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How to get stronger legs for cycling

Simple exercises to build your leg strength on the bike that can be done in the gym or at home

Joe Robinson
14 Dec 2021

Riding your bike is the fundamental way to improve as a cyclist but alternative workouts away from the bike are an undeniablly effective way of boosting your ability on wheels.

While cardiovascular fitness is paramount, activities such as running and swimming can also improve both strength and aerobic capacity. And with increased leg strength comes more powerful climbing, more explosive sprinting, and the possibility of becoming a more well-rounded rider.

Besides complimentary activities and sports, strength exercises designed to work your quads, glutes, calves, and hamstrings are also well worth including in your repertoire. Pick the right ones, and they’ll not only make you more powerful but also help improve your balance, strengthen your joints, and provide you with tthe ultimate bonus, a good looking set of pins.

Now, we’re not promising you tree trunks like Robert Forstermann but with these six simple workouts that can all be done from the comfort of your home, you’ll have stronger legs in no time - something that will seriously benefit you when you hop back onto the bike.

How to get stronger legs for cycling

1. Box jumps

Why - Box jumps are excellent at improving and developing your explosive, fast-twitch muscle fibres by forcing your muscles into contracting before exploding upwards.

Fast-twitch muscles are just what you need when sprinting, accelerating and riding steep climbs where short and sudden bursts of power are necessary.

How - Position a stable platform in front of you (park benches are ideal for this). Position your feet slightly wider than your shoulders. Squat down and then jump onto the platform. Step off and repeat. 

For a harder challenge, attempt to keep your arms still when jumping to prevent creating artificial momentum. If you do not have a platform to jump on, just do the exercise as a standing jump.

Sets - 10 reps for four sets, one minute standing rest between sets.

2. Goblet squats

Goblet squat

Why - The goblet squat (or kettlebell squat) was developed by American strength and conditioning coach Dan John as an alternative to the barbell squat. It minimises the risk of back injury, helps you keep better form and acts as a natural counterweight to keep your feet planted to the ground.

Squatting helps strengthen most muscles in your lower half, quads, calves and glutes. All of these are vital when it comes to pedalling your bike. The goblet squat also acts as a great home alternative to barbell squats as it does away with the need for a squat rack.

How - Stand with your feet apart, a touch wider than your shoulders. Hold a kettlebell, dumbbell or even a heavy book just off your chest with your elbows tucked in. If using a kettlebell, hold it by the handles. If using a dumbbell, hold it by the end.

Begin your squat, keeping your elbows inside your knees. Keep your heels on the ground and drop until your legs are at a 90-degree angle. Then slowly come back up, driving through your heels. Do not worry about using too heavy a weight, this is about building endurance and balance just as much as muscle mass.

Sets - 10 reps for four sets with one minute standing rest between sets.

3. Calf raises

Why - When you pedal your bike, one of the most active muscles happens to be your calves. Constantly expanding and contracting, they are always in use whether you are riding in or out of the saddle.

For that reason, it’s important to work on these muscles off the bike to make them stronger when riding and also decrease the chance of cramping. Plus, having bulging calves like Peter Sagan is pretty impressive.

How - There are a few ways to do calf raises.

Stand on a surface like a staircase with your heels off the edge, feet shoulder-width apart. Raise yourself onto your toes slowly before slowly dropping back down. If you feel strong, try completing the exercise with a back weight.

Or, use a leg press machine at the gym. Extend your legs and then place your toes on the edge. Slowly raise onto your tiptoes before dropping back down.

Sets - 12 reps for four sets with one minute standing rest between sets.

4. Lunges

Dumbbell lunge

Why - Engaging your quads, hamstrings, calves and glutes, the lunge is an easy all-round exercise that improves leg strength and balance, two things that can really make you a better cyclist.

How - Stand with both legs shoulder-width apart. Step forward with your right leg so that the knee bends to a 90-degree angle. Keep the weight planted through the heel and stop before your non-standing leg’s knee touches the floor.

Hold this position and then power up through the standing leg before repeating the process on the opposing leg.  These can either be done using bodyweight or with a dumbbell in each hand for a harder challenge.

Sets - 10 lunges on each leg for one complete set, aiming to do four sets in total with one minute rest between sets.

5. Romanian Deadlift

Deadlift - 2

Why - The hamstrings are often neglected when developing leg strength leaving them much more susceptible to cramping when out on the bike. RDLs directly deal with this.

This alternative take on the regular deadlift also helps strengthen all the muscles in your posterior chain (the one’s that ache most on long rides) and helps increase flexibility which should never be turned down.

How - Pick up the bar or a kettlebell and place your feet shoulder-width apart. Slightly bend your knees and poke out your backside. Bend at your hips, keep your back straight and look through your eyebrows.

Drop until the bar or weight is just below your knee or you feel a stretch in your back. Then drive through your hips and hamstrings until upright. 

Sets - Do this for three sets of 10 reps with one minute standing rest between sets.

6. Wall sit

Why - The humble wall sit is an excellent exercise to end a session, activating almost every muscle in the lower body, increasing muscle endurance and improving stability, necessary attributes for longer days in the saddle.

A secondary benefit of the wall sit is that is also engages your core muscles, which again can help with overall stability.

How - Place you back flat against a wall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Sink down until your knees and hips are at a 90 degree angle. 

Engage your core, stabilise and sit. Place your hands on the wall or for a tougher challenge hold them out straight in front of you. And for a real challenge you can always place more weight on your lap.

Set - Hold until failure. Over two minutes is generally considered to be a very good effort. 

Why do I need stronger legs for cycling?

We are not necessarily saying you need to get legs like Chris Hoy, but building leg strength and muscle mass can be beneficial for many reasons.

Firstly, weighted and resistance exercises are great at helping protect your bones. Such workouts will help increase bone density, keep them healthy and also potentially ward off osteoporosis in later life, something that could keep you cycling longer.

Secondly, while cardiovascular fitness is key, leg strength derived from gym work can help with certain styles of riding such as sprinting and climbing short, punchier climbs.

All exercises are undertaken at your own risk.

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