Stretching Exercises for Cyclists

Investing in aerodynamics isn’t just about expensive frames and hidden components. What’s also important is taking the time to make your body aero. Become more flexible with the following stretching exercises and strengthen your back and shoulders with strengthening exercise.

This is the perfect time trial position: flat tabletop back to decrease wind resistance, tucked in arms to minimize frontal exposure, and head looking straight ahead. But for most riders this kind of aggressive aero stance is impossible to achieve, let alone hold for a longer period of time.

There’s no good starting a race in an aggressive stance if you have to sit up with a sore back after 10 minutes and ultimately lose your speed. We all are aware of the drag-reducing benefits of dropping lower, whether on a TT bike or just cycling more on the drops, but for the average recreational rider it can be a frustratingly uncomfortable position to cycle in.

There are several reasons for this but hamstrings are a good place to begin with. The average weekend cyclist is very likely to have tight hamstrings and hips. This is important because when hamstrings reach their maximum limit in an aero position the back is forced to bend more.

time trial

This results in more of a camel hump than the desired tabletop, and puts pressure on the erector muscles of the back, sometimes leading to cramping or spasm, and puts pressure on the discs. This may also lock out the hips, leaving little wiggle room if the cyclist has to adjust the sitting position, and it may even affect leg power.

A lower position also increases pressure on the neck extensors or muscles that raise the head. Because of the S shape of the spine, when the back bends, the neck extends so the head is held in a more extreme extension on the drops or on a TT bike to enable the cyclist to look forwards.

So should you change the body or the bike in order to find a comfortable lower position? The answer lies in a bit of both: a two-pronged man-and-machine approach that starts when you purchase the machine. A bike that makes you drool in anticipation but forces you into such an aggressive stance that it’s impossible for you to move your back, neck or change the position of your hips is probably going to be an unwise purchase. Once happy, a good bike fitter will allow you a more sustainable position, progressively over several visits, and this is a wise first step.

But what you can do off the bike to achieve a desirable lower position? Well, first and foremost, stretching exercises definitely help. And it’s also good to incorporate a little strength training into your exercise plan.

Some cyclists with ideal cycling position owe some of their superior flexibility to their bendy genes, because the composition of collagen and elastin of our connective tissue is determined by birth. The top cyclists riders are of course also younger (as we all know, people stiffen up with age) and don’t need to sit in an office for a large proportion of the week.

back stretching

Fortunately, flexibility can be significantly improved through diligent and regular stretching. Flexibility exercises are an integral part of both pro cyclists’ strength and conditioning regimes. Experts advise to stretch little and often to see real results on the bike; you should hold a stretch for 20-30 seconds, three times and repeat twice a day. This may sound like a commitment but a stretching exercise can be as simple as placing your leg on a chair and leaning forwards — something that you can do in the office.

Flexibility training isn’t the only solution. Strength training, especially strengthening the core, should also be done regularly. You can do this on the mat through yoga or Pilates or at the gym. It’s recommended to use “eccentric” (the lengthening of a muscle while it’s under tension) techniques such as the Romanian dead lift because it combines strength as well as flexibility training and is very useful for cyclists. However, while doing the lift make sure you use the absolutely correct technique to reduce the risk of lumbar spine injury. The dead lift forces cyclists to hold a neutral spine and engage the core, while lengthening and strengthening the hamstrings.

Also try the upright row technique as well as squats and any variation of the well-known overall body strengthener, the plank. No matter if you are a time trialist or want to have the aero advantages of cycling more on the drops, stretching and some strength training can significantly contribute to achieving and comfortably holding a lower position for longer period of time.

working at a desk

REDUCING THE POSTURAL IMPACT OF THE DESK JOB

The 9-5, or 9am to 7, 8 or 9pm as it often extends to now, can affect the cycling position. Sitting for extended periods with the hips flexed to 90 degrees can lead to tight hamstrings, a weak core and rounded back. So if you are sitting at a desk all week and wanting to jump on a TT bike or cycle more on the drops at the weekend, it’s worth paying extra attention to good posture; always try to sit correctly with a neutral spine or with the natural curves of the spine intact. Also remember to change position, maybe arching the back or rotating the spine by twisting lightly from side to side and take regular breaks to take a walk.

The chair hamstring stretch is an easy desk-based stretching exercise you can do in the office.

hinging exercise

THE WAITER’S BOW TEST

The “sit and reach” test used to be the classic assessment method of hamstring length, but apart from humiliating the majority of the population as they grasp in vain for their feet, it tells little and can strain the lower back.

