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The 411 on Glutes

Athletes are often encouraged to “kick some butt” or to get their “rear in gear,” but in fact, firing the glutes is a straight shot to performance power. The gluteals (maximus, medius, minimus and tensor fascia latae) comprise the largest muscle mass in the body and, when it comes to muscles, large means power potential. The gluteus muscles are both superficial and deep within the buttocks and they deserve more attention than they often receive.

“Most people, even active athletes, rarely activate their glutes,” says Mark Verstegen in Core Performance (Rodale 2004). “As a result, they never take full advantage of these tremendously powerful muscles that should be a big part of everyday movement.”  As cyclists, whether we are training for a competition or just for general fitness, we must recognize the untapped power that lies in these muscles and waits to be identified, strengthened and utilized. Think of the power phase of your pedal stroke. It is the glutes that extend the thigh as you drive the pedal forward and down.

All too often, cyclists think of the quadriceps as the primary movers when, to be efficient, one must employ an entire network of strong, active muscular components, including the core, quads, glutes, hamstrings, etc. Keep in mind that the core is much more than just the abdominals and also includes the hips, shoulders, chest and back. Core strength provides stability and the capacity to reach for achievement outside perceived limits. Though the legs track in the sagittal plane for each pedal stroke, balanced strength is key to consistent performance quality.

Deliberately training the quads, glutes, hamstrings, abductors, adductors and gastrocnemius provides a strong foundation on which to ride. And training needs more than time spent in the saddle. A cyclist needs to workout with weights to prepare his or her muscles for functioning at their best on the bike. Ideally, strength work can be perfected during cycling’s off season. Then, during the active riding months, strength maintenance is the key—achieved by doingshorter workouts that are pointedly specific.

Here are some tips on how to train for strength maintenance during your riding season:

When a muscle is made to work against resistance, it becomes stronger. A good starting point is to commit 2-3 sessions per week to strength training. Within each session, dedicate substantial time and effort to the glutes with a few simple exercises. The big four are squats, lunges, step-ups and leg presses. These can be performed within a variety of formats, but each engages the gluteals. 

Squats: To squat, sit back, thighs parallel to the floor, allowing the knees to remain over the center of your feet and not extend beyond your toes, thus putting unsafe strain on them.  As you drive your body upwards to straighten, think glutes and quads first; core, hamstrings, calves and hip adductors next. Visualize your climbing position on the bike.

Lunges: Lunges can be performed to the front, side, back, stationary or moving. As with squats, lunges are effective when using only body weight. Add pounds to further adapt your strength to the task.  Knees must be kept in alignment, core engaged, and body balanced. 

Step-ups: A simple box at home or in the gym is a useful piece of equipment. Step up and down slowly. Increase the degree of difficulty by raising one knee at the top of the step, adding weights, raising the height of the bench or standing on one leg while performing a continuous set with the other. Step-ups are dynamic and enhance power production.

Leg presses: Placing your feet on the plate, you can monitor the tracking of your legs as you simulate a squat or a pedal stroke by bending the knees and exerting force to extend them against resistance.

Other strength training tips:

• Boost any training by incorporating a Bosu® or stability ball, such as the “bridge” (lying prone with knees bent, feet on the floor, lifting and lowering the hips) by putting a stability ball under the legs to further tax the glutes and hamstrings. A conventional wall sit performed as a slide with a stability ball placed between your back and the wall, involves a composite of lower body and core muscles.

• Once you have achieved a base level of strength, progress to explosive movements. Cycling is a dynamic sport—jumps, climbs, sprints, passing other riders, potholes, cars, rocks and finish lines and more. In Spinning® class, whether on the road or in the woods, all require the ability to explode or react quickly and steadily with bursts of power. Practice basic plyometrics like box jumps and vertical power jumps to teach the glutes to perform quickly, efficiently and effectively.

• Be sure to use good form and technique for each exercise. If you are unsure, there are many places to look for assistance. Joe Friel, in The Cyclist’s Training Bible recommends Weight Training for Cyclists by Ken Doyle and Eric Schmitz, Velo Press 2008. A personal favorite of mine is Cycling Anatomy by Shannon Sovndal, MD, Human Kinetics 2009.

• Whether you are riding a Spinner® bike or a road bike, always check your bike fit. Power production and safety are compromised by improper alignment. Often low back pain is diminished or negated by glute strength and utilization as well as an improved position on the bike.

• Do not wait until you are halfway up a challenging climb to realize that your legs are shot and you have no reserves. Because the glutes are big, they will gain strength relatively quickly when worked regularly. A happy byproduct of active muscles, of course, is the need for additional fuel.  What could be better than putting power in your pedal stroke, vitality in your surge, endurance when tackling resistance, and the need to increase your calorie consumption? Spend time in the saddle and time in the gym to prepare your body to meet the challenges of your chosen rides.  Then go kick some butt!

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