Quick exercises to build your strength for cycling

Exercises you can do anywhere to ride stronger and stay injury-free

Injury can crush the best-laid cycling plans. Missing out on an event you’ve been building towards for several months can be a crushing blow. No one wants this. However, riders are often guilty of happily hammering their training sessions while completely neglecting key strength and conditioning work that is vital for preventing injury and improving performance.

Many of us have desk jobs, meaning that while we sit working we’re shortening our muscles, creating muscular imbalances and poor posture. In turn, this leads to weaker muscle output and a higher chance of overuse injuries.

Common cycling complaints or injuries are largely preventable if you incorporate regular strength and conditioning into your weekly schedule. Fear not, that doesn’t have to mean long, boring trips to the gym or buying lots of expensive home fitness equipment. These exercises can be done pretty much anywhere in just a few minutes.

These exercises can be done pretty much anywhere in just a few minutes

To reap the most rewards, do these exercises regularly, building up the number of sets and repetitions gradually. You may find it helpful to write down the number of reps and sets you do so that you can progress each week.

Because there are lots of distractions at home, set certain times of the week for your workouts and stay with it. If you’re in any doubt about your health, consult your doctor and seek professional support before you get started.

Before you begin, take heed of these pointers:

  • Work each muscle group up to three times per week on non-consecutive days
  • Warm up before each session for five to 10 minutes – this prepares your body for the more strenuous movement to come
  • For each session, choose one or two exercises for each muscle group and do two to three sets
  • Build the number of repetitions of each exercise over time in order to progress
  • Make sure you work all of your muscle groups each week so you avoid muscle imbalances

Warm-up exercises

1. Star jumps

Raise the pulse through star jumps or skipping
Raise the pulse through star jumps or skipping

Begin with feet together and hands by your sides.

1. Simultaneously jump so legs land apart and your hands are high – in an ‘X’ formation. Keep body light as you land on your toes first.

2. Without pause, return to starting position and do 40-60 jumps.

You can include ‘split jacks’, where the legs and arms move in a forward/backward plane.

1. Start with a staggered stance with left leg forward and right leg back. At the same time, left arm is back and right arm swings forward and above your shoulder.

2. Simultaneously jump and change arms and legs so right leg is forward and left leg is back. The arms swing back and forth at the same time.

2. Rotations

Ankle joint

Now the pulse rate has been raised, lubricate the joints through a series of joint rotations. Aim for 4-6 rotations in each direction for each joint.
Now the pulse rate has been raised, lubricate the joints through a series of joint rotations. Aim for 4-6 rotations in each direction for each joint.

 Wrists

Rotate the wrists in both directions
Rotate the wrists in both directions

 Arms

Rotate the arms in both directions
Rotate the arms in both directions

 Elbows

Rotate the elbows in both directions
Rotate the elbows in both directions

Knees

Rotate the knees from small to larger circles. Place hands on top of thighs for balance – try not to put any weight on the hands.
Rotate the knees from small to larger circles. Place hands on top of thighs for balance – try not to put any weight on the hands.

Hips

Work the hips with larger rotations – try to keep the head still
Work the hips with larger rotations – try to keep the head still

Waist

Twisting body from side to side, breathe in when facing forwards and out as the body twists behind
Twisting body from side to side, breathe in when facing forwards and out as the body twists behind

Coaching points

  • Achieve a deeper side bend stretch by pushing your palms toward each side. Breathe OUT as you lower to the side and breathe IN before you return to the centre again, to protect the spine. Mindful breathing is key here. 

3. Leg swings

Now do two sets of leg swings
Now do two sets of leg swings

1. To do leg front extensions stand sideways by a wall.

2. With your weight on your left leg and your right hand against the wall for balance, swing your right leg forwards and backwards.

Repetitions: 6-10 each leg

Rest: 20 seconds

Sets: 2

4. Leg swings – lateral

Lateral leg swings
Lateral leg swings

1. To perform cross-body leg flexion/abductions, place your right palm on a chair for balance and lean slightly forward with your weight on your left leg.

2. Swing your right leg to the left side of your body, pointing your toes upwards as your foot reaches its furthest point of motion. Allow it to naturally return as you assist the momentum, swinging the leg across to the right as far as comfortable, again pointing your toes up as your foot reaches its final point of movement. Careful with your toes here!

