For some of us, getting stuck into a big old climb and smashing it is probably the most rewarding thing we can do on the bike... and for others, hills can be the bane of our existence as cyclists. We’re all either looking to suck less on climbs or to move up the QOM/KOM leaderboard on Strava, so it’s only right that use a dialled-in strength training approach to help us crush the inclines.
Over my nearly 15 years of working with cyclists of all ages and abilities from around the globe, I’ve seen plenty of riders who were looking to improve their climbing. Many, but not all, came to me having already trained in CrossFit, Olympic lifting, or having done “loads of plyo training”, yet only a handful had seen any improvements in their climbing. While logically there should have been improvements based on what the riders reported they had been doing, upon our movement assessment, it became glaringly apparent what was missing… they had skipped over the basics, and gone for the fancy and more exciting stuff. So, while they could ‘do’ the exercises, it was almost like trying to push a string with different body parts doing different things.
The following programme will help you set the table on which to add Olympic lifts, plyometric training and more explosive work, if you so choose. However, many of you will find this programme offers a lot to boost your climbing power just by itself; IF you perform each exercise with great technique and mind-muscle connection.
As we discussed in our last article, ‘The Core’ is everything between your neck, elbows and knees. Especially for climbing and sprinting, we need to make sure everything is working well together, allowing you to squeeze out every ounce of energy down to the road, and keep you from looking like you’re doing rhythmic gymnastics on the bike!
Laying the foundation for all climbing, sprinting and hard riding, the Bird Dog - when done correctly with movement only happening from the shoulder and hip - offers huge benefits. If you watch videos of the best climbers in pro cycling such as Alberto Contador, his hips and shoulders move together while he’s ‘dancing on the pedals’, and his arms work the bike side-to-side.
When Bob Roll on the commentary starts saying “Oh no! There it is! The wheels are coming off! He’s Cracked!”, we see the rider bobbing side to side, with the shoulders separating from their hips.
The Bird Dog teaches you how to get movement from the hip and opposite shoulder simultaneously, with little to no resistance. Many cyclists (and triathletes) find that once they learn and master doing this move correctly, their climbing becomes a little easier and they can hold their form on the bike for longer.
Start off at the correct level for you, with two sets of 3-5 repetitions each side. Finish all repetitions on one side, and then switch, taking the time to reset the position in between sides.
Static side planks with the top foot forward will help you build the connection between the muscles of the body, but the side plank hinge will help you tie together everything for movement, like climbing or sprinting. The important part of this exercise is actually in the setup, as we want to stay in a neutral spine position before starting. Lock your ribs and hips together by using your full 360-degree abdominal hoop (which we learned about when nailing the McGill Crunch). Once you have your nose, spine and zipper in a straight line, push the hips forward, keeping everything locked together as you move. Perform 4-6 slow, purposeful repetitions on each side, hovering over the floor at the ‘back’ position, and keeping your shoulder pushed down and forward. It’s ok to feel it a little in your shoulder, but you shouldn’t have pain.
Learning how to fire up the mid and lower trapezius muscle is a must if you’d like to be able to eat on the bike, and stay away from developing that Quasimodo-type posture! The mid and lower traps are keystones to upper body function, as they help keep the shoulder joint in optimal positions and allow us to get more power through the arms. This is something you’ll want and need for those long European-style climbs, or very steep inclines such as Hardnott Pass.
The Reach, Roll, Lift exercise is deceptive, as not only is it an upper body and shoulder exercise, but it’s also a rotary stability drill designed to teach you how to keep the ribs and hips locked together.
In order to get the most out of this exercise, you must follow the technique, especially the setup with your spine straight. This may mean that you can’t get all the way down, but the exercise isn’t beneficial without that neutral spine. Go with the positions you can hold, and you’ll unlock your potential. Start with three sets of 2-4 repetitions on each side, alternating sides.
Make sure to focus on using your mid-back to lift the arm, not your bicep or shoulder.
Cycling is a dynamic sport, with forces acting on the body in many different ways. One, which we do not train often, is a force trying to separate our ribs from our hips, as mentioned above. To counteract this, which we only encounter during steep climbs and sprinting, we need to change the position of the body.
