10 Essential Strength Exercises for Cyclists
Make these moves part of your regular routine to ride longer and stronger for life. – By Selene Yeager
At this point, there’s really no question that cyclists (and pretty much everybody, really) should be doing some form of resistance training.
With age, muscle mass dwindles and bones weaken. Strength training helps stem that process, making you more powerful and structurally sound—both really important if you ride a bike. Strength training can also add years to your life.
Though masters and women benefit most, research on young elite male riders has found that their performance numbers also rise when they get out of the saddle and hit the squat rack as part of their regular training. That’s why even climbing specialists like Joe Dombrowski swear by strength training.
To reap the greatest rewards, strength train year-round, hitting all your major muscle groups one to three times a week (more often during the off season when you’re not riding as much; less frequently when you’re riding lots). To keep things fresh and continually challenge your muscles in novel ways, mix up your sets and reps from session to session, so sometimes you’re lifting heavy (three to four sets of three to six reps, three to five minutes of rest between sets); sometimes light (two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps, one to two minutes of rest between sets), and sometimes moderately (two to three sets of eight to 10 reps, one to two minutes of rest between sets). Body-weight moves are done in higher rep ranges, since there’s no external weight.
The best moves are ones that target your primary movers (i.e. legs) from every angle as well as all the muscles that support you on the bike (good news: those muscles also support you off the bike). Here are 10 essential moves every cyclist should know. You don’t have to do all 10 every time you work out. Just be sure to hit your upper body, lower body, and core.
1. Barbell or Dumbbell Deadlift
This move can be performed with a barbell (pictured), but it’s easier to get the hang of with dumbbells. Start by holding the dumbbells by your sides, palms facing back. Keeping your eyes forward, chest lifted, and back flat. Hinge at the hips and lower the weights toward the floor, allowing your knees to bend slightly. Keep the weight close to your body and lower until your upper body is almost parallel to the floor. Contracting your glutes, push your hips forward to raise yourself back to the starting position.
Why it’s essential: Works your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and lower back for powerful pedaling in and out of the saddle.
2. Skater Step Up
Hold dumbbells at your sides (or put your hands on your hips if doing it without weight). Stand next to a box, or step with one leg bent and foot planted on the box. All in one move, straighten the bent leg, lifting your body up while swinging the other leg out to the side as high as comfortably possible. Return to the starting position. Complete a set and switch sides.
Why it’s essential: You’re working one leg at a time, which helps develop balanced strength (most of us have one side that is stronger). It also targets your outer glutes, so you’re more stable in the saddle and less prone to side-to-side rocking—and the back and knee pain that can follow.
3. Single-Leg Bridge
Lie on the floor, legs bent with heels close to butt, arms at sides. Raise one leg straight up toward ceiling. Contract glutes and lift hips up toward ceiling to form a straight line from shoulders to knees. Pause. Lower and repeat for a full set. Switch sides.
Why it’s essential: Hones in on the glutes, which can be weak in quad- and hip-flexor-dominant cyclists.
4. Air Squat
Stand with feet wider than shoulder-width, feet turned out a little. Extend your arms straight in front of you. Squat down until your butt drops below knee level. Quickly extend your legs and jump into the air. Land softly, immediately dropping into another squat. Repeat.
Why it’s essential: Impact helps build bones. Research on people with mild knee osteoarthritis shows that impact moves like air squats also can protect your knees by thickening the cartilage and making them stronger.
5. Rock the Boat
Sit on the floor while holding a medicine ball (or dumbbell) in both hands, with shoulders relaxed, elbows bent, and arms close to your sides. Place your knees and feet about hip-width apart, heels on the floor, knees bent, and back straight. With a straight back, lean back from the hips until you feel your abs engage. Keeping heels on the floor and arms close to your body, twist from the waist to the left side. Twist back to the center starting position. Twist to the opposite (right) side. Return to the starting position to complete one rep. Continue alternating sides for 10 reps. (Keep weight moderate on this move.)
Why it’s essential: It strengthens your obliques (side torso), which are the muscles that rotate your trunk, or in the case of cycling, minimizing that rotation as your legs pedal up and down. When they’re weak, you are susceptible to too much twisting, which can cause aches and fatigue as well as wasted watts.
6. Flip Side Snow Angels
Lie facedown, arms extended at your sides. Squeeze your glutes and slowly lift your feet, chest, and hands no more than six inches off the floor. Sweep your arms overhead and separate your feet. Try to touch your hands above your head. Return to the start position, relaxing your feet, chest, and arms.
Why it’s essential: Targets your entire back to counteract the stretching and weakening effect of all the time cyclists spend sitting in hunched forward position (whether over your handlebars, steering wheel, keyboard, or phone).
7. Triceps Dip
Sit on the edge of a sturdy chair or bench. Place your hands shoulder-width apart on either side of your hips. Slide your rear off the chair, legs extended in front of you. Straighten your arms while keeping your elbows soft. Bend your elbows and lower body toward the floor until your arms are bent 90 degrees. Straighten your arms, return to start, and repeat.
Why it’s essential: Your triceps help prop you up on your handlebars. They can get pretty sore on long rides unless you take steps to keep them strong.
8. Pushup to Renegade Row
Assume a pushup position with your hands holding the handles of two dumbbells so the weights run parallel to your body. Position your feet hip- to shoulder-distance apart (the further apart they are, the easier the move). Perform a pushup. Then, keeping your back straight, pull the right dumbbell to your right side, while pressing the left dumbbell into the floor for balance. Return to the starting position. Repeat, pulling the left dumbbell to your left side. Return to start.
Why it’s essential: Builds core and upper back strength, which helps you maintain good posture on and off the bike. This move also improves your ability to transfer the power you generate from pulling on your bars into your legs to push the pedals, especially when climbing hills.
9. Lateral Lunge with Overhead Press
Stand with feet hip-width apart, dumbbells at sides. Lunge right, dropping hips back, lowering weights to either side of foot. Press back to start, pressing weights overhead. Immediately repeat the move, lunging left. (Keep weight moderate to light for this move.)
Why it’s essential: It covers two motions many cyclists miss: lateral (side to side) and overhead motion, both of which you need for general life function.
Stand straight, with your arms at your sides. Squat down, placing hands on floor, shoulder-width apart. Jump legs back into high plank, pushup position. Perform a pushup. Jump legs toward hands, into squat position. Extend legs and jump, swinging arms overhead and repeat.
Why it’s essential: It’s a great go-to move to strengthen nearly every muscle, get the benefits of a little impact, and get your heart rate up when time is tight.