There’s a high chance you’re not firing on all cylinders. Here is how you can tune up your glutes with a few simple exercises and techniques that will bring new levels of power to your pistons.
Painful lower back, hamstring niggles, aching quads, IT band trouble or lack of power? There’s a high chance that you’re sitting on the solution. The majority of cyclists know how to fire their quads but under-activate their bottom muscles or glutes.
Maximus, the largest of the glute trio, is the biggest and strongest muscle in the body so that’s a lot of cyclists neglecting a potentially potent source of pedalling power. So how should the glutes ideally function in riding?
The gluteus maximus is designed to be the prime mover, or “agonist” for hip extension. This occurs in riding with each downward push on the pedals. However, if the glute max is weak — as it is in many riders — the hamstrings take on this primary agonist function rather than being the “synergist” hip extensors helping with the movement. This puts enormous pressure on the hamstrings, which become quickly overworked and injured.
The second two glutes — medius and minimus — are located on the side of the buttocks. They act as rotational and lateral movers of the leg and stabilize the hips during cycling to prevent rolling and rocking. If these smaller muscles are weak, the power flow from the glutes to the pedals is disrupted. Too little strength here can also result in injuries lower down the leg, especially the knee.
Weak hips rely more on the knee to produce more of the force. Without the hip-stabilizing help of glute medius, the knee can drift inwards. This inward knee drift puts additional strain on the knee ligaments and tendons. The body can compensate by trying to stabilize the hip through the tensor fasciae latae (TFL) and the iliotibial (IT) band.
A number of cyclists are familiar with the IT band; that thick fibrous sheath that goes down the side of the thigh to the knee. It’s a common part of feeling discomfort after a hard day’s exercise.
The majority of riders, however, should be most interested in the potential loss of power in the pedal stroke through not making the glutes and the core stronger in general. A rider with weak bottom muscles lacks the basis for an effective, strong pedal stroke. Without this foundation the legs can’t push from a solid base. This is like trying to fire a cannon from a canoe.
Of course, making the glutes stronger and learning how to switch them on while cycling are essential but only two key parts of the puzzle. It’s also well worth investing in a professional bike fit to see if your bike set-up is additionally preventing glute activation. For instance, if the saddle is placed too far forward, the quads will take the workload (similar to bending the knees in a squat position). A low saddle or handlebars will additionally increase hip flexion at the top of the pedal stroke (the action of raising the leg over the top of the pedal stroke) also inhibiting the activation of the glutes. Again, the riding platform has to be stable to allow the pistons (legs) to power the cranks whether it relates to bike set-up or strength of the cyclist. This means not just having rock solid glutes but good overall core strength from the corset-like transversus abdominals to the abs at the sides of the waist (external and internal obliques).
So what about standing and climbing? For most riders this is the only time when they really feel they’re working the glutes. But are these muscles always working correctly out of the saddle? If you can’t fire the glutes in a stable, seated position then it’s to happen in the wobblier standing stance.
If you read more articles discussing glutes and cycling, you’ll soon become much more aware of their importance when cycling. Rather than hammering down with the quads, you’ll start to consciously engage the glutes at the top of the pedal stroke.
And what can you expect as a result? Well, a noticeable increase in power and speed on the flat and less of a spike in heart rate when standing and climbing. You’ll feel like you’re cycling lighter. Your quads will be much less sore as the workload will be shared with the glutes (although the buttocks may still be complaining two days later, but the pain will go away). It’s a little like unearthing a secret power source.
WEAK GLUTES AND WORKING AT A DESK
Rather than squatting as our ancestors did (which helps with both hip flexibility and glute strength), we now sit for 8-9 hours a day at a desk. Beside rounding the back, this flexed sitting position stretches the glutes and the prolonged static stretching make glute activation harder.
The hip flexor group of muscles at the top of the thigh also become short and tight making it more difficult to get these muscles to fire. This flexed seated position is much like the riding stance so if you are a desk-bound cyclist make sure to take regular walk around the office, perform some basic lunge-type hip flexor stretches and gentle spinal extensions (back bends).
Keep the glutes active with the Seated Glute Activation Technique (see below) and try some desk-based squats (see Chair Squat Technique below). Consider joining a conditioning class offered by physiotherapists, or yoga or Pilates to offset time spent sitting.
SEATED GLUTE ACTIVATION TECHNIQUE
This technique is about engaging the glutes early, at the top of the pedal stroke, so the muscles are completely activated by the middle of the power phase (three o’clock). Many riders are “neutrally inhibited” when it comes to their bottoms and have to be taught how to switch their glutes on and off.
This is a six-step technique starting with activating both buttocks and finishing with a slow simulated pedal stroke on the turbo trainer. The chair-based steps of this sequence can be done anywhere. Performing them prior to riding, while eating your morning muesli, will prepare the body’s nervous system for firing these powerful muscles on the bike.