Alternatively, place your palm against a wall for balance.

Repetitions: 6-10 each leg

Rest: 20 seconds

Sets: 2

Coaching points

  • During the leg swings, be mindful of maintaining an upright body posture. If your hips are tight, be patient and gently improve your current limit over time through regular practice.

Bodyweight exercises

1. Jump squats

This dynamic exercise develops fast twitch muscles in your legs. The deep landing variation shown here is also great for fat loss.
This dynamic exercise develops fast twitch muscles in your legs. The deep landing variation shown here is also great for fat loss.

1. Push your hips back and bend from the knees into a deep squat, with hands on the floor in front of the toes.

2. Jump upwards as high as you can go with arms reaching for the sky.

3. Land with both feet in the starting position.

Repetitions: 10-12

Rest: 30 seconds

Sets: 2-3 sets

Coaching points

  • Aim to keep both toes and heels on the floor if possible in this deep squat position. 
  • Imagine pushing the floor away from you. 
  • Build in a 3-5 second pause to eliminate muscle elasticity. This version of the squat allows for maximum number of ‘fast twitch’ muscle fibres.

2. Bench/chair triceps dip

This works your triceps and core
This works your triceps and core

1. Place your hands behind you on the edge of a chair or bench and your feet on the floor. Keep your hips up to maintain a straight body position throughout.

2. Bending at the elbows, lower your body until your upper arms are nearly parallel to the floor. Pause, then press back to the start position.

Repetitions: 10-12

Rest: 30 seconds

Sets: 2-3

If this is too difficult, wean yourself into the exercise by starting with knees bent and feet closer to the body. This removes the core effort and allows your legs to assist the triceps.

Coaching points

  • Aim to keep the body locked as straight as you can throughout the exercise. Tighten your abs and glutes while focusing on keeping the hips high.
  • Keep the shoulders pushed down away from the ears.
  • To make the exercise easier, move the feet closer toward you. To make it harder, walk the feet further way. Harder still, elevate them on another chair or bench.

3. Mountain Climber

Works your trunk, hips and legs. Is a great cardio workout.
Works your trunk, hips and legs. Is a great cardio workout.

1. Begin with arms locked in a slightly wider than normal press-up position.

2. Pump the legs alternately, starting with the right leg straight with toes on the ground while the left knee drives toward the inside of the left elbow.

3. Keep the legs pumping in a piston-like rhythm.

Repetitions: Build up from 30 seconds to a minute or more

Rest: 30 seconds

Sets: 2-3 sets

Aim the knee toward the elbow of the opposite arm
Aim the knee toward the elbow of the opposite arm

Also, use more body torsion by aiming the knee toward the elbow of the opposite arm. Feel the difference in the trunk for this variation targeting the obliques more. It challenges different ranges of motion at all the involved joints.

Coaching points

  • If you have either strain or a low range of motion in the hips, perform the exercise with your hands on a bench.

4. Shoulder bridge

Activate your lumbar spine with this core, ab and glute exercise:
Activate your lumbar spine with this core, ab and glute exercise:

1. Breathe in, squeeze the glutes and abs and raise your hips so they are in line with your knees and shoulders.

2. Exhale and slowly reverse back to the floor.

Repetitions: 10-12

Rest: 30 seconds

Sets: 2-3 sets

Take this to the next level by alternating one leg straight at a time. Also, taking the hands off the floor removes their stabilisation, therefore making the core work harder to keep balance.

Taking your hands off the floor makes your core work harder
Taking your hands off the floor makes your core work harder

5. Press-ups

The classic of all bodyweight exercises, the humble press-up, is an age old way to get into shape, targeting all the muscles of the chest as well as the shoulders, triceps and core.

When you’re comfortable with 50 regular press-ups in 3 minutes, up the ante – add a few tweaks here and there to keep your training fresh.

Standard press-up

Keep your arms straight but not locked
Keep your arms straight but not locked

Begin with both arms slightly wider than shoulder with. Keep them straight but not locked. Legs are straight and contact the floor with the balls of the feet. Bend your elbows, keeping them tucked to your sides, to lower yourself down. When your chest grazes the floor, straighten your elbows to push back up the start.

