Cyclists’ hamstrings often get overlooked next to monster quads and bulging calves, the primary movers throughout the pedal stroke. But without enough hamstring strength, you’ll never max out your power potential. That’s because the hamstrings are key muscles throughout the rotation of your pedal stroke.
Why You Need Strong Hamstrings on the Bike
Your hamstrings are made up of three muscles: the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus. And they work hardest when you pull your leg up from the bottom of the pedal stroke. But they’re also responsible for “flexing your knee and extending your hip joint during the entire pedal stroke,” says Paul Warloski, a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach with Simple Endurance in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. If you don’t have enough strength to facilitate that push-and-pull motion, you’re never going to get the power you need for efficient riding.
Your hamstrings also engage during the downstroke to provide some power and stabilize and guide the knee and foot back to the starting point, says Warloski. Stabilizing the knee, especially when your leg is extended at the end of the pedal stroke, is crucial: This joint helps transfer power from the large muscles in your hips and thighs to your lower legs and feet, and often bears the brunt of the repetitive nature of cycling.
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The problem? When you’re sitting on a bike for hours (or sitting too long in any scenario, really) it puts your hips into a flexed position, which keeps your glutes and hamstrings in a stretched state. Over time, this can lead to something called gluteal amnesia, or dead butt syndrome—where the glutes, which should be the most powerful muscles in your lower body, don’t fire adequately (or at all), explains Seamus Sullivan, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and performance health coach in Los Angeles. Then the hamstrings get overstressed, because they’re picking up the slack for the glutes. All of that can manifest in perennially tight hamstrings for cyclists.
Stretching can help—but strength training is equally important in staving off soreness. “Having strong hamstrings is key for cyclists during the pedal stroke,” says Sullivan. “It also helps with overall work capacity and mitigation of overuse injuries.”
To build your hamstring strength, Warloski recommends strength training at least two times per week, until about a month before your first big event or race season starts (then, once a week using heavier weights is good for maintenance). These hamstring exercises will prime you for your time in the saddle, diffusing tightness and building killer leg strength.
How to use this list: When starting strength training, be careful with the weight you choose and the number of repetitions you do (don’t be afraid to start with bodyweight until you nail the proper form). “We don’t normally stress the hamstrings like this, and they will get sore!” says Warloski. “Fatigue the next day is good, extreme soreness is not and a sign that recovery will take longer and you’ll lose adaptation.”
You should do this workout after a cycling session. “I usually tell clients to do their interval session in the morning and the strength training in the evening,” says Warloski. “Our legs will already be a bit tired from the morning session. But we don’t care how much weight we lift, just that the lifting builds the stress and fatigue.”
Shoot for 2 sets of 8-12 repetitions of these exercises. “Your goal is to build some fatigue in the hamstrings so that you finish the set with the sense you could do three or four more repetitions by the end of the second set. The first set allows you to figure out what weight you should use, the second set should end with fatigue.”
Kristine Zabala, Philadelphia-based fitness instructor at Barry’s and senior coach a Solidcore, demonstrates each exercise so you can learn proper form. You will need a set of gliders (or towels), a stability ball, a mini band, and a set of dumbbells. An exercise mat is optional.
1. Slider Curls
Lie faceup, knees bent, and heels planted on sliders underneath feet. Drive through heels, contract the glutes, and lift hips up toward the ceiling. Your body should form a straight line from shoulders to knees. This is your starting position. Slowly extend one leg out straight, then pressing heel into the floor, pull heel back toward glutes. Keep your hips high. Repeat on the other side. Continue alternating. If this is too easy, do both legs at one time.
2. Hamstring Roll-Outs
Lie faceup with your heels on an exercise ball. Raise hips off the ground, knees in the air and directly over hips. This is your starting position. Push the ball away from glutes, straightening legs but keeping knees soft. Pull heels back toward glutes, rolling the ball in and returning to starting position. Keep hips lifted and core engaged. Repeat.
3. Nordic Curls
Start kneeling with feet secured by a partner or under a weight. Maintain a straight line from head to knees (you can have a slight bend in hips). Lower torso towards the ground as far as you can using only your upper legs, then use hands to catch yourself on the floor. Squeeze glutes and hamstrings to pull body back to the starting position (use your hands to help initiate the upward movement if needed). Repeat.
4. Single-Leg Band Kickbacks
Loop one end of a resistance band around a low anchor point or opposite ankle. Loop the other end around opposite leg below knee or right above ankle (the lower it is, the more difficult the move will be). Bend slightly at the waist and use a chair or wall for balance. Extend one leg backward in a sweeping motion then pause and squeeze glutes at the top. Return to start. Repeat. Then switch sides.
5. Split-Stance Romanian Deadlift
Stand with feet hip-with apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and step into a split stance with left foot forward and right foot back. With a slight bend in knees, hinge at hips by sending butt straight back and lower the dumbbells down to mid-shin. Maintain a flat back and engaged core. Push through feet to extend hips and stand back up. Repeat. Then switch sides.
6. Weighted Good Mornings
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Hold a bar or dumbbell on shoulders, hands holding it behind head. Hinge at hips by sending butt straight back and slowly lower torso until hamstrings tighten. Pause, then squeeze glutes and push through feet to stand back up. Repeat.
7. Single-Leg Glute Bridge
Lie faceup, knees bent, feet planted, arms down by sides on the floor. Lift right leg up toward the ceiling, keeping both knees aligned. Engage glutes and drive through left foot to lift hips up. Slowly lower hips back to the floor. Repeat. Then switch sides.