Cycling is a great sport for fitness, it kind of goes without saying. Hours spent on the bike mean that you can generally scoff down pounds of pasta and slices of cake after a long ride, whilst still staying where you should be calorie-wise by the end of the day, and if you enjoy it, well then you shouldn’t even be thinking about it in terms of exercise.
There are however, those moments when you don’t ride as hard, get beat down and feel the little niggles and aches a bit more than usual. One of these issues is hamstring tightness and general comfortableness along the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, hips), and it is usually down to a muscle imbalance or overuse. This overuse isn’t of the hamstring, it’s quite the opposite, and is likely caused by the quadriceps, which end up doing extra work because the hamstring is either weak, or not being activated correctly.
Piling all the pressure on the quads will wear your legs out quicker, and can strain your muscular structure, as your body will naturally want to spread out the workload between multiple muscles in the area. With your hamstrings being weak and underused or tight, your quads will take on the extra workload and potentially overload, which is a path you don’t want to be travelling down.
To ensure that your hamstrings are strong and ready to be activated and utilised efficiently in your rides, try the following exercises.
Exercises for hamstring strengthening
This is a staple hamstring strengthener and is great if you’re no stranger to the weight room. While many of us cyclists may be adverse to lifting weights, sometimes the right education and the right type of lifting can improve your muscular function and enhance your cycling strength and endurance base.
The stiff-leg deadlift works by keeping the legs locked, isolating the hamstrings and working them primarily, unlike the standard deadlift which focusses on the lower back. Good news to those not wanting to bulk up, this move won’t add mass to your upper body and shouldn’t add too much mass to your legs if you keep your calories in check. A rep range of between 3-6 will work on strength, while anything above 12 will help endurance; both of which are paramount to cycling. Be careful to stay out of the 8-12 rep range if you need to keep your bodyweight low, as this range will focus on hypertrophy and start to add muscle size more than strength.
A quick note on body composition and muscle mass for cycling:
Although weight training can increase muscle mass, and many cyclists wish to stay lean and light, a good factor to look at is body composition. If you want to strengthen your hamstrings but don’t want to gain weight, see where you could burn some additional fat by tweaking your diet. An 80kg man with 20% body fat is a very different athlete to an 80kg man with 11% body fat. Compose your own body and build smart muscle, it doesn’t have to weigh you down.
To perform the stiff leg deadlift, hold a barbell, or dumbbells, in both hands. Keeping your legs and back straight, lower the barbell towards the floor until you start to feel the tightness in your hamstrings. If you can’t make it all the way to the floor, don’t worry for now, the exercise will still be effective.
Glute-ham raises come in two forms, and whether or not you have access to a glute-ham apparatus will quickly determine which of the two forms you can try out.
The first, apparatus-assisted movement is shown below, and is the simplest and most effective. Lying prone on the machine, cross your hands across your chest, and using your glutes and hamstrings, pull yourself upwards and back, hinging at your hips and maintaining a flat back. When you reach the end of the movement, your back should be at a 90 degree angle to your legs. Carefully and slowly, lower your upper body to be parallel to the floor again. Performing this movement at a controlled and steady pace will ensure a safe and effective workout.
If you fall into the second category, and you don’t have access to a glute-ham machine, then there’s an alternative that requires a partner. Lay down prone on the floor, and have your partner hold onto your feet to stabilise you, and perform the exercise as above. If you don’t have a partner you could always use a suitable object to hold your feet in the correct position.