Health & Fitness

Maggie Williamson fitness column: If you want to be a better cyclist, start by strengthening your body

Looking for some tips to maximize your cycling performance? Or perhaps you’re seeking more balance in your routine to complement your all-around fitness. Outside of putting in more pedal time, there are several key exercise components to pay attention to. Below are specific things you can do to up your game. (Some movements will be elaborated on for clarification, while others are fairly self-explanatory.)

First and foremost, let’s talk about the fitness of your core. A strong, stable core helps you harness the power of the rest of your body, allowing you to channel optimal strength into the pedals. It’s difficult to effectively strengthen your core while riding, so it’s important to pay some attention to it when off the bike.

A good place to start, whether riding or not, is to replicate the motion of sucking your belly button to your spine; sometimes referred to as the “drawing-in” motion. The drawing-in motion is one that we should always be mindful of while active: whether biking, lifting weights, or simply walking through the grocery store. Not only does it help build a tighter core, but it also protects against back strain and enhances stability and proper postural alignment.

The following are some basic exercises that are excellent for building the strength of the major core muscles.

• Plank: Position yourself on the floor on forearms and toes, forming a straight line from shoulder to ankle. Think about making your body look like a plank while engaging in the drawing-in motion. Hold for as long as you can with good form.

• Side plank: Supporting yourself on one forearm, raise hips to form a straight line with the body, then lower hips back down. Repeat. (Perform on each side).

• Swim/scissor kicks: Move the legs in a flutter-kick or a horizontal “scissoring” motion while on your back. (Place your hands under your buttocks for extra low-back support.)

• Bicycle crunch: Alternate bringing the elbow to the opposite knee while lying on your back. Keep the head and shoulders off the ground during the motion.

Next, let’s consider the muscles of the lower body. For the cyclist, key muscles to focus on include the calves, hamstrings, quadriceps and gluteals (i.e., glutes, or butt muscles). When possible, focus on one leg at a time rather than always working both legs in conjunction in order to ensure balanced strength. (Think equalized power on the pedals.)

• Hip bridge: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your heels close to your butt. Slowly bring the hips up by contracting your glutes and core until your body forms a straight line from shoulder to knee. Slowly lower the hips down until your butt is nearly touching the floor; repeat. (This can be done with body weight, or with a barbell over the hips).

• Wall sit: Stand with your back against a wall. Place your feet forward a couple of steps from the wall and lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Hold as long as possible with proper form. (This is a good exercise for building strength in the lower body without placing too much strain on the knees.)

• Calf raises on a ledge or stair

• Straight-leg (Romanian) deadlifts (done with weights)

• Single-leg squats or single-leg toe touch downs from a box or bench

• Walking lunges

If you spend a lot of time on a bike, keeping the back and shoulders strong is important to maintain optimal posture and avoid strain in the upper body. A few exercises you might focus on:

• Shoulder raises (lateral and/or front): With straight arms, raise dumbbells laterally to shoulder height; lower and repeat. Next, raise the dumbbells to shoulder height in front of you; lower and repeat.

• Seated rows: Think about pinching the shoulder blades together in the back while engaging in this exercise.

•  Lat-pulldowns

•  Push ups

If you’re looking to increase your power, consider adding some plyometric exercises (plyo for short). Plyo moves are explosive movements such as box jumps, burpees or other “hopping” motions in which your feet leave the ground. For maximum results, intersperse these power-builders between sets of your resistance training.

Want more endurance? You don’t necessarily need to spend more time on your bike. You can strategically boost your endurance by doing interval training. Add a few 30-second bursts of all-out effort to your normal cycling routine. A vast amount of research has demonstrated that intervals are an effective way to maximize benefits such as greater endurance and heightened metabolic (i.e., calorie) burn.

Lastly, to maximize recovery, minimize muscle imbalance and perhaps avoid some muscle soreness, spend a bit of time stretching. You don’t need to do an hourlong yoga class to reap the benefits; just holding each stretch for 20-30 seconds will work. A few suggestions of stretches:

•  Hamstring stretch: Sitting on the ground, place your legs out in front of you and reach for your toes or ankles.

•  Calf stretch: Facing a wall, extend one leg behind you. With the rear heel planted and leg straight, lean forward with hands on the wall until you feel a stretch in the rear calf. Or place your toes on a ledge and let the heels drop down.

•  Downward dog: This classic yoga pose stretches lots of major muscle groups at one time. (If you aren’t familiar with this one, I suggest you ask a yogi or Google it.)

•  Standing quad stretch: Stand and grab one ankle with your hand to stretch out the front of your thigh (quad/ hip flexor); keep the thighs fairly parallel and the knees pointed downward. Repeat on the other side.

•  Piriformis/ hip stretch: Place the right ankle over the left knee while on your back. Keep the right knee pointed outward. With hands on the back of your left leg, gently pull the left knee toward your chest until you feel a stretch in the right hip area.

•  Cobra pose: Lie face down on the floor, place your hands under the shoulder area and gently push through the hands to bridge up like a cobra.

Incorporating these different movements into your fitness routine will take you a long way in boosting your cycling performance. Einstein said, “Life is like riding a bicycle; you have to keep moving to keep your balance,” so keep challenging your fitness in new ways. Happy pedaling!

Maggie Williamson is a health coach and NASM-certified personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist and weight-loss specialist. She has a master’s degree in social work and a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Her business,, specializes in working with women seeking to improve their overall health and well-being.