Friday, September 11, 2015

Developing Form

Form is often talked about as a component of cycling. Though there are wider (mainly aesthetic) issues that relate to the accepted norms of how cyclists dress and behave, the most important discussion of form refers to the technique applied in transferring our energy into moving ourselves forward on a bicycle. This is a component that, if one has it, is immediately apparent to the experienced eye, and like all subtle aspects of any skill, is easily overlooked, but will greatly improve the speed of your later development if addressed in the early stages.

Technique in any sport can be improved upon, but the percentage of difference this makes to the eventual outcome varies massively from sport to sport. However, the first rule of any sports coaching program is that technique must be perfected before any other work is done, as developing strength, speed or endurance without proper technical base is pointless, or even dangerous.

When we first approach cycling, the simple act of balancing ourselves and pushing down on the pedals to move forward seems to cover it. These are muscles we use daily for all sorts of normal stuff, and it may be hard to see initially how much more involved the technique might get. However, once we clip our feet into the pedals, it should be clear that we now have the potential to use a whole different set of muscles.

If we could get the legs to work equally all the way around the pedal cycle, in theory we would be able to generate a much more even force, and spread the load over a greater range of muscles, thus reducing the cost to our cardiovascular system, and enabling us to go faster for longer.

That's the theory. There are many views on this, and no real consensus in popular circulation. Some coaches insist that tests have shown no real advantage to the development of other sections of the cycle, and that the downward force from the quads is still the main driver. I have seen tests on video that claim to show that there's minimal difference, but these are tests on random cyclists, not on those who have specifically trained their bodies to work in this way.

Of course we have inherited a body that has evolved over millions of years to walk, jump or run, and so the most developed muscles we have in our legs are the ones that push down. If you take the average human and put them on a bike, and run tests to see how much positive difference pulling up on the pedals makes, I'm fairly sure it would be minimal.

If we are to get the other muscles in the leg to work for us, we will have to start developing them over many years before we start to see real changes. Those coaches however, that work with national track teams and can implement the appropriate exercises and monitor them over a longer period of the athletes development, will tell you that developing muscles that work through the entire pedal stroke is an essential part of becoming a world class cyclist.

What is perfect form? A time triallist has the most perfect form of any cyclist. If you think of Bradley Wiggins, Fabian Cancellara, Tom Dumoulin, or any of the other specialists in this discipline, you see that form in action: very little motion in the upper body, and a very smooth and almost effortless-looking pedal cycle. This is because they have eliminated unnecessary movement and balanced the muscle firing patterns and work-load to maximise the power going into the pedals all the way around the stroke. When it comes to pure transfer of power, they are the masters.

So what are the muscles, beyond those that activate automatically, that we can activate and develop to complete the 360-degree motion?

Though it might seem that the quadriceps and gluteus maximus are the main protagonists in the most basic of cycling actions - literally just stomping on the pedals, the actual activation of the glutes is a much less natural one than we're used to from a normal squatting or rising motion. As the largest muscle in the body, the glutes can really be developed for some serious power endurance, but will need some focus to get them to activate to their full potential.

The hip flexors are a muscle group that will probably have the least automatic engagement for most of us, but can really help your pedal stroke if we can effectively engage and develop them. It is these muscles that will give us a strong pull up and forward on the pedals. Then we also have the calves and muscles involved in the rotation of the ankle. By isolating and working on these additional muscles, we start to get a more complete rotational picture to our output.

So how do we isolate and develop the muscles needed to work through the whole pedal stroke? Well the use of standard strength training equipment has limited value aside from helping with the general strength improvement or size of the target muscles. Logically, the most valuable improvements are in drills using the actual bicycle cranks, with resistance adjusted to target specific muscular reactions and development.

A useful diagram showing the effective use of each muscle group in the pedal cycle


The easiest way to identify and engage the other working muscles is to ride on a home trainer or stationary bike and do one-legged drills. Assuming we're clipped into the pedals, removing one foot from a pedal and cycling with one leg only will quickly identify where we need to improve strength. The first time you do this, you will probably have trouble keeping the pedals rotating smoothly, but keep the resistance low and persevere, concentrating on keeping everything except that leg as still as possible. To get used to it you should probably only do it for a max of 30 seconds before either switching feet or going back to using both legs in between each isolated side.

Start with a very light resistance and progress to a set alternating 1 minute per leg for a total of 10 minutes concentrating on a smooth pedaling stroke and keeping the upper body as motionless as possible. The motionless upper body is a real test of form as it indicates wasted energy. It will quickly identify how weak your core is. Specific work on your core should be a part of every athletes training schedule and should be done off-the-bike using dynamic abdominal and lower back exercises.


