Pilates for Cyclists

Aside from in jumpboard classes, our goal in Pilates isn’t necessarily around getting your heart rate up (though if that happens as a side effect of working hard, then great!). However, cardiovascular exercise is an important piece of your overall health, and one of the most sustainable cardio workouts is cycling. 

Let’s break down how your body works when biking. Many cyclists use the term pedal stroke to describe the full movement of your leg while riding. Looking at a bike from the side, imagine the pedal circles around a clock. Each pedal stroke takes your leg from 12 o’clock to 1, 2, 3, etc., and back up to 12. A single pedal stroke is broken up into several phases and engages different muscles at each phase.

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It’s difficult to define the phases as completely separate from one another because the muscles overlap in working. (Think of a baton race: when you hand off the baton, you can’t just stop your momentum dead in your tracks as the baton leaves your palm. There is a short period when both you and the next person are running.) 

Depending on who you ask, there are several different names and parameters defining these phases. In general, the pedal stroke consists of the down stroke, backstroke, and up stroke. 

As your foot travels from 12 to 6 o’clock, it’s in the down stroke. Your quads and glutes work to press the pedal forward and down which extends your knee. 

Overlapping with the bottom of the down stroke is the backstroke, which occurs roughly from 4:30 to 8 o’clock. As you round out the bottom of the circle, your calves and tibialis anterior (the fronts of your shins) work to pull your leg back and up. 

On the up stroke, from 6 back up to 12, your hamstrings and hip flexors continue to pull the leg back, up, and over until it’s ready to push down again. 

Whether you’re serious about the sport or just like cruising around West Wash Park, here’s why we highly recommend Pilates as cross-training for cyclists.

1) You’ll balance out concentric contractions with eccentric contractions. 

If you think about the full pedal stroke, you’ll notice that there is quite a bit of concentric contraction—meaning your muscles engage by shortening—and not much eccentric contraction—meaning your muscles engage by lengthening.

In the down stroke, your quads (fronts of your thighs) and glutes (booty) work like crazy to push the pedal down. This straightens your knee, but your quads and glutes are actually engaging in concentric contractions, meaning they’re shortening. When your leg continues to the up stroke, the calves, tibialis anterior, hamstrings, and hip flexors take over to bend the knee. Those muscles are performing concentric contractions as well. 

That means in the entire pedal stroke, the muscles involved are shortening to engage and never lengthening to engage. If you perform only concentric contractions, your muscles will shorten to the point where you lose mobility and might even experience pain. Luckily you do Pilates, so you won’t have that issue!

The active stretches we do in Pilates lengthen and engage your muscles simultaneously, which balances out the concentric contractions you find on your bike. We practice this engagement in exercises like Eve’s Lunge, leg work with your feet in the straps, and lunges.

2) We’re alignment nerds. 

To avoid injury and keep your body in tip-top cycling condition, alignment is key. Cycling experts agree that the optimal position for your leg is one where your hip, knee, and ankle are all in line. Footwork was designed for practicing that very alignment. Whether on the Reformer, Cadillac, or Chair, we’re focused on engaging muscles while keeping your joints properly lined up. When you work on that in the studio, your muscle memory will kick in on the bike.

3) You’ll round out your cycling technique.

Cycling coaches often talk about “rounding out” your pedal stroke. A “round” pedal stroke gives the appearance that your legs are delivering equal power throughout the movement. In fact, the down stroke requires the most force as your quads and glutes work to press the pedal forward. 

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The illusion of a round pedal stroke occurs because pro cyclists have smoothed out their stroke to the point where you can’t tell where one phase ends and the next begins. To seamlessly integrate the transitions, you need to work through any kinks in your movement. 

In Pilates, we break things down in a slow and intentional manner so you can figure out where inefficiencies are and work to correct them. For example, we’ll often have people lay on their backs on the Cadillac and put their feet in the straps. They’ll do a bicycle motion with their legs, pressing against the resistance of the springs. This exercise is primarily designed to engage the hamstrings, but for cyclists, it’s also a great place to slow down and analyze your pedal stroke.

4) We’ll get you outta parallel and into rotation. 

Just like with running, cycling occurs primarily in a parallel orientation and doesn’t involve much rotation. To keep your joints supple and mobile, it’s essential to find movement in every range of motion the joint allows. 

Footwork is an excellent place to find intentional movement that strengthens muscles in every orientation. With footwork on the Chair, you can work both legs simultaneously or one leg at a time, finding movement in parallel and external rotation, and articulating through the ankle (another joint that doesn’t get much attention in cycling).

5) You’ll work everything else! 

While your legs are having the time of their lives on a bike, the rest of your body isn’t moving much. In proper cycling form, your core, chest, back, and arms are engaged, but they aren’t going through range of motion. 

Also, because professional bicycles are designed so the rider is pitched forward, cyclists are at risk of developing kyphosis, an exaggerated forward curve of their upper spine. (Riders of more upright bikes are less likely to feel this effect.) 

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You’ll find the antidote for both issues in Pilates. In exercises like hug-a-tree kneeling on the Reformer, your arms are engaged to hold the tension of the strap, and your back and chest assist in stabilizing the arms. The real work, however, is happening lower, in your pelvic floor and core. Your obliques are engaging as you rotate, and your breath assists in deepening that engagement. That core strength directly applies to supporting your torso while riding a bike. 

To balance out the forward positioning required when riding, it’s essential that cyclists find back and chest extension when off the bike. Exercises on the long box are ideal. Laying on your belly on the long box, your instructor can either have you facing the footbar or facing the back of the Reformer. In that way, the weight of the springs can either assist or challenge you as you engage your entire back body and expand your front body. 

Have more questions about how you can keep your body balanced in and out of the studio? Drop by or check out a class! 

Ali Weeks