QUESTION: Why do my upper arms, the outside area of my shoulder (where many people have tattoos located), ache on long rides? I have had my bike fitted and I do resistance weight training for my shoulders once a week. – Kevin S.
Coach Harvey Newton Replies: It’s not unusual for cyclists to experience muscle soreness in the upper extremities. There are numerous possible explanations. Without knowing more about your background, here are a few considerations:
1. In simple terms, the upper arm muscles consist of the biceps (elbow flexion) and the triceps (elbow extension). The shoulder, or deltoid muscles consist of several parts and serve numerous purposes.
2. These muscles are not prime movers for cycling. In other words, there is little direct involvement and/or movement. This lack of engagement often leads to temporary muscle soreness, especially in the early season when our rides may not be as frequent or as lengthy as later in the year. Be sure to periodically change your riding posture.
3. As a generalization, most of the cyclists with whom I have worked over the past 40 years can be described as lower body strong, upper body weak, and core (everything other than the legs and the arms) challenged.
4. You’ve taken a good step to counter the problem by engaging in resistance training. The central theme of my Strength Training for Cyclists System (manual, DVD, quick reference guide) is that cyclists do not need to do much resistance training, but they need to do some. And they need to do some throughout the year, not just in the off-season.
5. Cyclists need not specialize in any particular muscle group (we are not bodybuilders!). Cyclists should focus on one effective exercise for each of these areas:
- Upper body pushing (where triceps and deltoids are engaged)
- Upper body pulling (elbow flexion)
- Lower body
- Core (with emphasis on lower back and abdominals)
6. StrengthTraining for Cyclists suggests it is more time-efficient to utilize multiple-joint, ground-based, free weight exercises than many single-joint and/or machine moves.
7. It sounds like you have your riding positions well dialed-in. Presuming you have not had any injury history that contributes to the muscle soreness, the challenge is to get the right fix.
8. If you display adequate upper body pushing strength, such as 20 or more full-range-of motion push-ups in a rigid posture, you may not need additional upper body strength. What’s left?
9. One fairly common variable may be some trigger point challenges in your upper or mid-back. Issues in this area are easily addressed with massage and/or physical therapy.
10. Finally (and without knowing more of your resistance training program) it is possible that working your shoulders only once a week may contribute to the problem. This could result from 1) too much work (too many, or ineffective, exercises) in this area and/or 2) the once-a-week specialization leads to excessive muscle damage and resulting soreness in the days after such training. Even in the offseason I would suggest you consider twice-weekly resistance training for the upper body. The sessions need not be lengthy.
I hope these suggestions may lead to your successful elimination of the soreness, a real distraction from enjoyable riding.
Coach Harvey Newton is a former USA national weightlifting team coach and former strength training consultant to USA national cycling teams throughout the 1980s and ’90s. He’s the author of the Strength Training for Cyclists DVD-based program in the RBR eBookstore and full-time strength training coach. Click to read Harvey’s full bio.