The Paloff Press Isometric Hold with Breath challenges you to keep the entire core (everything between the knees, elbows and neck) appropriately stiff, while getting motion only from the shoulders. When you first start with the exercise, make sure your feet are just slightly wider than shoulder width, and feel your feet connect to the floor. Perform 2-3 sets of four repetitions each side, with two breaths per repetition.
If we want to be fast, we need to prepare the tissues, and teach the body how to maintain an ideal position where it is quick, nimble and able to EXPLODE!
Snap downs lay the foundation for many different plyometric progressions, as it exposes biases and poor strength in areas of the body that can be a bit difficult to identify out on the bike while you’re sprinting or climbing. There are three parts to this exercise:
1. Triple extension position: up on the toes, hips straight, eyes forward, spine neutral, hands overhead, or as flexed as you can get them without pulling on your lower back
2. Fast snap down into the bottom position using your hands
3. Holding the bottom position with tension through the body
When done properly, this helps us develop the ability to hold correct tension in the body. It also allows us to move quickly to express power, as well as prepare the body for more intense plyometrics. Some, but not all, riders report feeling ‘more snap’ when they get out of the saddle on climbs after getting this exercise down, and being able to perform it well.
Start with 3-4 sets of three repetitions, with 10-15 seconds between repetitions (standing, relaxed), and 3-5 minutes between sets.
Why settle for banded external shoulder rotations, when we can get far more out of shoulder strengthening exercises? The KB Halo will challenge you on a few levels, including your ability to move only from the shoulder and gaining better length and strength for your lats.
A full body exercise, the KB Halo helps you tie together the upper and lower body, while building great strength and durability for your shoulders. Keep it light the first few times you do this, as these are very new ranges of motion and ways for your muscles to work if you’re not used to them.
Start with three sets of 5-7 each way.
Shifting from sitting to standing on a climb is often the moment when other riders pull away from you, as you try to give your muscles a break and work them in a different way. While climbing technique and positioning out of the saddle are both skills that will offer huge improvements, we can also use the Banded Hinge with Squeeze to help us learn how to keep the entire body engaged as we make that shift, and put more power through the pedals.
For the first part (easier than it looks), you’ll want to keep your weight focused in the mid-foot at the starting position, and move just a little forward as you approach the top position. The second part (harder than it looks) will follow this by squeezing the glutes and bracing your mid-section, to help you make the mind-muscle connection and learn to turn off the hamstrings.
Perform two sets of 8-12 repetitions with a 2-4 second squeeze and hold at the top. Be sure to keep your hips and ribs locked together, especially as you start to fatigue!
Unlocking better climbing comes first and foremost from mastering the basics, and understanding the different forces you face when the road tilts upwards. The seven exercises, done in the order shown above, will help you begin to better understand your strengths and weaknesses, which will in turn help you climb better.
Adding a session with an experienced climber, or a coach to help you learn the on-bike skills of climbing, makes these exercises far more effective. It can help revitalise your climbing, taking you to a new level and perhaps enjoying those brutal climbs a little more!
In part 3/5 of our strength training series, we'll tell you why just working on the core and posterior chain isn't quite enough if you want to get the best out of your training, plus some more essential exercises to master.
Disclaimer: We strongly recommend that you consult with your doctor before beginning any exercise programme. You should be in good physical condition and be able to participate in the exercise. road.cc is not a licensed medical care provider and represents that it has no expertise in diagnosing, examining, or treating medical conditions of any kind, or in determining the effect of any specific exercise on any medical condition. You should understand that when participating in any exercise programme, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in any part of this exercise programme, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself, and agree to release and discharge road.cc from any and all claims or causes of action, known or unknown.
Menachem Brodie is a leading strength coach for cyclists and triathletes. He is the author of The Vortex Method: The New Rules for Ultimate Strength & Performance in Cycling, and the Strength Training for Cyclists Certification. He works with cyclists and triathletes from around the world to improve their performances through strength training designed to meet their sport's needs.