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Caleb Ewan's Sprint Position - Revealed through Kinesiology

Cycling Squats - Single Leg Squats vs. Bilateral Squats

If you're a cyclist looking to improve your performance, a question that almost never gets brought up is "Should you do unilateral (single leg) or bilateral (both legs) squats?"

To no surprise, a quick YouTube search for "cycling squats" revealed a list of videos with thumbnails showing bilateral squats.  Coupled with cycling culture's obsession with quads and the desire to copy the Pro's, I cringe at the thought that the masses are heading to the gym just to do bilateral squats.



The Problem with Bilateral Squats
Bilateral squats require more quad and erector spinae activation, and if you're already overusing the quads while cycling, bilateral squats will only reinforce bad habits (1,2).  I recommend starting with single leg squats first because in order to do them correctly with full ROM, you must have adequate range of motion and full posterior chain activation.  You'll fall down if you lack either, but this isn't the case with bilateral squats- you can perform a decent looking bilateral squat with the wrong muscle groups.

Posterior Chain Muscles
True- The strongest cyclists have big, defined quads, but it's not the primary muscle they're using.  The strongest system of muscles used in cycling are called the "posterior chain" muscle groups.  Below are some of the posterior chain muscles used in cycling:

  • Trapezius
  • Rhomboid
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Erector Spinae
  • Gluteus Medius
  • Gluteus Minimus
  • Gluteus Maximus
  • Semiteninosus, Semimembranosus and Bicep Femoris (Hamstrings)
  • Gastrocnemius and Soleus (Calf)
The quads aren't mentioned because anatomically, they're on the complete opposite side.  Here's another kicker:  The strongest cyclists aren't actually fighting through quad pain.  In fact, they usually feel no muscle fatigue; only shortness of breath from cardiovascular fatigue.  This is what it feels like when the posterior chain is working correctly- effortless.

If the quads aren't supposed to burnout or fatigue during rides, this begs the question:

Why do cyclists have big quads?
When the posterior chain is activating correctly, the quad's primary role is to provide stability to the hips so that the posterior chain is positioned for maximal power output.  Specifically, via hip flexion and knee extension, they keep the hips from drifting forward during posterior chain activation.  Considering how strong the posterior chain muscles are, the quads have a big powerhouse to contain.

In contrast to good form/ activation, when the quads are activating too much, they're now being used to both stabilize the hip and primarily power the pedal stroke.  Remember that list above?  Now the quads are trying to compensate for roughly eight muscles.  This also means that the low back and knee are taking on several times more force.  In this scenario, your body will eventually:
  1. Adapt & Plateau:  You will continue to get stronger despite using the wrong muscles, won't experience injuries until very late, but you will plateau because the quads can't replace or outperform a system of eight muscles working in unison.  Depending on your genetics, you can even go Pro with quad dominant pedaling.
  2. Get Injured:  For the majority of us with normal genetics, you'll eventually experience knee or low back pain.

Good Form or Bad Form = Big Quads
Quad size is not indicative of cycling performance or technique.  They can be well-developed from good form or overuse.  However, glute and hamstring size can tell you a lot about whether a cyclist has good posterior chain activation.

When I first got into cycling, I fell into the trap too.  I thought stronger, bigger quads were the key to being fast, but it only led to mediocre results in races and group rides.  Only when I learned how to activate the glutes and use the quads appropriately, I discovered what effortless pedaling felt like.  By learning how to use the posterior chain fully, I went from a mid pack finisher to podium finishes in 7 out of 8 races; achieving a top three national ranking in Cat 3.  Watching the Pros in the TDF surprised me because the majority of the fields are not using the posterior chain effectively.  Only a handful of Pro cyclists demonstrate technique indicative of posterior chain activation.  Many domestiques could easily become the team leader if they switched to posterior chain activation.

List of a few Pro cyclists with clear posterior chain activation:
  • Peter Sagan
  • Bradley Wiggins (Only Recently) - He used to be more quad dominant.
  • Alejandro Valverde
  • Tony Martin
  • Caleb Ewan
References
  1. Mccurdy, K., O’Kelley, E., Kutz, M., Langford, G., Ernest, J., & Torres, M. (2010). Comparison of Lower Extremity Emg Between the 2-Leg Squat and Modified Single-Leg Squat in Female Athletes. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 19(1), 57-70. doi:10.1123/jsr.19.1.57
  2. DeFOREST, B. A., Cantrell, G. S., & Schilling, B. K. (2014, October 01). Muscle Activity in Single- vs. Double-Leg Squats. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4831851/

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