6 Lower Body Exercises For A Powerful Pedal Stroke
Talented riders make cycling look easy. While mere mortals labor when the pace ramps up or the road tilts skyward, the titans on two wheels spin along with an almost casual cadence. Yes, genetic ability plays a role – the Eddy Merckxes of the world are born, not made. But no matter your birth-given abilities, your pedal stroke directly affects your bike riding. The smoother you propel the drivetrain, the more relaxed and stable your upper body becomes. The more motion there is in your upper body, the less efficient you’ll be. Indeed, pedalling is an art, an art that is definitely lost on some.
Truth is, there is a proper technique that produces a smooth pedalling style, which is typically expressed in the well-worn phrase “pedal in circles.” If you are just pressing down at the top of the pedal stroke – and not applying force during the full 360 degress of rotation – you are not pedalling as efficiently as you could.
You’ll occasionally hear cycling aficionados talk about souplesse, French for suppleness. In cycling, a rider with souplesse is a stylish rider with a smooth, easy pedalling style. There is no wasted upper body motion, no squirming on the saddle. Just the perfectly steady spin of the legs, effortlessly propelling the bike down the road.
Choppy pedalling or stomping on the pedals on the other hand often happens when there are muscle imbalances, and it drastically limits your power. Thus, rounding out your pedal stroke and thinking about the movement as a perfect circle versus a pushing motion can restore your power and help you build strength where you need it. “The idea of pedalling in a circle is to utilise the entire 360 degrees of the pedal, as opposed to just pressing down at the beginning of each stroke,” says Nicole Simonin, a certified personal trainer.
Before you even start to practice pedalling circles, make sure your bike is set up correctly. “Your position on the bike is key,” says Jill Gass, a USAC-Level 1 Coach and certified skills instructor. “It is important to start with a proper professional bike fit that also looks at shoe and cleat set-up. Proper bike position gives you the biomechanical foundation to improve your pedalling style and efficiency.” Specifically, proper cleat and seat height position mean the knee will be lined up correctly, and getting this trio dialed is how you can max out your power, says Gass.
Improving muscle strength will also increase your ability to pedal perfect circles. “Single-leg exercises can reduce muscle imbalances and strengthen weaker muscles,” says Simonin. Incorporate these lower body exercises to increase and balance out your cycling-specific strength.
How to use this list: Each of the exercises below is demonstrated by a certified personal trainer so you can master the proper form. Perform each move for the prescribed number of reps with 30 seconds of rest in-between each exercise. Repeat the entire circuit 1 to 2 times for a complete lower-body workout, then add it to your routine 1 to 2 times per week.
Start standing and shift your weight onto your right leg. Lift left leg out in front of you, keeping your hips level. Send hips back and bend right knee to lower down about 12 inches. You can extend your arms out straight for counter balance and keep chest lifted throughout. Stand back up to complete one rep. Perform 10 reps, then repeat on other leg.
Start standing and shift weight onto your left leg. Hinge at the hips and bend forward as you reach your right hand toward the floor. Allow a slight bend in left knee as right leg swings back behind you. Return to starting position and perform 10 reps. Then repeat on other leg.
Begin standing with both feet together. Step right foot out side to your right side. Send hips back and bend right knee as you lower into a side lunge with left leg straight. Keep chest lifted. Push through right heel to return to starting position. Perform 10 to 15 reps, then repeat on other leg. To make it more difficult, hold a kettlebell or dumbbell at your chest.
Side-Lying Leg Raise
Lie on your left side with left leg bent, right hand placed in front of you for balance, and rest head in left hand. Keep right leg straight and lift it straight up toward ceiling, then lower. Perform 15 reps, then flip over to repeat on other side.
Lie faceup with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Extend left leg out straight. Squeeze your glutes, and press through right heel to lift both hips up until body forms a straight line from shoulders to knees. Slowly lower. Perform 15 reps then repeat on other leg.
Single-Leg Calf Raise
Start standing in front of a low box or stair. Place left foot on the edge and let right foot hang free. Press through left forefoot to lift heel up, pause, then slowly lower. Perform 15 reps, then repeat on other leg.
Smooth Pedalling Pointers
Besides building strength and being in the right position on the bike, proper pedalling form also involves focused technique. “Incorporating the entire circle requires you to pull your foot back and up at the bottom of the stroke,” explains Simonin. “In the final up-stroke phase is a feeling of lifting your knee so you can incorporate your hip flexors. Using the circle technique allows you to not just rely on the quadriceps, but to also incorporate the hamstrings and hip flexors.” Basically, there should not be any room for wasted movement in your pedalling. Think of moving the pedals, forward, down, back, and up. And keep these valuable tips in mind.
Try Single-Leg Drills
Among the best ways to achieve more fluidity in your pedal stroke are one-legged drills. One-legged pedalling forces you to pedal all the way through the stroke and develop your muscles accordingly. Whether you do this outside or inside on a trainer, try to make it a regular component of your off-season training. Start with 20 revolutions per side and increase to several minutes at a stretch. Repeat two to five times per ride for each leg.
Opt for a gearing that will help slow down the motion and really allow you to focus on your form. The idea is to eliminate the dead spot in your pedal stroke. Remember that you want to keep your toes relaxed at all times. Resist curling them up or clinching the sole of your shoe.
Scrape Your Foot
When on your bike, think about pulling your foot back and up as if you were scraping something off the bottom of your shoe. You should feel tension in your hamstrings, and when the pedal is lifting up, the feeling should be one of lifting your knee with an assist from your hip flexors.
Smooth It Out
Try to eliminate surges in your pedal stroke by focusing on just the second half of the rotation, when your foot is coming up.
Check Your Saddle
Finally, make sure your saddle is set at the proper height. If it’s too high, you’ll rock back and forth. If it’s too low, you’ll put undue stress on your knees. To determine proper saddle height, sit on your bike while leaning against a wall. Now drape both feet straight down. If your saddle height is set correctly, your heel should just graze the pedal when the crank arm is in the 6 o’clock position.