Asymmetric press-up

Challenge your core stability with asymmetric press-ups
Challenge your core stability with asymmetric press-ups

Challenge your core stability more by moving your left arm further to the left side of your body while the right arm remains in the standard press-up position. Mirror for the other side.

Coaching points

  • Focus on keeping the shoulders packed down away from your ears.
  • If you find the standard press-up a challenge, pivot from your knees. Aim to wean yourself off the knees by controlling the body’s descent, focusing on full arm/glute/abs tension until your chest touches the ground. From here, pivot on your knees and push back up part way. As you near half-way, straighten your legs, returning the pivot from the knees to your feet. Gradually build up over time by lessening the distance from the ground you switch from knees to feet.
  • If you find the standard press-up easy, raise your legs on a block/stair to increase the weight on the shoulders.

6. Squats

Basic squat

Aim for two to three sets of basic squats
Aim for two to three sets of basic squats

1. Start in a standing position with feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart.

2. Gently move your weight backwards and lower as if you were sitting down.

3. Keeping the back straight, return to standing. Breathe in on the down action and out on the return up. Track your knees in-line with your feet throughout.

Repetitions: 10-20 or 30-60 seconds each leg

Rest: 20 seconds

Sets: 2-3 sets

Progress to single leg squats. Stand on a block or stair on one leg with the resting leg over the edge. Keep the glutes tight as you bend the working leg. Use a chair or other support for balance.

Coaching points

  • Make sure your knee doesn’t project beyond the toes of the front foot.
  • Raise the block height gradually over time.
  • The resting foot can be on the ball of the foot for low levels. For higher levels, place the top of the foot over the block.
  • Take advantage of the 15-second rest time to perform light star jump routines. Stretching legs in between the Bulgarian squat sets promotes healthy blood flow and prevents cramps and early leg fatigue.

Bulgarian squat

The Bulgarian squat is an excellent hip and thigh workout
The Bulgarian squat is an excellent hip and thigh workout

The Bulgarian squat workout activates your glutes, quads and hamstrings – an excellent lower body strength and flexibility exercise. You will need a step, low bench or coffee table for this. Make sure whichever object you pick is not too high – 15-30cm should be enough.

1. First take a big step away from the bench or chair.

2. Now reach far back with your other leg and rest your foot on the edge of the elevation. Make sure the heel of the leg in front of you stays down and your chest stays up.

3. Squat down using the front leg, keeping the glutes active.

4. Return to the starting position, driving back and up from the front heel.

Repetitions: 10-20 or 30-60 seconds each leg

Rest: 15 seconds

Sets: 2-3 sets

Coaching points

  • The key is to engage your glutes before starting to squat so that you recruit the muscles in the correct way. 
  • Focus on keeping your knee and hip aligned over your foot, and try to maintain the angle of your knee with your foot. Using a mirror may help you monitor this. 
  • Make sure you push your weight backward toward the heels before sitting into the squat – squatting into a wall or having someone’s hand in front of your knee will help. 
  • Imagine you are being pulled up from the crown when returning to the standing position. 
  • Make sure you maintain a tall back and a good posture throughout.

7. Lunges

Basic lunge

The basic lunge
The basic lunge

1. From a standing position, step forward with your right leg until your knee is bent at 90 degrees.

2. Quickly push yourself back to the starting position. Work with the same leg for the desired time/reps then change legs for the same amount.

Repetitions: 10-12 each leg

Rest: 30 seconds

Sets: 2-3 sets

Variation: Step backwards until your rear knee almost touches the floor. Add further benefit by twisting the body to one side as you enter the lunge position. This can be done holding a ball or weight if to hand.

Coaching points

  • Make sure your knees don’t project beyond your toes on the forward leg.
  • Your rear knee should nearly touch the floor.
  • Mix up your training patterns by alternating legs for double the time on the stepping lunges.
  • Keep your body upright during all the lunge movements.
  • Jumping lunges should only be performed with perfect technique. If you’ve any doubt about your technique when performing standard lunges, it would be best to leave jumping lunges for another day.
  • For the jumping lunges, bend your knees to absorb the impact on landing and focus on keeping your feet and knees facing straight forward.

Jumping lunges

When you’re totally comfortable with stepping lunges, give yourself a more intense cardio burn with these jumping lunges
When you’re totally comfortable with stepping lunges, give yourself a more intense cardio burn with these jumping lunges

Begin from standing with feet shoulder-width apart. Jump up and land in the lunge position, then immediately spring up off the ground, again switching feet position in mid-air. Land softly and keep going.

