When discussing muscles involved in the pedaling motion of cycling, most people think of quadriceps and hamstrings. While these muscles certainly play an important role, the many muscles of the hip also deserve attention, and the weight room is the perfect place to keep them functioning properly.
Before discussing different strength and mobility exercises, we should first look at activation exercises for your Gluteus Maximus (referred to as the glutes) muscles. The reason for needing to activate your glutes is simple—as a population, we spend way too much time sitting, and as a result, what happens is what noted spinal researcher Stuart McGill terms gluteal amnesia—your glute muscles can "go to sleep" and not function properly.
When your glutes aren't functioning properly, other muscles (hamstrings and lumbar extensors) are called in to do the job of the glutes, mainly hip extension. Think of hip extension as the downward action of pedaling.
The problem is that these muscles aren't designed to be prime movers—they're designed to support the action of the glutes. Inability of activating the glutes can result in low back pain (low back muscles compensating), hamstring strains (overacting hamstrings), hip pain (resulting from hamstring-dominant hip extension) and knee pain (poor glute medius strength).
So, to activate your glutes, try the single-leg hip lift. Here's how it's done:
Single Leg Hip-Lift
Lie down on the floor with your legs bent as shown and lift one foot off the floor. Lift your hips up in the air, concentrating on contracting your glute muscles (think pushing through your heel). Make sure you keep your toes of the working leg up as shown. Pause for a second or two and lower. Perform 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps each side.
This exercise can be done anytime, but works particularly well before a strength workout to "wake up" your glutes, especially if you have been sitting for a while.