (3-5 mph). When you begin, JUMP on the pedals, out of the saddle, driving the pedals down as hard as possible. You want to use the leverage of the handlebars to move your body over each pedal as you drive it downward. Each effort should last no longer then 10 pedal strokes or 8 to 12 seconds. Since this is a muscular workout, you can ignore heart rate during these efforts. It is important to ride easy for 5 to 7 minutes between efforts to allow for full recovery. You can start with a set of 3 to 5 repetitions and build up 8 to 10 repetitions. This drill does place a high load on the knees. Do not attempt this drill until you have completed at least a month of basic strength training.

Also read: Cycling Smooth Pedal Stroke

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