By Kevin Kolodziejski
A tightrope walker who performs without a net definitely has it. A CEO who works 100 hours a week certainly does not. What’s the answer to this pithy riddle?
It’s something you want to have in spades when you clean the gutters and reach a bit too far from a ladder on less-than-level ground. Or when you carry the groceries from the car and somehow stumble on that crooked porch step you always warn others about. It’s something you don’t want to give up as you get old — because of what often happens when you do.
The Hackneyed Horror Story
I’m sure you’ve heard something like this before. How an elderly someone loses his balance and the subsequent fall leads to a hip fracture. How even after the fracture heals and months of PT that elderly someone does not regain mobility. How that loss of mobility means that elderly someone can no longer live at home and spends the rest of his days in an assisted-care facility.
I can say I’m sure based on the way the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s article, “Keep on Your Feet—Preventing Older Adult Falls,” begins. “Every second of every day, an older adult (age 65+) suffers a fall in the U.S. — making falls the leading cause of injury and injury death in this age group.” That translates into more than 3 million emergency room visits, more than 300,000 hip fractures, more than 32,000 deaths, and a pretty good chance you know an elderly someone who has taken a life-affecting fall.
How Balance Applies to Bicycling
But today’s title maintains you should better your balance regardless of your age. More importantly, you’ve come to this website because you’re a cyclist. In consideration of that, let’s add a clue to the opening riddle: “If you, as a cyclist, fail to maintain it, you could be dealing with road rash — or worse.” Yes, better balance might just be enough to keep you upright when that serpentine descent contains a tighter-than-expected turn with a good bit of gravel scattered across it — and keep the next ride you take from being in an ambulance — whether you’re 65 or 25.
Is it the sort of skill, however, you can work on while on the bike? Sure, but what’s not as sure is if you want to, especially if you’re closer to 65 than 25.
‘Bump and Grind’ for Balance
One of the better-your-balance bike-handling drills offered by RBR co-founder Fred Matheny in his thirteenth book, “Fred Matheny’s Complete Book of Road Bike Training,” is called “Bump and Grind.” While riding in a grassy area at walking speed and with both hands on the bars, you intentionally bump hands and elbows with a buddy until “you’re comfortable with that.” Then you “try to push him off his line while you maintain yours.”
And just to be clear, head butting is allowed. To add a competitive element, Matheny suggests racing your buddy to a water bottle in the distance while bumping and grinding, with the goal to be the guy who gets there first, unclips, and kicks the water bottle over.
While I have no doubt this drill would enhance your cycling equilibrium, the risk involved may not appeal to you regardless of age, so here’s an off-the-bike improve-your-balance alternative. It merely requires you to alter the way you do the upper-body weightlifting you should already be doing. Just do the some of the lifts you do standing while standing on one leg instead of two.
Why 1-Legged Weightlifting Works
Without delving too heavily into the make-your-brain-hurt science behind the benefits (such as the difference between the efferent and afferent messages produced by your motor neurons and sent and received by your brain) “Why One Leg?”, an article by Mark Fisher, owner of Mark Fisher Fitness in New York City, explains why one-legged weightlifting works.
Lift one foot off the ground just before you begin your first repetition of the given exercise, Fisher explains, and you now must resist movement before you create it. A group of muscles called the lateral subsystem kicks “into gear” to do so, keeping your legs, hips, and spine in place. Think of it as engaging the core muscles before performing an exercise that doesn’t solely focus on strengthening your core. As a result of this additional muscular tension, though, you won’t be able to use as much weight.
But the goal of your lifting is to enhance your cycling, not add plates to the machine and inches to your pecs. That’s why it behooves you to do some of the upper-body work you normally do on two legs while only standing on one. And to prove that, I want you to stand up.
How to Do It
Stand up right now and do the motion used to perform a weightlifting exercise you’re sure to know, alternating dumbbell biceps curls — but do so without the dumbbells. Do a few easily just to warm up and then increase the effort. Really squeeze the muscles found at the front of your upper arm. Now lift one leg off the floor just a bit while continuing the alternating arm motion.
Immediately you’ll feel your core muscles and the leg you’re standing on working harder. That leg may even wobble for a bit, but then you’ll find what you’re looking for.
1-Legged Lifting Betters More Than Your Balance
Now that wobble is why one-legged work for your legs hasn’t been mentioned yet, despite the fact that any variation of one-legged squats or deadlifts is probably the most cycling-specific way to work the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. I’ve done my leg work this way for about 25 years based on a bit of logic shared in an earlier article: When you do ever push down on both pedals simultaneously?
Yet even after a quarter century of doing so, I’m still no sleeping flamingo. As I tire, I wobble — whether I’m using a relatively heavy weight, a light weight, or no weight at all. And wobbling while taxing a single leg to its max could lead to a fall. So if you decide to give it a try, be careful.
Use only your body weight for the first few sessions and always work inside a squat rack or have something sturdy nearby that you could hold onto to remain upright.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.