This is for me the most effective drill. It can easily be done on a home trainer, but I prefer to do it out on the road - I have an ideal training route for it. Look for either a flat section or a fairly consistent upward gradient that gives you at least 20+ minutes of uninterrupted pedaling.

You are doing 1-minute-on, 1-minute-off drills using both legs but isolating muscle groups used in specific sections of the pedal stroke. The minute between each drill you should spin as easily as possible in a high cadence to recover.

For the minute on, isolate one muscle group used in the pedal stroke, concentrating on only using those muscles for the minute. I usually start by isolating the glutes. I'll do this 5 times (1+1x5=10 minutes) before switching to the next isolation - the ankles - for 5 reps. The next one will be the hip flexors and the upward pull on the backside of the pedal stroke. Another 5 times. Then finally I will combine the 3 above-mentioned muscle groups for another 5 intervals. If you run out of road, start again on another stretch or go back to the start. I'm lucky to have a stretch of 3-4% that lasts me for over 40 minutes of these. Keep the intensity of the effort low. These are not intervals designed to elicit a training effect from your cardiovascular/energy systems, so your heart-rate should not be significantly affected. The muscles will be easier to identify with reasonable resistance to begin with, but you should aim to work the cadence up to your normal spin to complete the picture.

I don't personally find a need to work on the quads and hamstrings in this way. Mainly because they are already well-utilised within my normal cycling stroke, and so the 1-minute recovery interval will, by default, involve these muscles. Others may have different deficiencies however, so keep asking the more experienced riders in your groups for suggestions on where your form weaknesses are.


At the beginning of the program, or early season, I will deliberately use a higher gear - thus a much slower cadence for these drills. This ensures that you can concentrate on the consistent application of force on the correct part of the stroke. I call these Big Gear drills. As the program progresses I will gradually increase the speed of the cadence right up to my natural spin, though ensuring that I concentrate on the full stroke always. I will usually introduce this shift by increasing the cadence first over the last set of drills (the muscle groups combined).


For me the definitive contemporary example of the out-of-the-saddle style of climbing on a bicycle is Alberto Contador. His "dancing on the pedals" style is his trademark. He says himself that he has trained to be able to stand for up to 20 minutes continuously, and that though it may provoke a 4-5bpm rise in his heart rate, it generates more power, and gives him a significant respite for muscles used in the seated position.

Now most of us will have found that when we get to a steeper part of a climb, we can generate a brief surge of extra power by standing, possibly with a shift up in gearing, and use the full body to power through the steep bit. However, most of us will only be able to keep this up for 10-20 seconds before we go anaerobic, forcing ourselves to sit back down and shift back to the easier gear. The problem is that we are simply using our maximum force - stamping down hard on the pedals in order to achieve maximum leverage. While effective briefly, it is not sustainable.

If you pay attention to how the pro climbers do it however, you will see that most of the time when they stand, they are in the same gear as when they're sitting - meaning that they are maintaining the same cadence with either technique. This is a crucial point to understand in developing this ability. We have to train to stay out of the saddle at a higher cadence. which means a significantly lower resistance.

When we first try this, we will usually find it difficult because we're used to needing to increase resistance - shift up - or we go through the downward part of the stroke too quickly. This is because our pedal strokes are too one-sided - we push down mainly - and when standing we also have most of our body-weight added to the down-stroke. So the first step is to do the above drills working on the other sections of the pedal stroke so that we can then counterbalance with the rest of the stroke.

Again, the most important muscles to focus on are the glutes, hip flexors and ankles. The hip flexors are used to kick the leg up and forward, the glutes start over the top of the stroke and push forward and down, and the ankles maintain a rotational movement of the feet that assist it through the bottom of the stroke. The core plays an even more important role when you're standing since your only contact points with the bike now are your feet and hands.

Once you're starting to feel the effects of the above drills on your technique, the next step is the standing drills. Same approach: 1-minute on, 1-minute off. Again keep it as easy as you can. For the minute on, you should aim to not put too much pressure on the pedal down-stroke, but to keep the pressure light and rotational. It's very difficult at first (if not totally counter-intuitive) to limit the down-stroke, but persevere and you'll feel the change within a couple of weeks. If you find a minute too long, start with 30 seconds. In between you just need to sit back down, but try to keep the cadence high throughout. Eventually you should be able to do this without taking your heart rate up by too much.

Keep it as a regular part of your training week and it could become your secret weapon!

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