While watching your big guns blaze might be what propels most people gym-wards, spare a thought for the little guys of the muscle world. They’re the ones that really hold the secret to your cycling success.
Without these smaller supporting muscles, the likes of your quads, glutes and core can’t perform anywhere near their peak, and you might even be heading for debilitating injury.
According to elite cycling coach Andy Wadsworth, “Working the muscles deep inside your core, hips and shoulders can increase overall strength gains by up to a third, prevent injury and directly improve performance in the saddle.” These five hard-to-pronounce muscles might never earn top billing, but focus on them for one month to rejuvenate your ride and ignite new growth.
Vastus medialis (VM)
Where it is: “It’s the bulge you see on the inside of time triallists’ thighs, just above the knee,” says Nick Grantham, director of strength and conditioning at Smart Fitness.
What it does: “The VM steadies your knee, provides extra sprinting power and gives shape to skinny legs,” says Grantham. “Regular cycling and most gym exercises over-develop the outer quad muscles, pulling the kneecap laterally and leading to patellar tracking disorder, or what’s known as ‘runner’s knee’, which affects cyclists too. It occurs when the muscles on the outside of the leg are much bigger than those on the inside, so pull the kneecap across, making it rub against tissue that it shouldn’t.” Sports scientists at the University of Sheffield found that working your VMs increases short burst acceleration by up to 20 percent.
How to work it: Do stability ball VM squats. Place the ball in the small of your back, against a wall. Next, put a football between your thighs, just above the knees. Perform a slow squat, getting lower until the tops of your thighs are parallel with the floor. Pause and return. Do three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions. “This works the quads, hamstrings, core and glutes for improved overall strength and stability,” says Grantham. Alternatively, do leg extensions with your toes pointed outwards, which targets the VMs.
Transversus abdominis (TVA)
Where it is: This band of muscle runs from your side to the front of your abdomen. It’s set behind the six-pack.
What it does: The TVA corsets your stomach. “It’s your single biggest core muscle,” says Wadsworth. “It’s the ab muscle you need for a washboard stomach. Just do crunches though, and you’ll end up with a solid paunch and a destabilised back.” But the benefits extend beyond the aesthetic. Sports scientists at the University of Scranton in America found that working your TVA reduces lower-back injury rates by almost 20 percent, and can increase cycling efficiency by rendering the pelvis up to 10 percent more stable. “It’s the most important power-transferring stabiliser in your body,” says Wadsworth. “It’s essential for all athletes but especially time triallists. In an aero tuck, when you’re replicating the plank, you’ll fatigue quickly without working your TVA off the bike.”
How to work it: In a press-up position, rest on your elbows, with your back flat, and pull your belly button towards your spine. Hold for 20 seconds, then lift your left leg and right hand and maintain for a further 20 seconds. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg. Do three sets with minimal rest times between them.
Where it is: The infraspinatus is the most important member of the rotator cuff group of muscles, attaching the shoulder blade to the upper arm.
What it does: Thank this crunch cameo player for creating support around your body’s most unstable joint, something you’ll be grateful for when, not if, you crash or need to transfer power in climbs. “The shoulder has the greatest range of movement of any joint yet is held together by this tiny rotator cuff muscle,” says Wadsworth. In fact, researchers at Loughborough University found that cyclists who added a simple five-minute rotator cuff element to their workout three times a week for a fortnight reduced their chances of dislocation – the most common upper body trauma in cyclists – by over a third. They also increased their bench press one-rep maximum by 10kg. “Strengthening your shoulders provides stability and posture, taking strain off the neck over uneven ground,” adds Wadsworth.
How to work it: Do horizontal cable pulls. Stand side-on to a cable machine with a 2.5-5kg weight attached. Hold the handle at waist height with your closer hand. Keeping your body perfectly still, extend your arm horizontally away from the weight stack as far as possible in a controlled movement. Pause and return slowly. Do 10 reps, then turn around so your other arm is closest to the stack and repeat the exercise. “You’re focusing on the internal and external rotation of the internal unit, which requires a small load,” says Wadsworth. “Anything heavier and you’ll risk injury.” That will just leave you wincing while you squeeze your top on in the changing room.
Gluteus medius (GM)
Where it is: On the upper and outer side of your bum, just below your hips.
What it does: The GM steadies your thigh bone so there’s minimal rotation. “It keeps all your force moving in one plane so the cycling movement becomes more efficient and you avoid long-term hip injury,” says Wadsworth. “When it starts working it switches off over-active, fatigued muscles such as the hip flexors.”
“This controls the lateral movement of your hips, and when you’re putting force on the pedals, they’re pushing back,” explains Wadsworth. “If there’s any lateral movement you’ll lose the reverse T-shape between your spine and pelvis, decrease power and increase risk of lower back injury.” The muscles in your back will go into spasm to protect that T position, but they’ll soon give up if overworked. “The iliotibial bands will work too hard. Instead of pushing into the pedals they’ll tighten and stabilise your leg to prevent knee injury, which in the long run can actually cause knee injury.”
How to work it: Mini band walks. Loop a piece of elastic around your ankles, then do small side steps for 15 metres in both directions. Repeat three times. “Make sure all movement is generated at the hips and glide rather than see-saw,” says Wadsworth. Alternatively, lie on your side doing leg raises, using the band. “My personal choice for this is a one-legged squat in front of a mirror,” adds Wadsworth. Do three sets of 10 every other day, focusing on keeping control and a stable position.
Where it is: Connecting your hips, your lower back and tops of thighs.
What it does: This undervalued component of your hip flexors tightens when you’re on the bike or in other bent-over positions. “People in sedentary desk jobs often find this tightening tilts their pelvis, causing their back to arch so they can’t tense their glutes, the most important muscles in any cyclist’s armoury,” says Wadsworth. “Get your psoas strong and your cycling should reap almost immediate benefits.” A weak, tight psoas also leads to knee issues, as secondary hip flexors take over and cause pain. Test it by lying on your back and pulling one knee to your chest. Keep your other leg straight. If the psoas is a normal length, the straight leg will rest on the floor. If it sits above the floor, your psoas is either stiff or shortened.
How to work it: Stretch it! Kneeling on your right knee with your left leg in front of you, knee at 90 degrees and foot flat on the floor, tilt your pelvis forwards and upwards until you feel the stretch. Hold for 5-10 seconds, rest and repeat 10 times on each side. If you’re at work, stand up and tuck one leg back on your chair so your back knee is at 90 degrees and the other is below your hip. Tilt your pelvis forwards and upwards. “At least 90 percent of cyclists don’t stretch their psoas, which means they’re relying too much on their hamstrings,” says Wadsworth, “so they fatigue quickly.”