While speaking at a recent training camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, an off-road cyclist wanted to know if working out on a stair climber would be a good cross-training tool to exercise on during the off-season.
I was quick to tell him that a key training concept for athletes to remember is specificity of training. In other words, if you want to be a swimmer, swim; if you want to be a runner, run; and if you want to be a good climber in cycling then climb on your bike.
To excel at climbing, get on your mountain bike and practice your in-the-saddle and out-of-the-saddle technique and pedaling style to develop the power needed for climbing.
However, in recent years, cyclists have also supplemented their on-the-bike training with other activities that use similar muscles to those used in climbing on the bike. Weight training, hill running, cross-country skiing and snow shoeing are excellent off- and in-season activities to supplement your on the bike climbing.
With the increased popularity of stair machine use in health clubs and homes, some cyclists have also added stair climbing to their programs. Stair climbing is a great exercise for the buttocks, hamstrings and quadriceps—the key cycling muscles. When you add arm exercise to the climbing motion, you now have a total body conditioner.
Stair machines come in all types and sizes. You can design steady-state workouts of 20 to 60 minutes on climbers or conduct interval sessions just as you would on a bike.
To replicate on-the-bike climbing, rely on longer intervals of three to five minutes and work at a moderately intense pace. Get stepping fast enough to put yourself into an anaerobic state for the last 20 to 30 seconds of each interval as if you were going for a sprint at the top of the hill.
Whatever type of machine you use, follow these simple steps for maximum results:
1. Hold the handrails lightly and only for balance. Your weight should be on the legs to get the most benefit. Some cyclists swing their arms in a pumping motion with light dumbbells to work the upper body.
2. To work the buttock muscles, take higher and deeper steps. To work the abdominals, take shorter steps, keeping your feet a little forward of your upper body. You can also work the buttocks and hamstrings (back of thigh) by placing more weight over your heels (step flatfooted).
3. By stepping more on your toes, you will stress the quadriceps (front of thigh) and calves.
4. Mix quick, short steps with full steps. Short steps work the quadriceps and calves; longer, full steps affect the buttocks and hamstrings.
5. To improve your ability to ride your bike out of the saddle, train each leg independently. Working at a moderate pace on the stair climber, press harder with the right leg for 25 to 30 repetitions, while pressing lightly with the left leg. Next, focus on the other leg.
6. If you listen to music; I don't feel that rock music is the best accompaniment to your workout. Personally, I think the beat is too dominant, which throws me off my pacing. For me, showtunes and classical music are better choices for the 75 to 80 rpm cadence needed.
7. Put the machine in a cool spot. Stair climbers are like stationary bikes in that without wind or cool air you soon overheat.