Cyclists spend thousands of dollars on precise training and nutrition protocols, seek out the best equipment and supplements, and look to find the best training groups to push them to the next level. However, in spite of their enthusiasm and commitment, very few cyclists are taking advantage of valuable training off the bike. This three-part series outlines six key exercises that not only optimize performance, but will keep you healthy for the long haul, as well.
Thoracic extensions on the foam roller
A cyclist in an aerodynamic position must endure prolonged spinal flexion (rounding). Thus, it isn't surprising that many cyclists experience shoulder, neck, and upper- and lower-back pain.
Daily thoracic extensions on a foam roller can improve extensibility of the thoracic spine, making it easier for the shoulder girdle and lumbar spine to be stable and remain healthy. Additionally, many cyclists feel more compact and efficient on the bike after five to six weeks of dedicated thoracic extension work.
How to do it
Begin with the roller parallel to your upper back, about one inch below the bottom of your shoulder blades. Tighten your abdominals and put your hands behind your head with the elbows pulled together (don't pull on the neck, though).
While keeping your glutes on the floor, extend backward as if you were trying to touch your head to the floor. Make sure that the range of motion (ROM) comes at your thoracic spine and not your lumbar spine. When all is said and done, each rep will look like a limited-ROM crunch.
Do two reps in this first position, then slide the roller up an inch toward the neck and repeat the process. When finished, move it up again, and then once more after that. You should be able to cover the entire thoracic spine in four adjustments of two repetitions each.
Make sure to stretch your pecs, lats and upper trap muscles in addition to your work with the roller. Results will be more readily apparent when thoracic extensions are paired with plenty of rowing movements to strengthen the muscles of the upper back. Part II will address these in detail.
The deadlift is arguably the single most productive resistance training exercise there is. Cyclists with little time for strength training can benefit from the deadlift activating several muscles per movement -- including the forearms/gripping muscles, core stabilizers, lats, glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and upper, mid and lower back.
More importantly, the deadlift is perhaps the best posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes) exercise possible, which is significant for health and performance in cyclists.
From a health standpoint, allowing the quadriceps to dominate over the hamstrings while pedaling -- common for cyclists -- is a big risk factor for knee pain. Additionally, research has shown that elite cyclists recruit about eight percent more glutes while pedaling than their novice counterparts.
Deadlifts also strengthen the thoracic erectors, upper-back muscles that keep us more upright and pain-free from shoulder and neck problems due to poor posture.
How to do it
Step up to the barbell so your shins are in contact with it. Push your hips back as if someone has a rope around your waist and is pulling you backward, keeping your chest high.
As the hips continue back, bend your knees to help lower yourself to the barbell. Grasp the barbell with a grip that puts your forearms right up against the sides of your thighs. Your chest should remain high while your hips drop down -- not so far down, however, that it appears you're trying to squat the weight up. Your arms should be completely straight, your eyes looking up and your weight focused on your heels.
To lift the weight, take a big gasp of air into your stomach (helps stabilize the spine), drive your heels into the floor and push your hips forward as your knees extend [photo right]. Your hips and knees should extend simultaneously.
As odd as it might sound, as you reach lockout, think of pinching something between your butt cheeks when completing the lift. This will prevent you from leaning back to finish the movement (lumbar hyperextension) or stopping short, which can lead to hamstring dominance, among other problems. Make sure your shoulder blades are back and you're standing tall [photo left].
The lowering portion is initiated by pushing your butt back. Think about stretching your hamstrings without rounding your back. Once the bar has passed your knees, you can bend them to reach the floor.
Many cyclists will initially lack the flexibility to pull from the floor. Don't force this exercise. The worst thing you can do is lift heavy weights with a rounded back. A great substitute is the rack pull -- also known as the partial deadlift. Either elevate the bar on pins in a power rack [photo right], or set the plates on aerobic steps on the floor. As your flexibility improves, move the bar down to the floor.
It's not a good idea to deadlift in cross-trainers or running shoes -- they put you up on your heels and shift your weight forward. Ideally, wear a sneaker that allows you to push through your heels by keeping them in close contact with the floor. Good choices include the Nike Free and Chuck Taylors (Converse All-Stars). If you don't have either, feel free to deadlift barefoot, something many powerlifters do in competition.
Because it's a pretty technical exercise, don't do a lot of deadlift reps. Stick to sets of one to eight reps. Perform these exercises regularly and you'll be riding more efficiently and powerfully than ever before.