The ultimate bodyweight exercise session to improve your cycling
© Olaf Pignataro/Red Bull Content Pool
Follow this weight-free workout by coach to the stars of downhill Alan Milway and feel the gains next time you get in the saddle.
Logic would have it that spending more time in the saddle is the only way to see improvements in performance and endurance on the road or trails. But there is actually whole host of exercises that can be done away from the bike that will leave you fitter and stronger than simply increasing your mileage.
Increasing muscular strength and endurance can have a positive transfer to your riding performance: improving your posture and being able to control it more effectively on the bike, and maximising efficiency in each pedal stroke are just some of the benefits.
Any off-bike training should therefore target areas that are hard to improve safely while in the saddle. Because of the nature of cycling, muscle imbalances can remain, hindering equal delivery of power through the pedals, limiting performance and also causing pain or soreness in other areas, such as shoulders, back or hips.
You don't need a fancy gym membership to see improvements, either. Bodyweight exercises are a practical and effective way to train, allowing you to focus on correct form, technique and muscle activation with suitable progressive overload.
Follow the below workout to address and improve muscular strength, strength endurance and muscular asymmetry – with little or no equipment!
How to perform the session
There are two ways that this session can be completed. You can repeat each exercise for 3-4 sets, with 60secs rest between each set before moving on to the next one.
Alternatively, for a tougher workout, these exercises can be done as a circuit – moving from one exercise straight to the next, to complete a ‘round’. Rest at the end of the round for two minutes, then repeat up to a total of four rounds.
When you can complete four sets (or four rounds) comfortably, add progressions as suggested for each exercise – some exercises may improve more quickly than others.
1. RFE (rear foot elevated) split squat
Reps and sets: 12 reps; 4 sets
Benefits: The RFE Split Squat is a unilateral leg strengthening exercise – this not only helps to develop the weaker leg, but also increases leg strength for more punch on the pedals. This exercise also activates gluteus medius (one of the three gluteal muscles) to stabilise the lead leg, which is often overlooked for cyclists. If you lack balance, this will also develop it, and improve the strength of the intrinsic muscles of the foot if done barefoot.
- Stand in front of a chair/bench and raise rear foot on to it.
- Put hands on hips and lower hips so rear knee approaches floor. Keep chest up and looking forward. You will feel a stretch in rear hip flexor, so don’t feel the need to touch floor with knee if you can’t.
- Pause and drive up. The front heel should remain on the floor, and front shin can be near vertical, so hop forward if your heel is lifting.
- Perform all reps on one leg and swap.
How to make it harder: Adding weight by means of dumbells in each hand, or a barbell across the front of the shoulders will really increase the challenge and is great for improving the muscles in your trunk and back. An exercise band is also very useful – loop around the front foot and over shoulder for an easy, but significant progression.
2. Press ups
Reps and sets: 12 reps; 4 sets
Benefits: The humble press up is still king for upper body pushing power, requiring no equipment while also requiring you to maintain a stiff trunk and flat back to keep good form throughout.
- Place hands just outside shoulder width, and actively ‘screw’ them into the floor – trying to twist the hands slightly so hands are trying to rotate away from the midline of the body. There is no movement in the hands, but there is an increase in tension which helps stabilise the shoulder, and stops the elbows flaring out during the downward phase.
- Pull stomach in tight and lower chest to floor, pause, and drive up so that you maintain a straight line from toes to shoulders (chest should rise with hips).
How to make it harder: Once you can complete 4 sets of 12 press ups to full depth (nose close to touching floor and back stays flat), try ‘no handed’ press ups: lie on chest, lift hands off the floor, and then place them back on the floor and drive up. This will require good shoulder mobility and also a strong trunk and upper body strength to keep posture throughout, without chest rising first. Alternatively, add a weight to your back, or my favourite addition is to hold a resistance band, wrap around your back and hold the other end so the band is around your back and you press up in to it.
3. Side Plank with leg raise
Reps and sets: 8-12 reps; 4 sets
Benefits: With most actions on the bike being performed in the midline of the body, movements out of this plane can be overlooked. However, improving stability and strength in limbs that are moved outside of this position will strengthen gluteus medius and improve trunk stiffness, which translates to a more stable position on the bike.
- Lie on your side, resting on your left elbow, your forearm flat on the ground.
- Put the thumb of your right hand into your right armpit, causing your right elbow to point to the sky.
- Keeping the elbow pointing up, lift your hips up, and pause before lifting the upper leg up.
- Pause at your top range, before lowering leg, then lowering hips. Perform reps slowly, and make it two distinct movements – leg raise, leg lower, then hips lower. This increases tension throughout.
- After completing your reps on your left-hand side, swap over and repeat on your right-hand side
How to make it harder: Instead of lowering the hips to the floor each rep, try maintaining the side plank position throughout the set of leg raises.
4. Single-leg glute bridge raises
Reps and sets: 5-10 reps; 4 sets
Benefits: Glute bridge raises work the hamstrings and glutes – strengthening the drive on the pedals. There is often an imbalance or weakness here, so the single leg progression is ideal to highlight weakness and improve strength.
- Lie on your back and use a chair, sofa or bench to raise your feet on to. You are aiming to form approximately 90 degrees at the knee.
- Keeping toes pointing up, drive heels in to the chair and lift hips off the floor. The movement is from the hip and don’t arch the back to create movement.
- Keep stomach tight throughout and don’t look for maximum range, as this will only come from the back, not from true hip extension.
- Pause at the top of the rep, and lower slowly.
How to make it harder: Single leg versions are quite tough for more than five reps even without weight, so work on building reps up, and when you are confident in this, try adding a load such as a dumbbell to your hips for an added challenge.
