By Kevin Kolodziejski
The offer came from Lindsey Hytrek, not Michael Corleone. But like the young Mafioso in Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary film “The Godfather,” the Public Relations Account Coordinator at ChicExecs Brand Strategy in San Marcos, California made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Since I prefer a parcel on my porch to a horse head in my bed, I said yes. Doing so not only eliminated the chance that my last workout ever would be swimming with the fishes in cement shoes, but it also has added variety, specificity, and at times tremendous intensity to the weightlifting I do to supplement my cycling and stymie sarcopenia.
The offer? “Would you like a pair of YBells?”
So What Are YBells?
They’re a bit hard to describe — so check out the image supplied — though their purpose isn’t: to allow you to perform the sorts of weightlifting exercises that normally require dumbbells, kettlebells, and medicine balls using a single piece of equipment. The ingenious multi-handle design allows for such versatility by changing the YBells’ weight distribution. Grip a YBell by the center handle in the middle of the triangular piece, and it feels like a dumbbell — a rather well-balanced one at that. Grip one of the three outside handles, and it functions as a kettlebell. Hold one with both hands during abdominal or leg work at waist level, shoulder level, or above your head, and it does the job of a medicine ball. And just for good measure: You can place a pair on the floor and do pushups holding the top handles.
Since this allows you to go deeper than the normal range of motion, the movement is more difficult and more effective than palms-on-the-floor pushups. Absolute exercise animals, then twist their torsos at the top of each rep and lift one YBell off the floor.
But you’re a different sort of beast: a certain species of cyclist. Maybe you can ride all day at group pace, accelerate as if motorized, or climb as if half the hill’s been cut away. To effectively use YBells, though, none of this matters. All breeds of cyclists can do so by following the instructional videos at the website and all over YouTube. But this ubiquity, my friend, is no reason to disregard the rest of this article.
Why Read the Rest of This Article?
For as helpful as the aforestated videos are, some plant the seeds that YBells are less-than-suitable for cyclists. The first video I viewed, for instance, was a complete 30-minute full-body workout combining weightlifting and cardiovascular work. Following it would clearly keep your heart rate elevated — something you certainly don’t need — or probably don’t want — when your number-one exercise priority is cycling. In that case, you need to take the targeted muscles to failure, allow time for those muscles to recover, and then take them to failure again and again.
Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University quickly gaining a following through his weekly Huberman Lab Podcasts, believes five sets for each body part once a week is enough to spur muscle growth — provided you eat right and sleep well. If your goal is merely to maintain muscle, the Mayo Clinic recommends a single set of 12 to 15 repetitions taken to muscle failure at least twice a week.
Doing either takes time. Doing either with YBells takes less. One website testimonial claims about 25 percent less, a figure I found to be a fair estimate. More importantly, some mad-scientist experimentation with YBells has yielded two things I value more:
- a different and effective way to maintain upper-body mass;
- better balance when I do one-legged lifting to promote cycling-specific strength in my glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings.
One Way to Make YBells Work for You
So here’s the workout I did for my upper body one day using only a single pair of 22.5-pound YBells. May it intrigue the saner scientist in you enough to experiment in some manner on your own.
After a setting the adjustable bench at a 15-degree angle and a proper warmup, I did a set of pec flyes to muscle failure. Immediately afterwards, I did an abdominal exercise, providing time for the targeted muscles to recover without wasting any. Then I adjusted the angle of the bench to 30 degrees and did both exercises again. I continued to follow this pattern while increasing the bench angle to 45, 60, and 75 degrees.
Time to explain the mad-scientist/saner-scientist reference. During my first experimental workouts with flyes and presses, I did more volume, going down the incline ladder and finishing with a single set on a flat bench. Then I used the same 10-set sequence to work my back. Since Huberman suggests stopping at five for each body part, however, I did so too. This time.
To target the lats, I set the incline at 15 degrees, lay face down upon the bench, picked up the YBells as if they were kettlebells, and did rows. I took the lats to failure, recovered by working my abs, and then followed the same increase-the-incline pattern. Because a 75-degree angle is too steep to keep the effort targeted on the lats, I did a second set at 60 degrees for the fifth one. I finished the workout with core work, using only a flat bench and a YBell as a medicine ball.
The Argument for One-Legged Lifting
About 25 years ago after exhaustive research led me to create an offseason weightlifting program featuring front squats and duck squats taken a bit deeper than parallel, I read another article about the matter. It contained a really good rhetorical question: “When do cyclists ever push down on both pedals simultaneously?” Since that time, the lion’s share of my leg lifting has been done one-legged, including squats, leg extensions, hamstring curls, and leg presses. Whereas my original leg-lifting goal was to increase pedaling power, it’s now to minimize the inevitable age-related loss of it. In either instance, maintaining proper balance to insure the targeted muscles do the majority of the work has been a challenge.
The unique design of YBells, however, seems to provide better balance than dumbbells, especially when I do Bulgarian split-squats, and a version of deadlifts designed for especially for cyclists, done two-legged and suggested by Jacques DeVore and Roy M. Wallack in their book Maximum Overload for Cyclists (Rodale, 2017). Better balance makes it easier to keep my back relatively straight throughout each rep and push down with my heel during the upward phase of it, thereby maximizing the amount of work done by the targeted muscles. Moreover, I’ve found that I can now make subtle adjustments — a slight lean this way or that — to force the muscles in my glutes and hips that don’t want to work because of the rods connected to my once-fractured femurs to do their fair share.
A Final Endorsement: Different Is Good
About 12 years ago, I was searching for ways to time trial faster and consulted with a new-to-the-area bike shop owner reputed to be a cycling savant. After learning I would often train at 85 to 90 percent of my 40k TT pace for 40k or longer, he suggested I stop that and do 3 all-out efforts of 5 minutes on a wind trainer instead. I heeded his words and won my age group at the Pennsylvania State Time Trial two weeks later. When I asked him how he knew the exact number and length of intervals to prescribe, he admitted he didn’t. He said: “I just know different is good.”
I’ve found the same to be true for weightlifting and bet you will, too.
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.