By Monika Marx, Marx Conditioning.
Many cyclists I train suffer from what Stuart McGill, PhD, calls “gluteal amnesia.” Dr. McGill coined this phrase to identify the inability to engage our hip muscles during athletic activities or exercises . Bottom line: this adversely affects our cycling performance and increases the likelihood of injury. Weak glutes means tight hip flexors, low back pain, and more importantly perhaps…you're not as fast on your bike as you could be.
Try this activity: squeeze your glutes, hard! Now squeeze the left, then the right. Make them dance. DANCE! If this is difficult, you could be faster.
Below are five of my favorite exercises to get those glutes firing! We are presenting them in order of complexity, so please stick with the program, and don't jump ahead to the sexy stuff.
Single Leg Glute Bridges: Green Circle/Entry level. This is an excellent way to reconnect with your amnesial buttocks. Lie on your back, placing your knees overtop your hips, resting your heels on the ground. Reach behind one knee and pull up gently toward your chest. Now, focus on what it would take to hold a soon to be defunct Canadian penny between your butt cheeks. Good, keep that tension. Press away from the ground through your heel until your hips are fully extended. Keep your core tight to ensure the movement is coming from your hips, and not your low back. Really focus on your glutes doing the work – try to shut off your quads. They should be burning by 15 reps.
Deadlifts: Blue Square Feeling good, ready to explore. I start all clients with the kettlebell deadlift, before we go to the Olympic bar version. Placing the kettlebell directly between your feet teaches great hip hinge mechanics, and better skill with locking down the lats. Personally, my technical climbing improved noticeably when my deadlift exceeded my bodyweight. Some cues to keep in mind: Get tall at the top! Make sure you've got a good neutral start position, including your pelvis. Push your hips back, not down. Strive for a vertical line at the shin. A deadlift is NOT a squat. Think: shoulders higher than hips, hips higher than knees. You should feel some good tension in your hamstrings. Grab the bell with a strong grip, and visualize trying to pull the handle apart. Pull the shoulder blades down to your hips, and crush lemons under your arms (just visualize it – don't actually). Big breath of air into the belly, then extend your hips by driving your heels into the ground, exhaling on the way up. Here's where most people blow it: put the bell back down in the exact same position you pulled it from, maintaining a straight back and tension in the lats. We have a goal in my studio of being able, at a minimum, to deadlift bodyweight. Make that yours. If you struggle to get depth at the bottom, try elevating the bell to practice good technique. Remember, your kettlebell swing will be only as good as your deadlift, so practice, practice, practice.
Single Leg Deadlifts: Technical Blue Square Ready for some technical progression? Now that you've mastered the deadlift, let's take it the next step and really make your body work by putting it in a single leg stance. This is hard to do well! I highly suggest practicing with a dowel initially until you've mastered the movement. Offset load by having a bell in the opposite hand to your working leg. Keep the knee flexed to 15-20 degrees. The movement should come from your hip – think of trying to push your butt behind your heel. Make the extended leg long and straight. Depth will be individual with this – only go as deep as you can with the movement coming from your hip, not your low back.
Kettlebell Cleans: Black Diamond No longer happy with an intermediate title, it’s time for the advanced stuff. Here's a great movement to add in some hip power. In order to perform the move correctly, you need enough hip snap to keep you from lifting the bell. The bell is meant to "float" up, by combining a quick pop of the hips with an "elbow strike" behind you. The offset loading of kettlebells ensures you have to really use the abdominals. Cues: deadlift position, packed shoulder, core tight. We learn this movement in three phases. Hike the bell behind you, then as the bell is coming through on the back swing, pop your hips and drive your elbow straight back behind you. Don't overgrip the bell! This will bang up your wrist. Practice catching it with an open grip, until your cleans are clean.
Kettlebell Swings: Double Black Diamond Ready to show my stuff, expert status. kettlebell swings, the most technical move of all. First, please, please, please understand that a kettlebell swing is not a squat to lift. It is a deadlift with momentum. If you want to keep it safe, the bell should go no higher than chest height. Most cyclists do not have sufficient shoulder mobility to swing a bell overhead. This is really the biggest bang for your buck hip power move with kettlebells, if you do it correctly. In my studio, we aim to swing 60% of our body weight. Women tend to learn this movement more easily, likely due to the fact that they've thought about their butts on a daily basis since they were 13. Men will try to lift the bell. To get out of this habit, glue your elbows to your ribcage. Think of all the movement being generated behind your body, not in front. Cues: push the bell back, pop your hips. At the top, your swing should feel like a stand up plank hold: full body tension. Tight lats, core, glutes, quads. You want to practice locking out your knees and hips at the same time with a strong abdominal bracing. This will keep you from going into your low back. Another key element to the kettlebell swing that often goes sideways is timing of the hinge. Don't sit back in your hips until that bell is milimetres from your crotch and you feel your forearms connect to your hips. Most newbies tend to hinge as soon as the bell is on its' way down (obviously concerned with getting out of the way) but this tends to load the low back. If you are tall until the last second, (again, think stand up plank) you absorb the bell with your hip hinge – and minimal loading of your low back. Done correctly, you should feel your hips and hamstrings.
There's something magical that happens to your pedal stroke once you learn to generate power from your hips. Output increases, which means you're faster. Low back is less likely to do the work, because your glutes and hamstrings are now on the job. You feel connected in the corners. Most cyclists are quad dominant, forward rolled creatures with nasty hip flexors that pull their pelvis out of alignment. Every cyclists that ends up in physio often hears the same diagnosis – lack of core and glute strength.
Like every skill, you can accelerate your knowledge with good coaching. Seek out a reputable kettlebell coach in your area, preferably one certified through StrongFirst or the RKC. These coaches spend three days earning their certification, which means they have to undergo physical testing (and it's demanding) as well as coach their fellow participants, and a whole whack of newbies brought in off the street. I'm proud to be certified by both these organizations.
Thank you to our models Matt Green, Cynthia Young and Monika marx. Next week, the Turkish Get-up.