Weight training and cycling: two activities that for most people are kept completely separate. As a cyclist, you love the cardio buzz you get – the satisfaction from conquering big hills, and feeling like your heart’s about to explode from your chest. And while lifting weights may still be challenging, and on occasion the gym can feel like a much safer haven than the ice-coated, rain splattered roads, it just doesn’t give that same rush. But, if you really want to maximize your performance out on the roads, then spending some time in the weight room may just be the best investment you ever make.
But don’t just go and blast away with some haphazard routine you randomly picked from an old bodybuilding magazine – you need a plan that’s specific to your goals. For cyclists, one key area to focus on when weight training to improve your performance is your hamstrings.
The hamstrings are one of those muscles that no one seems to know too much about. We all know that squats work your quads, bench presses hit your chest, and planks train your core, but hamstrings? For most guys, the leg curl’s probably as far as they get with hamstring training, and it’s not a bad exercise, but if it’s the only thing you do for your hammies, then you’re selling yourself short.
The hamstrings are actually three different smaller muscle groups; the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris. Together, they work to perform two main actions – knee flexion (think lifting your heel towards your bum,) and hip extension (kicking your leg backwards.)
Cycling may be more of a quadriceps-dominant activity, but that doesn’t mean that your hamstrings are unimportant. Knee flexion occurs a lot when riding – every time your feet lift up from the bottom of a revolution, and a degree of hip extension is also involved, especially when you’re riding out of the saddle and climbing hills.
The other point to consider is that by specifically training your hamstrings with resistance based movements, you’re making them generally stronger. This helps when sprinting, and increases your lower body work capacity and resistance to fatigue – Good news when you’re reaching the top of another arduous climb.
Hamstring injuries are also one of the most common athletic ailments. Weak hamstrings are far more prone to strains and tears than strong ones, and the last thing you want is time out of the saddle due to injuries.
Hit your hams hard to increase speed, power, endurance and longevity.
Glute Bridge Raises
These should be on page one of “Hamstring Exercises 101.” Before doing any of the fancy stuff, you need to nail the glute bridge raise. While the name may imply that it’s more of a glute exercise, your hamstrings play a big role too.
Lie on your back with your knees bent to roughly 90 degrees, and your heels pressed firmly into the floor. With your hands at your side, push your hips off the floor as high as you can, all the time squeezing your hamstrings and glutes.
These aren’t too tough, but are a great way to start to feel your hamstrings working. Try a couple of sets of 15 at the start of your workout as a bridge between your warm up and the heavier work.
Glute Ham Raises
If you train in a commercial gym, you probably aren’t too familiar with these, which is a shame, because glute ham raises offer a multitude of benefits. They’ve long been used by powerlifters for strengthening the group of muscles known as the posterior chain, which comprises the hamstrings, glutes and lower back, and are an absolute must for any woman looking to target those pesky saddlebags and butt muscles. As a cyclist, they’re your new best friend too.
Chances are, unless your gym caters for athletes, you won’t have a glute ham raise machine. Worry not though, there’s a simple, but just as effective alternative that you can do using one piece of equipment that almost every gym on the planet has – the lat pulldown.
Kneel on the seat, so that you’re facing away from the weight stack, with your heels secured firmly under the knee pads. Shuffle forwards so that your knees are right on the edge, and hold your hands in front of your chest. Slowly lower yourself towards the floor by straightening your legs, while keeping your lower back and core muscles held tight. Control the descent by keeping your hamstrings tensed. Once you can’t lower yourself any further slowly, use your hands to push you back away from the floor. On your first go, just try three sets of three reps, but add a few more reps or an extra set in each workout. You should also aim to make your descent slower over time, and use your arms less on the upwards phase.
You’ll have to prepare for some funny looks from fellow gym-goers when doing these, but the results are worth it. No post-ride hamstring soreness will ever rival the pain felt the day after your first attempt at glute ham raises.
