Most cycle training stresses the need to improve the performance of your quads and glutes. But the hamstrings play a critical, commonly overlooked part in developing your cycling power, performance, and even comfort.
A Cyclist’s Guide to the Hamstrings
The hamstrings are easy enough to find. Put a hand on the back of your leg when you stand up, and you will feel your hamstrings engaging. In cycling, the hamstrings have two main actions: to flex the knee and to extend the hip.
There are three muscles in this group: the semimembranosus, the semitendinosus, and the biceps femoris. They all originate from the sitting bones, or the ischial tuberosity, at the base of the pelvis. The semimembranosus and semitendinosus both run down the inside back of your femur, and cross the knee joint to insert onto the tibia. The biceps femoris takes a slightly different route, crossing the posterior section of the femur to insert onto the outside back of the tibia.
As a cyclist, your hamstrings are used in critical portions of the entire pedal stroke: in the downward stroke as the hip and knee extends, and in the upward stroke as the knee and hip flexes. If you consider the rotation of a bike pedal, your knee starts to flex at around the four or five o’clock position as the foot starts to move back and up. You then need to engage the hamstrings so that you are not just lifting one leg with the other’s weight.
If you dabble in triathlon or run regularly, the hamstrings also help maintain an upward attitude of the trunk so your body does not fall forwards. That’s why you may feel your hamstrings strain on longer, more intense runs.
Lack of Range Can Wreak Havoc
If your hamstrings do not have sufficient working range, they will hold you back in your cycling efforts. Refer to the diagram below. The cyclist’s picture has been overlaid with the approximate positions of the pelvis, spine, femur, and tibia in orange. The position of the hamstrings are shown by the blue oval.
Want to go aero? Check your working range allows it first.
If the cyclist wishes to lower their upper body to adopt a more aerodynamic position on the bike, the hips should rotate to allow the hamstrings to lengthen and the body to adopt the desired position.
There are two outcomes if this hip rotation occurs.
- If the hamstrings reach the full extent of their range before the cyclist has got into their desired position, then the final stages of the movement can only be completed by flexing the spine.
- The amount of rotation of the pelvis possible will be limited by the available length of the hamstrings.
Both present an issue. Cycling over a long distance will fatigue the hamstrings and will shorten their maximum range, and while the spine is designed to flex, long periods held in excessive flexion can result in strain for the rider. What might have been an achievable position at the start of a ride can become extremely uncomfortable towards the end.
Also, if the hamstrings do not have a very good range in the first place, then as the foot moves towards the front of the pedal stroke, the hamstrings on that side will lengthen until they reach full range, and the only way to get the foot to move further forward in this case is to slide forward on the saddle or rotate the pelvis and lumbar spine. This is a further recipe for discomfort and strain, and can usually be observed from the back of the rider by significant twisting at the hip.
Maintain Your ROM and Feel the Benefits
To help you get into more aerodynamic positions but avoid this discomfort, you need to maintain an appropriate range of movement in your hamstrings. Stretching is first and foremost. I don’t like classic hamstring stretches that involve leaning forward. So many people do this incorrectly, by flexing their spine rather than their hamstrings. A better option is to lie on the floor and gently pull your foot towards your head using a gym towel or resistance band. Remember stretches should be gentle and sustained in order to maintain the length of the muscle you’re working.
Another maintenance technique is to gently work the hamstrings near the end of their active range with bodyweight squats and lightweight deadlifts. These exercises are great for improving overall strength in this area. Other exercises I would suggest are leg curls, cable hip extensions, and good mornings. If you also wish to develop hamstring power, jumps onto a low platform or running up a flight of steps are simple but highly effective drills.
Lastly, avoid long periods of sitting at a desk or driving a car. Engaging a sports massage specialist who can work more closely with you to provide individual therapy will also help.
It’s Not Just About Quads and Glutes
The take home message is that in order to stay comfortable or fast on your bike, you need to look after your hamstrings. It’s also worth having your bike fit checked to ensure that you are not being forced into leaning too far forwards and aggravating any hamstring issues further. An accurate assessment like this should help ensure that you are not leaning further forward than your flexibility allows. If you are, it can usually be remedied by changing a few components. The height and reach to the handlebars can be changed with a different stem and your seat can be moved further forwards to open up the hip angle.
Bear in mind as well that if you have chronically short hamstrings it can take some time to develop extra range there, so be patient. By building in the above exercises and stretches to your exercise routine, you’re setting yourself up for success this season. Because it’s not just about quads and glutes: hamstrings are key to better cycling.
Think you can skip the weights and still make power? Think again: