By Martin Sigrist
Building strength is not just about lifting weights.
This is only part of a greater whole, what I refer to as the “Strength Triangle.” The three sides of the strength triangle are mobility, stability and resistance. Weights fit into the last category, and should only be added after the first two have been addressed.
Mobility is quite simply the ability to move every joint through its full normal range of motion, freely and without pain.
Stability is the capacity to maintain a stiff center against which joints can exert force efficiently and safely. It is often referred to as your core, but this is only part of the picture.
A strong core often gets associated with having six pack abs, but is actually a whole lot more. It’s the entirety of your torso, including both the front back and sides.
Stability is an active process that needs to be performed in conjunction with exerting force. Controlled, purposeful breathing is the simple and effective way to learn how to do this to greatest effect.
Resistance, the final side of the strength triangle, can come in many forms or which weights are just one, albeit the most common.
Each of these sides matters, even if you have no intention of ever entering a gym. They are essential to a healthy life, allowing daily chores to be done easily and without pain.
Each of the sides of the Strength Triangle matters if you are a cyclist. Thousands spent on an aero or time trial bike is wasted if you do not have the mobility to ride it in the correct position. Power that should be transmitted to the pedals is squandered if you cannot maintain a stable upper body.
Many aches and pains are not due to the bike, but occur because hips, knees, ankles and other joints do not move correctly. Often, the resultant pain will not necessarily even be felt at the problem site, but can be expressed as a symptom elsewhere, e.g. the back or the butt.
Depending on your starting point, improving your strength triangle can take time. One golden rule for mobility and stability is that “little and often” is usually the best approach.
Just 10 minutes a day is enough. Even less is better than nothing, so long as it is done every day.
Turkish Get Up
As an example, I would highly recommend one simple exercise that simultaneously develops both mobility and stability and onto which resistance can easily be added in a progressive, safe manner.
It is called the Turkish Get Up. It requires no equipment and just a small amount of floor space. It’s nothing more than a variation on one of the most fundamental human actions — picking ourselves up off the floor to stand on two feet.
The great thing about this movement is that it uses every single major joint and bone in your body. Because it is asymmetric each is works individually. So this will help pinpoint any weakness that may be hidden if one side is compensating for the other. This asymmetry also means that just doing it without any extra weights still puts some extra load onto these joints and bones.
It is this load that will help build up joints and bones and keep them healthy, as the principle of “use or lose it” applies equally to every aspect of our bodies and not just our muscles. And all the while, it develops all-round core stability. (Once mastered, weights can always be added later. Typically these are kettlebells, but anything will do. Even just a bag, or can of something from the larder.)
There are numerous examples of how to do this on Youtube. Here are three examples:
This is a good introduction that highlights the key aspects of the move.
This is a longer detailed view which also shows how to use a kettlebell.
This is another overview explaining the benefits to runners, which apply equally to us cyclists.
Here are some extra comments from my experience.
Break the move into small steps and feel confident with each individual step before moving onto the next.
Start with just a tennis ball. This is better than nothing as it gives a focus which makes the move easier and allows an easy upgrade to add weight, even if it is just a small rock.
Film yourself. You may not like what you see, but it will help develop the correct form which will help make the move easier and reap the rewards it brings.
It may feel very hard at first, especially if you have not done anything like it since childhood. However, don’t get discouraged. It will eventually make the accomplishment of being able to complete the move from start to finish all the greater.
One of the great things about this exercise is that it engages both halves of the body separately. So you may find one side easier than the other. This is useful information, because long term asymmetry is one of the root causes for many conditions put down to “aging” and should be corrected. One way to do this is prioritize the weaker side.
Think about breathing. The exercise consists of a series of steps, prior to each breathe in a relaxed but purposeful way as if your lungs are trying to fill your full torso in every direction, brace and hold this as each step is executed.
Just start doing two getups, one each side, per day. While this can become a full blown strength workout at the start its main purpose is to build foundations and for this it is fine to start small and build up later.
If any one aspect of the move causes problems, then it will be helped by mobility drills that target that area. Post in the comments if you need advice on these.
Kenneth Pierce says
Not everyone will able to do these. Those of us with a bad spine are very limited on what we can and cannot do. My Dr says no weight bearing, no twisting, no excess flexion/extension. I’ve had two lumbar disc’s removed and have an RFA done regularly to help with the chronic pain from the collapsed disc space.
I’m sure there are many riders that have bad spines and would benefit from safe exercises. Maybe you can do an advice article on recommended safe exercises for us.
Martin Sigrist says
I’m sorry to hear about your situation. Given that I do not think it would be sensible or safe for me or anyone who did not have direct personal access to you to give advice as to what would be best.
My advice would be to contact someone locally and get specialist advice. Most especially I would recommend that they advise you what exercises are safe for the major joints in your body. Even if you cannot use them for weight baring purposes it is essential that they are able to move freely and naturally without pain, as much as possible.
You may doubt that this is feasible but from my experience I would say don’t give up hope. I injured both knees playing football more than 30 years ago and though I would suffer pain from them for the rest of my life. But a little bit of mobility work every day has worked wonders and I am now pain free with a wider range of movement than ever since my injury.
As for others, my advice is prevention is better than cure. A lot of pain results not from illness but ill use. Just small imbalances if repeated day after day year after year will cause issues. Everybody, unless they suffer from a clearly diagnosed condition like yours, should be able to do this exercise, And doing it, just once a side every day without any weights is the surest way I know not only to prevent long term pain but also reduce issues of a more minor nature.