5. Banded bent over row
Reps and sets: 8-12 reps; 4 sets
Benefits: A bent over row is ideal as it puts you in a hinge position, requires you to maintain this with your trunk, lengthens hamstrings putting them under tension, and requires you to pull against a resistance in this position – similar to what you would be in while on the bike. It strengthens the arms and shoulders, as well as the mid and lower back.
- Take a resistance band and step on to it, anchoring it with your feet.
- Hinge forward, by pushing your bum back and shoulders forward, maintaining a stiff leg position, (but not locked out at the knee), and keep your back flat.
- Take the band and while maintaining this position pull the band towards you, driving the elbows up and back.
- Pause at the chest and slowly straighten arms again, while not moving position of the back. Your weight should be central – almost as if you are standing on pedals.
How to make it harder: By increasing the pause at the top of the rep, you will fatigue more rapidly, and it is harder to maintain the bent over position. In addition to this, you can take more tension into the band, use a stronger band, or add more reps.
Reps and sets: 6 reps; 4 sets
Benefits: The deadbug is a fantastic trunk exercise that helps you maintain correct pelvis position, and not only strengthens the abdominals, but also the hip flexors, which are commonly tight and weak in cyclists.
- Lie on your back, bring your knees up so your thighs are vertical, and then lift your feet so your shins are parallel to the floor. Raise hands and point to the sky.
- In this position, pull your belly button in and press your lower back into the floor (imagine you are trying to do up the zip of a pair of jeans that are too tight).
- Keeping your lower back pressed into the floor, reach one foot away from you, straightening your leg (but keeping shin parallel to floor), and at the same time, reach the opposite side's arm behind you, lowering towards the floor. Hover arm and foot just above the floor and return to start position.
- It is key that the lower back is pressed in to the floor at all times – if you feel it raising off, don’t extend any further, and keep to this reduced range until you can.
How to make it harder: Initially, aim to increase reps, hovering for longer just above the floor, and then try with both feet and arms together. Another great progression is named after discus athlete Virgilijus Alekna and is known as an ‘Alekna’ – rest a weight on your shins, and hold a weight in your hands while performing these reps. This is a fantastic progression and great for the hip flexors but must be done with back pressed into the floor – it is humbling.
7. Banded front squat
Reps and sets: 10-12 reps; 4 sets
Benefits: The squat is one of the most useful exercises to train the lower limbs. However, the front squat adds an addition component by requiring you to main an upright torso throughout, strengthening your trunk and back in the process. This position is also required on the bike, so transfers very well to cycling.
- Step onto an exercise band, and anchor it to the floor with your feet, squat down and take the band in your hands, with palms facing upwards and elbows in front of you.
- Keeping the elbow out in front, and chest up, stand up from the squat. You feel probably feel a stretch in the forearms and wrist with the tension in the band, and it will want to pull you forward.
- Ensure feet are hip-to-shoulder width apart and descend into the next rep, maintaining an upright torso.
- Don’t worry if you can’t go too low, the aim is to keep chest up, and not bend forward.
How to make it harder: The band is an ideal resistance for home use, but if you have a barbell, this allows more weight to be added. Try increasing depth as you progress and pausing at the bottom of each rep – this makes things much harder.
8. Single-leg calf raises
Reps and sets: 12-15 reps; 4 sets
Benefits: The calves are important in maintaining stiffness and efficiency through the pedal stroke, and also for controlling body position when the going gets rough, pushing back at the forces coming up at you through the bike. Many people who have suffered broken ankles or knee injuries will have a reduced range at the ankle and reduced strength of the calf muscles.
- Find a step and place the ball of the foot on to the step.
- Allow your heel to drop to full range, pause and drive up through the big toe – keeping leg straight and hips level.
- Pause at the very top of the range, before lowering.
How to make it harder: You should be able to max out at over 25 reps per leg, so see if you can do this, and if there is a difference between left and right sides. If you can’t do this, adding more sets of lower reps will help, or add a load to hold on the side of the working leg.
Reps and sets: 30-60secs; 4 sets
Benefits: The plank is a very common, but also very useful trunk exercise, requiring you to hold an isometric position for prolonged periods to strengthen the trunk and maintain this stiffness. One of the key problems comes when people try and hold this for too long, and sink at the lower back, losing the vital position you need. Maximising tension here activates the trunk very effectively so doing it properly is key.
- Lower yourself in to a press up position, but resting on your forearms.
- Your focus should be to squeeze bum tight, pull stomach in tight and brace as hard as you can.
- Aim to hold the movement for shorter periods to get the most from this and keep your back flat throughout.
How to make it harder: Don’t just be tempted to add duration to the plank – adding a load will often be more beneficial and it will encourage you to brace harder and hold the correct position.
10. Open book stretch
Reps and sets: 4-6 reps; 4 sets
Benefits: This isn’t strictly a strengthening exercise, but one of the most effective stretches to improve your position, reduce back pain, and stretch tight chest muscles too. It also works very well during this session to help increase volume of work done outside of the midline and helps you get in to the positions needed.
- Lie on your side in a ‘sleeping’ position, and straighten the lower leg, while bringing the upper leg to 90 degrees and resting the knee on the floor.
- With the upper arm, reach across as far as you can across your body – this is the start position.
- From here lift the upper arm up and over the body in an arc (as if opening up a book) and try to touch the floor on the other side, whilst keeping your knee touching the floor (I use the lower hand to try and anchor down that knee). This twists the back, opens up the chest and stretches the glutes.
How to make it harder: Many people struggle to keep the knee on the floor, and can rest it on a cushion to start with as a regression, but if you want to make it harder, ask a friend to hold your knee to the floor, and gently press the other shoulder to the floor as you open up – maximising the stretch. It is a very effective and brilliant stretch, but you work for it!