A better test not just to assess hamstring length, but also to get an idea of your body’s ability to get into and hold an aero position, is the waiter’s bow. It shows the hamstring length in a more cycling-specific position, as well as quickly revealing the core strength degree and a cyclist’s awareness of the position of his lower back and pelvis.

HOW TO DO IT?
  1. Stand with the feet hip-width apart, holding hands on hips.
  2. Lean forwards at the hips (not the lower back) maintaining a neutral, tall spine and the shoulder blades gently drawn together.
  3. Keep the knees stable but not locked.
  4. Lower as far as hip flexibility will allow or stop tilting the moment the back wants to round.

Cyclists are often not able to hold their trunk in the lean forward or waiter’s bow position because of poor awareness of lumbo-pelvic (lower back/pelvis) position or lack of core stability or endurance. This means that even if they succeed to get into the correct aero position, it will be difficult for them to hold it for a longer period.

STRETCHING TRAINING

chair stretch

1 THE CHAIR HAMSTRING STRETCH

Tight hamstrings are the main problem when trying to get into a low bike position, but choose a stretch where you can maintain the back straight and avoid the back rounding because this will just put stress on the discs and ligaments.

  1. Put one foot up on a chair seat, or lower surface such as a step, and hinge forwards maintaining a neutral spine.
  2. Hold for 30-60 seconds. Perform three times and repeat later in the day.
2 THE PELVIC TILT

The pelvic tilt movement increases a cyclist’s awareness of the lower back and pelvis so they’re better able to adjust it while on the bike. Once mastered, this exercise can be done sitting, making it a great desk exercise.

  1. Lie on your back with the legs bent and feet hip-width apart. Keep the pelvis on the floor throughout.
  2. Breathe in and raise the naval up exaggerating the gap under the lower back.
  3. Breathe out and press the naval down into the floor.
  4. Repeat five times.

woman stretching back

3 THE BACK STRETCH

A cyclist’s back muscles can stiffen and become rigid due to hours spent in a constant state of contraction. A useful stretch for the latissimus dorsi, the broad back muscle, can help you lean lower and is also beneficial for easing out a sore back after a ride. You can do this stretch either on the floor or by standing and putting the hands on the back of a chair, making it another useful office stretch.

  1. From an all fours position, slowly sit back into a kneeling position.
  2. Walk the hands forwards until the arms are straight. Spread the fingers and press the hands into the floor.
  3. To go deeper, draw the hips back in the opposite direction, lift the head off the floor and tuck the chin in.
  4. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
4 THE SHOULDER STRETCH

A good degree of upper body flexibility is necessary to achieve the aero stance. This shoulder stretch can help achieve the narrow frontal area that especially TT riders desire, by stretching the muscles behind the shoulder such as the trapezius and rhomboid.

  1. Stand tall and put one arm across the body keeping it parallel to the ground. Pull the elbow towards the opposite shoulder.
  2. Hold for 30-60 seconds and repeat with the other arm.

 

STRENGTHENING TRAINING

plank

Stretching alone isn’t the only answer to achieve a lower stance on the bike. You also need the core strength to maintain the position. There are two main potentially weak areas that need strengthening for a lower riding position: the lumbopelvic (lower back/pelvis) and scapulothoracic (shoulder blade/upper back).

These two exercises based on the locust yoga pose will help you to strengthen these potentially weak areas.

1 SCAPULA SEQUENCE

Great upper body strength is demanded to comfortably maintain the aero stance. This series of arm movements will strengthen the muscle groups that stabilize the scapula or shoulder blades.

  1. Lie face down, resting on the forehead.
  2. T arms — bring the arms in line with the shoulders, palms extended. Remain looking downwards. Inhale and lift the upper body. Exhale and lower. Repeat four times.
  3. Y arms — bring the arms a little further forwards so that they form a Y shape with your body, and then raise and lower four times.
  4. W arms — bend the arms into a W shape by drawing the elbows back and raise and lower four times.

After completing the sequence, rise to all fours and slowly sit back on the heels to stretch the lower back.

2 LOCUST LEGS
  1. To shift the focus to the lower back, return to lying face down but with the arms by the sides, palms facing downwards.
  2. Keep the upper body on the floor and lift and lower one leg at a time.
  3. Repeat five times on each leg.

After completing the exercise, rise to all fours and slowly sit back on the heels to stretch the lower back.

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Written by Stephan Blake

Stephan Blake is a cycling enthusiast and rides hundreds of miles every season. On rainy and cold days, he does weight training and high-intensity training to support his cycling performance.

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