Deadlifts for Cyclists – Your Almost-New Secret Weapon
Deadlifts are a popular, enduring exercise for a reason: They’re incredibly functional and effective for targeting a bunch of different muscles at once, especially the oft-neglected muscles that run down the back of the body.
It’s no surprise then that deadlifts are seemingly everywhere these days—from articles detailing the impressive amount of weight folks managed to deadlift to an increasing number of viral TikTok videos chronicling proper form.
While most everyone could benefit from doing more deadlifts, cyclists in particular stand to gain a lot from prioritising this classic strength move.
Here, with the help of two fitness professionals, we break down how deadlifts can better your performance in the saddle and tips for making them a regular part of your workout routine.
The Benefits of Deadlifts for Cyclists
1. The exercise works cycling-specific muscles
The deadlift is a full-body movement that especially targets your posterior chain (backside muscles), including your hamstrings, glutes, and back. It also works your core, and can get the quads in on the action, too.
When it comes to effective strength moves, “there are few substitutes for the deadlift,” according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association. “Its simplicity and function should make it a priority in all strength-training regimens.”
There are two main types of deadlifts: the Romanian deadlift and the regular deadlift, Craig Secor, P.T., D.P.T., a Richmond, Virginia-based physical therapist and bike fit specialist, tells Bicycling. A Romanian deadlift, also called a straight-leg deadlift, involves holding a slight bend in the knees but otherwise keeping the legs fairly straight. This positioning, Secor explains, really fires up the hamstrings and glutes, and involves more of a hip hinge than the regular deadlift. The latter, by contrast, involves a deeper knee bend, which adds much more quad emphasis. Overall though, both types help strengthen the posterior chain.
The reason this move is so important for cycling: Just think about the position you hold on the bike. You have to hinge at the hips, with a flat back and strong core, for your entire ride. The deadlift helps you hold that position, while strengthening the lower body, which powers your pedal stroke.
2. Deadlifts balance out your body
In general, cyclists tend to have super-strong quads and weaker-than-ideal hamstrings, due to the fact that the cycling motion favours the frontside of the legs more so than the back, Katie Pierson, Montana-based certified personal trainer and certified spinning instructor tells Bicycling. Not only does this muscle imbalance increase your risk of injury, it also decreases the amount of power and stability you have throughout your pedal stroke, Pierson explains.
Moreover, this strong emphasis cycling places on the quads can cause your quads and hip flexors to tighten up, which can contribute to back pain and discomfort, says Secor.
Again, that’s where deadlifts come in. Doing deadlifts regularly can elevate your hamstring strength, thus reducing the muscle imbalance between the front and backs of your legs and equalising both sides of your pedal stroke, says Pierson.
3. This move can improve your pedal stroke
Strong hamstrings and glutes translate to increased explosiveness while sprinting, more efficient climbing, and the ability to handle higher loads of resistance and gears, Pierson says.
Glutes are especially important for the initial push-off phase at the top of your cycling stroke, says Secor. So the stronger your glutes are, the more powerful your pedal stroke will be. Indeed, the authors of an article published in Strength and Conditioning Journal noted that straight-leg deadlifts in particular can help promote power throughout a pedal stroke.
4. Deadlifts target your back and upper body, too
Another big benefit of deadlifts is that they strengthen your back muscles. In cycling, your lower and upper back muscles play a key role in supporting your position on the bike, says Secor. The stronger your back, the longer you’ll be able to ride with proper form and without overusing certain muscles, which will lower your risk of injury and generally make your time in the saddle more comfortable. (A properly fitted bike is also crucial for reducing your chances of injury and feeling good while riding, adds Secor.)
Deadlifts also target your back extensor muscles, a key muscle group for cyclists who frequently drop in and out of aero position as that motion is essentially a “mini back extension activity,” says Secor. The previously mentioned Strength and Conditioning Journal articleagrees: The authors note deadlifts can boost lower back core strength and help athletes in the aero position combat fatigue and cramping while maintaining control of their bike.
To boot, deadlifts work your shoulder stabilizer muscles as you pull up on the bar, says Secor. This translates well to any type of riding where you’re pulling up on your handlebars, such as popping wheelies and jumping over obstacles while mountain biking, he explains.
5. This strength move can bolster your bones
Off the bike, deadlifting as part of a regular strength training program can help improve bone mineral density. A study published in Journal of Strength Conditioning Research found that young healthy men who completed a 24-week strength program featuring deadlifts (plus other exercises) significantly improved their bone mineral density. The program did not elicit as much of an effect for women participants, but another meta-analysis looking at moderate-intensity resistance training in postmenopausal women improved bone mineral density.
Doing regular deadlift training, and progressively overloading that training in intensity and volume, may also help alleviate low back pain, as well, according to various research cited in a separate article published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Because cyclists are more prone to bone health-related issues, it’s especially important for us to incorporate strength training into our cycling schedules—and deadlifts should have a regular spot within those workouts.
How to Add More Deadlifts to Your Schedule
There’s no set recommendation of how often to deadlift and what your deadlift sets should look like, because every cyclist’s training goals are different. That said, the general idea is to eventually work up to a very heavy load, says Secor, as this will help maximize the strength benefits of deadlifts. This could look like doing low reps (think: four to eight in a set) with heavy weights and long rest breaks. Just make sure you give your muscles enough downtime after each session so they can properly recover; Secor suggests deadlifting one to two times a week with ample rest days in between.
Secor recommends cyclists do both regular and Romanian deadlifts but acknowledges people can struggle to tolerate the latter because it often places more strain on the back. As such, consider starting with the regular deadlift. Once you feel comfortable with that, and understand the gist of hip hinging, then try the Romanian deadlift.
Start with light weights, and know that your weights will likely remain lighter with the Romanian deadlift, because of the number of muscles recruited.
Beyond the two main deadlift types, there are tons of other variations you can try to keep your routine fresh and varied, says Pierson. Her favorite is a Bulgarian split squat and single-leg Romanian deadlift superset, which is great for really lighting up the hamstrings. For other ideas, check out this article with 12 expert-recommended variations (plus step-by-step instructions for how to deadlift correctly).
Last thing: If you’re planning to strength train the same day as a ride, be strategic about the order of your workouts. If your main priority is building strength, then slot in your strength work before you hop on the saddle, says Pierson. But if you’re instead focused on pure cardio and endurance riding, then tackle your ride before you hit the gym. Once you do get to your strength session, consider lightening your weights slightly as you likely won’t be able to lift as heavy, as your muscles will already be fatigued.