Bodyweight Leg Curls
No doubt you’re familiar with machine leg curls. Most gyms carry at least one leg curl machine – usually a lying or seated version, although kneeling and standing ones are also pretty familiar sights. The trouble with leg curl machines though, as with most resistance machines, is that they’re very much designed in a “one size fits all manner,” which, as we know, certainly isn’t the case. Due to limb length, biomechanics, and muscle origins and insertions, machines may not be the most comfortable way to perform an exercise, or the most beneficial. There are ways to perform leg curls though, which make them far more applicable and to you.
The first of three variations is the Swiss ball leg curl. Lie on your back with your legs straight, and heels on a Swiss ball. Lift your hips off the floor, squeeze your hamstrings and glutes, and bend your knees to bring the ball in towards you. Once you can’t bend your knees any further, pause for a second, and squeeze your hamstrings as hard as you can, then slowly straighten your legs again. This is the most simple leg curl, so once you can knock out 15 good reps, move on to the second variation.
Up next is the gymnastic ring leg curl. If you’ve got access to a set of gym rings, or some kind of suspension trainer, then these are another useful exercise to use in your artillery. Lots of gyms do now have suspension training systems, but even if yours doesn’t, then about thiry dollars; a quick trip down to the nearest home improvement store to pick up some lashing straps, PVC piping and a couple of carabiners; and twenty minutes of knot tying and measuring is all you need to make your own.
Loop the rings over a power rack or chin up bar, so the handles are hanging around two feet from the floor. Set up in the same way as for the gym ball version – lying on your back, with your legs straight. Place your heels in the handles/straps, lift your hips up, and bend your legs. This is a slightly tougher version of the ball leg curl, as your hamstrings and glutes have to work harder to stabilize your lower body.
The final leg curl variation can be done using a towel or set of dusters. Sounds mad, but these can be very effective training tools. You’ll need a wooden floor for this, so make your way into your gym’s studio. Lie on your back, and place the towel or dusters under your heels. Lift your hips again, and pull your feet in towards your bum. Bring them in as far as you can, then slide them out again. This again, is slightly more difficult than the gym ball leg curls, as you have to overcome the friction provided by the floor.
You know all the best exercises for your hamstrings, but what’s the best way to put it all together? There are loads of ways you can program weight training into your schedule, and there’s no right or wrong method, but it tends to work best if you have one dedicated lower body workout each week.
This plan is for an intermediate rider, who has some experience in weight training, and is looking to increase hamstring strength and endurance:
|Warm up – cardio, mobility, dynamic stretching.||10-15 minutes||N/A|
|1.||Glute Bridge Raises||3||15|
|2a.||Dumbbell Split Squats||4||8 per side|
|2b.*||Glute Ham Raises||4||6|
|3.||Towel Leg Curls||5||15|
|4.||Core work – planks, crunches, etc. Choose 2 exercises.||3||15-20|
|Cool down – light cardio, mobility and static stretching.||10-15 minutes||N/A|
* 2a/2b is a superset – perform a set of split squats on each leg, then go straight into glute ham raises. Rest, then go back to split squats.
- Keep rest periods to 30-60 seconds between all exercises.
- The split squats are a quadriceps-dominant exercise, and will aid in improving lower body strength and endurance.
- Aim to add a small amount of weight, or a few extra repetitions every workout, while maintaining perfect form.
- If you feel that your hamstrings are still a weak area, there’s no harm in throwing in some extra glute bridge raises or towel leg curls on one or two other days every week.
Whether or not your performance on the bike is improving, and no matter how healthy your legs feel, adding in extra hamstring work is always a good idea. Stronger hamstrings will make you a faster, healthier rider.
The key to successfully implementing this type of training into your schedule is to make sure that you still recover properly between workouts. Stretch after your weight sessions and your rides, and get regular sports massages for your hamstrings. If you’re putting the weight training in on top of all your other activities, then you’ll probably need to increase your calorie intake slightly too, to prevent you from feeling lethargic and picking up injuries.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.