- Sit on a chair with the feet hip-width apart and firmly planted on the floor. Sit on the hands and clench the buttocks to see how the glutes feel when activated.
- Squeeze and contract one buttock at a time.
- Put the hands on the hamstrings (under the thighs). Clench the buttocks without activating the hamstrings.
- Clench one buttock at a time without activating the hamstrings.
- Clench one buttock at a time while pressing the foot into the floor. As you squeeze the glute, close your eyes and visualize pushing down at the top of the pedal stroke.
- Switch to the turbo-trainer, putting a chair on either side of the bike. Begin with the left leg. Put the right foot on a chair. Start to pedal at the top of the power stroke with the right leg (12 o’clock) but apply the rear brake. Squeeze the glutes and push down on the fixed pedal. When the glute is at maximum activation, release the brake and push through the whole stroke squeezing the glutes.
GLUTE EXERCISES ON THE MAT
The following workouts will work both the gluteus maximus and the smaller medius and minimus. Do the exercisestwice a week either prior to cycling to fire up the glutes, or between rides.
GLUTE ACTIVATING BRIDGE
Most cyclists are familiar with the bridge as a general back and body strengthener. To boost the glute max workload try the following.
- Bridge preparation — lie on your back with the legs bent and the feet level and hip-width apart. Put the arms by the sides, palms face down.
- Flatten the lower back — draw one leg into the abdomen to press the lower back into the floor. Maintain this floor contact while returning the foot to the ground.
- Slowly raise your body to bridge without changing the position of the pelvis. You should feel a deep contracting sensation in the buttocks.
- Hold for 5-10 seconds then lower and draw both legs into the abdomen.
Clams make the gluteus medius, the smaller gluteal muscle at the side of the hips which has a key stabilizing role in cycling, stronger.
Version 1) Lie on your side with feet on the floor and legs stacked and bent at a 90-degree angle. Rest your head in your hand. Maintaining the feet in contact, raise the top knee up until you feel a squeezing sensation in the outer hip muscle. Lower and repeat 5-10 times.
Version 2) Start with the knees together and the feet apart. Repeat as before raising the top knee up until you feel a squeezing sensation in the outer hip muscle then lower down, holding the feet apart at all times. Repeat 5-10 times.
GLUTE STOPWATCH TECHNIQUE
This workout aims to isolate the gluteus maximus. Your hamstrings will contract too, particularly if the glutes are weak, but try to relax them so the bottom muscles do the majority of leg raising.
- Lie on your front and put a stopwatch on the floor in clear view. Bend the right leg into a 90-degree angle so the sole of the foot faces the ceiling. Rest on your forearms or lay your forehead on your palms.
- Lift the right thigh off the floor without lifting or tilting the hip.
- Turn on the stopwatch. Hold for as long as possible. Repeat on the left side.
THE CHAIR SQUAT
Desk-bound? Fire up the glutes and quads throughout the day with this squat technique. The one-legged version is more bike-specific but make sure you hold the right form. Make sure the knees don’t travel beyond the toes when lowering, look ahead and keep a neutral spine.
1) Chair squat. Stand in front of the chair, feet hip-width apart, toes pointing forwards. As you breathe out, lower as if to sit down but hover above the chair. Breathe in and return to standing. Perform ten repetitions, twice a day.
2) Single leg chair squat. Stand in front of the chair. Shift your weight onto the right foot. Bend the left leg behind you with the lower leg roughly parallel to the floor and the knees level. As you breathe out, lower towards the chair in a smooth, controlled movement. Breathe in and return to standing. Do five repetitions on each leg, twice a day.
STRETCHING THE GLUTES
The best way to stretch the glutes is the figure four stretch. This stretch can also be done standing and using the bike to balance, or sitting on a chair. Perform the sitting version frequently at work, or on a bus or train to release tightness. Experiment with tilting the whole body to one side, then the other to work deeper into the glutes.
Version 1) Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet hip-distance apart. Lift the right foot off the floor, turn the knee out and lay the right ankle on the left thigh. Hold behind the right thigh and draw the legs towards the abdomen. Hold for 30-60 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Version 2) To go deeper repeat as before but maintain the front shin and draw the legs in. If the head lifts off the floor place a cushion or two underneath it. Hold for 30-60 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
MASSAGING THE GLUTES
If you can’t afford the joy of paying a professional to lean an elbow into the glutes, try self-massage using a foam roller, tennis ball or spiky rubber ball. Begin tentatively by sitting on the roller with the legs bent and moving back and forth if the glutes are very painful. You can also try placing a ball in the middle of the buttocks and make small circular movements to go deeper. You’ll know when you’ve hit the spot.