8. Jack-knife crunches

Jack-knifes beat ineffective sit-ups any day with this much more functional exercise.

Level 1

Lie flat on your back with your legs straight and your arms extended past your head. Allow your legs to bend as you slowly bring both knees toward your body, simultaneously raising your upper body and bringing your straight arms either side of the knees.

Level 2

Jack-knifes beat ineffective sit-ups
Jack-knifes beat ineffective sit-ups

Tighten your abs and slowly bring your legs and arms up at the same time until your body forms a V. Try to touch your feet without bending your legs. Hold for a second, then slowly return to the starting position. 

Progress to holding a ball or medicine ball between the feet or hands
Progress to holding a ball or medicine ball between the feet or hands

Repetitions: 10-15

Rest: 30 seconds

Sets: 2-3 sets

Cool-down stretches

Post workout stretching is just as essential as the warm-up. It allows the body to relax, accelerating recovery time. Ideally they should follow a cool-down five-minute easy spin to remove waste products from the worked muscles. Don’t confuse with the dynamic warm-up stretches. Here we use static stretches to finish our workout.

1. Quad stretch

You may need a wall or chair for balance
You may need a wall or chair for balance

Stand on your left leg, then bend the right leg and take hold of your foot in your right hand. Gently pull your heel toward the centre of your right buttock. Keep your body upright. If your body allows, try to raise your leg higher, without compromising your upright body posture.

2. Hip flexor

Preferably perform this stretch on a soft surface – a carpet is perfect
Preferably perform this stretch on a soft surface – a carpet is perfect

Take a long step forward and allow the instep of the rear foot to contact the floor. Aim to keep alignment between the rear heel, knee and glute. Keep your hips and shoulders square to the front. Now, work your front foot forward until you feel a stretch in the front of the hip on your trailing leg. From here squeeze the glutes and gently push your rear knee into the floor. After a while, relax while breathing out and allow the deeper stretch. Make sure your knee doesn’t project beyond the toes of the front leg.

3. The Cobra

This stretch helps to keep the lower back flexible and strong
This stretch helps to keep the lower back flexible and strong

Lie on your front on the floor and bring your hands under the shoulders. Keeping your legs and hips on the ground, push your upper body up off the floor. You should feel a pressure on your lower back. Go deeper by holding your head back looking at the ceiling. Don’t pull you head back too much to avoid any pressure on the back of the neck. Breathe deeply and aim to hold for 20-30 seconds. Repeat a second time.

4. Calf stretch

You should feel the stretch in your upper calf in the rear leg
You should feel the stretch in your upper calf in the rear leg

Stand with both palms against a wall and toes of your front foot a few inches away. Step back on the other leg, keeping it straight with the heel planted firmly into the ground. Keep your spine erect and push from your hands into the heel of the rear foot. You should feel the stretch in your upper calf in the rear leg.

5. Soleus stretch

This stretches the lower part of the calf muscle
This stretches the lower part of the calf muscle

Start in the same position as the calf stretch above. Now bring your rear foot forward to about 30cm from the front foot. Bend both knees and sink your body down with more weight on the rear foot. You should also feel benefit in foot/ankle flexibility.

6. Good morning stretch

Stretch the hamstrings from this standing position
Stretch the hamstrings from this standing position

Keep the back flat throughout and aim to ‘fold’ at the front of the hip (not the back). Push your weight onto your heels. Breathe in then, while breathing out, slowly lower your upper body towards the ground. Pause to breathe in again, before going further, if your body allows. Be aware of posture here. Remember, the aim is for a deep stretch down the rear legs, not how close your hands go to the floor.

Coaching points

  • Static stretches can be held for 10 seconds or, to improve the mobility and range of movement, for 15-30 seconds.
  • Breathe easily while performing all stretches – imagine breathing into the muscles themselves.
  • Be aware of the area being stretched and focus on relaxing those muscles.
This article was published by BikeRadar, the world's leading source of bike reviews, gear reviews, riding advice and route information
  • Discipline: Road, Mountain, Urban, Womens
  • Location: UK, USA, Australia

Related Articles

Back to top