Many cyclists have well-developed quadriceps on the front of their upper legs. Conversely, their hamstrings are weaker, often tighter, and generally less developed. This type of imbalance can lead to injury and a reduction in performance. To create balanced and powerful lower-body musculature, we need to develop our posterior chain.
The lower body posterior chain muscles include everything from the lower back (erector spinae, obliques), to the gluteal muscles, the hamstring (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus), down to the calf (gastrocnemius, soleus).
While the entire upper and lower posterior chain is important—and often ignored by cyclists—in this article we’ll focus on the lower portion: the legs, which serve as the foundation of the entire kinetic chain.
The gluteal muscles (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus) are used in the extension and lateral rotation of the hip. If the glutes are not strong, this can lead to back issues due to a lack of spine support.
As we descend the body, next come the hamstrings. Sitting opposite of the quads, on the backside of the upper leg, this muscle group extends from the hips all the way to the knee. If your upper body is fixed or static, as it is while riding a bike, the hamstrings help produce hip extension.
Finally, the calf muscle includes two components. The gastrocnemius is responsible for plantar flexion (the movement of the foot in a downward motion away from the body) and flexing of the leg at the knee. The soleus also is responsible for plantar flexion but is more engaged when the knee is bent. Together these muscles act as stabilizers throughout the pedal stroke and help produce about 20% of the power load.
There are numerous exercises that can be used to strengthen the posterior chain. Here we’ll focus on three key movements.
To build strength in the hamstring and glute muscles, the deadlift is one of the best exercises. As a bonus, it also works the back and hips. Proper technique is key.
- Step up to a barbell, feet shoulder-width apart, with your toes under the bar.
- Keep a slight bend in the knees. Hinge at the hips to place your hands on the bar, using an overhand grip about shoulder-width apart. (Your hips should drop lower than your shoulders.)
- Set your shoulder blades by squeezing them back, making sure they stay down and away from your ears. Inhale and brace your core.
- As you exhale, return to a standing position, squeezing your glutes at the top of the movement.
- Don’t rush your reps; focus on form.
Similar to a hip thrust, this movement takes place with your back on the floor. While the focus may be strengthening the glutes, you’ll also stretch your hips and prevent (or alleviate) low-back pain.
- With your back on the ground, bend your knees and place your feet shoulder-width apart and flat on the ground.
- By changing the distance your heels are from your butt, you can emphasize different muscles. If they are further away, you will engage more hamstring, while keeping them closer will isolate more glute.
- Keep your arms on the ground.
- Drive through your heels to thrust your hips toward the ceiling.
- Create a straight line from the knees to the shoulders.
- Keep your core engaged so you don’t hyperextend your back.
- Hold for several seconds, squeezing the glutes. (Concentrate on feeling your muscles at work.)
- With control, lower the hips back to the floor.
- For a more advanced progression, set a weight across your hips while performing this movement.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
To improve hip stability and strength, the single-leg RDL is a key workout. Balance is important, so be prepared to grab a wall or chair for added stability. As always, proper technique is critical.
- Stand on one leg, bending the knee slightly.
- Bend forward, hinging at the hips.
- Keep a straight line between head, back, and extended leg. (Think of the phrase: “Head to heel, strong as steel.”)
- Lower as far as you can, with control. Ideally, your free leg and torso become parallel to the ground.
- Utilize the hamstrings and glutes to return to a standing position. (Don’t rely on your lower back muscles to return upright.)
Workout of the Week: Posterior Chain Strength for Cyclists
Choose a weight that allows you to perform the movements with good technique throughout all sets and reps. Begin with 2 sets of each exercise, progressing to 3 sets as you get more comfortable.
- 2 × 6-8 deadlifts
- 2 × 8-10 glute bridges
- 2 × 5-10 each single-leg RDL