Glutes & core work have become all the rage in strength training for cyclists & triathletes, but they're not enough to get you healthy and strong.
When planks aren't enough, just add glutes! Right?
This sentiment carries strong in the cycling and triathlon communities, and while the glutes are definitely in need of some major work- especially working on lateral movement- these alone are NOT the answer to becoming a stronger and more resilient rider.
And no, adding “posterior chain” to the mix won’t do it either.
Today we look at why glutes and core are not enough, and what you should be thinking about (and practicing) to keep you strong, healthy, and moving well.
La derrière, Monsieur
Well, good thing that’s French, not Spanish!
The Glutes themselves have 3 different muscles:
- Glute Maximus- as made most famous by Sir-Mix-a-Lot
- Glute Medius- As made famous by the side lying clamshells
- Glute Minimus- As made famous by….me?
While the glutes are certainly important when it comes to cycling and running, really they are only a drop in the bigger bucket that is better hip strength and stability.
Working individually, the Glute Max is a hip extensor, and external rotator.
The Glute Medius has three functions, one is to internally rotate the thigh (anterior aspect), the second is to abduct (take away fro the midline) the leg, and the other is to stabilize the hip through gait (walking).
The Glute Minimus works in unison with the Glute Med in its functions.
While these 3 muscles tend to get short & weak on cyclists and triathletes, in large part due to how much we ride the bike in a position that doesn’t require full range of motion from them, strengthening the glutes along with “the core” is not going to be enough to truly improve your performance on the bike, or in triathlon.
"The Deep 6"
What is not talked about or taught in the cycling and triathlon world are “The Deep 6”.
Sounds like a movie Sean Connery would star in, doesn’t it?
Well, the deep 6 refers to the deep hip rotators that also form a big portion of the pelvic floor. These muscles work together to help suck the head of the femur (lower leg bone) back into the acetabulum (really fancy latin word for “the hip socket”), keeping it centered and allowing it to have great range of motion, and contribute to the stability of this motion.
The deep 6 are:
- Piriformis- yup, that pesky little guy is in here!
- Obturator internus
- Obturator externus
- Gemelus inferior
- Gemelus superios
- Quadratus femoris- NOT YOUR QUADS!
These muscles need to have great strength and function, in order to help us have good, solid strength for the hip, along with keeping that head of the femur in the acetabulum.
Many of these muscles too are stretched or used through a shortened range of motion on the bike (and our sitting throughout the day) leading to some weak, cranky, and unhappy hips and backs.
While many prescribe stretching the piriformis or glute max, or even trigger pointing them with a lacrosse ball or foam roller, this in fact can make the problem worse (or just push it further down the road for a more spectacular problem).
One of the reasons why, is that we’ve focused so much on the backside, hip extension, and hip external rotation, that we’ve now created new problems in strength balance, and thus function, at the hip, as we’ve completely neglected a huge set of muscles….
"The Other guys"
As we pedal or run our way down the road, the glutes and core are certainly working to help support our pelvis, and push us down the road. However, in order for those muscles to work to the best of their abilities, the muscles on the inner thigh, called the Adductors, need to be strong, and able to work through their range of motion properly.
The adductors help to stabilize the leg and pelvis, so that we can move forward by aiding in stability and alignment of the hip and pelvis. These muscles too tend to be tight and weak on cyclists and triathletes, thanks in part to the hours we spend on the bike.
This causes a big problem, as it means that other muscles that attach in and around the hip now need to compensate. however, we can make this problem much worse by only focusing on the glutes when we think about strengthening the hip.
Constantly focusing on the glutes and external rotators leads to the adductor to abductor balance to fall even further outside of functional norms (whatever those are…), leading to more changes to happen further up and down the kinetic chain- into the spine, and down into the lower leg and foot.
There needs to be a balance accomplished between training the adductors and the abductors, as well as learning how to get the adductors to relax and stretch, while working appropriately, through a range of motion.
This is one of the reasons why the Side Lunge Cross Connect boosts the climbing power of the vast majority of those cyclists and triathletes who have added it (appropriately) to their strength training program.
While you may watch the exercise and think:
“This guy’s lost his mind! how the H-E- Double Hockey Sticks would this help climbing power?”
Its actually pretty straightforward.
When we’re climbing, we are using the riding skill of moving the bike in a figure 8 underneath us in order to get the most torque and forward propulsion under us down to the ground.
Alberto Contador has gorgeous bike skills when it comes to this, and if you watch some of his classic battles in the Tour de France you’ll be able to quickly pick up the figure 8 motion (now that you know to look for it).
When we move the bike in this fashion, it’s very similar to an elliptical machine, in that we’re getting a little more movement at the hip than normal walking (gait) movements, in part due to how the bike is moving under us.
At the same time, the upper body is rotating slightly away from the handlebar motion, which means that the adductors need to learn how to maintain strength through their length, as the glutes and hip extensors fire, and the entire 360 degree abdominal hoop fires to give us proximal stiffness to get some distal motion….Well, until you’re exhausted and you’re doing everything you can to just get up the damn climb.
Learning to tie together the adductors, glutes, core, and more!
We’ve covered quite a bit, and while we’ve begun to better understand how just focusing on the gltues and core will leave you falling very short of improving your cycling or triathlon performance, all hope is not lost!
Believe it or not, we can take a huge stride forward to helping you teach the glutes, adductors, and the rest of your “core” (which is everything between your neck, elbows, and knees) how to work together, in just one exercise.
But please note, that this exercise is NOT the end-all, be-all!
One exercises will never be enough to get the job done, however there are more efficient and effective exercises, which this one is.
The Side Plank with Top Leg Forward:
First made popular by one of my mentors, Dr. Stuart McGill, the side plank top leg forward allows us to begin to learn and program the strategies of tying together the adductor on one leg, with the Glute Med/Min complex, obliques, Serratus Anterior, Lats, and many more muscles to work together to provide support and stiffness where needed, and move towards improving function as well.
Pay attention to the cues, as the positions dictate muscle function, and making sure that you’re getting the intended improvements out of the exercise.
While the glutes and abs (and posterior chain) certainly play a role in becoming a stronger cyclist or triathletes, focusing on only these areas leaves many other major contributing muscles out, leaving you with much room for improvement.
Give the Side Lunge Cross Connect, and Side Plank Top Foot Forward a go in your program, aiming to get technical mastery and great position/technique for each rep, and on every rep. Previous clients/ athletes here at HVTraining have seen pretty significant improvements in their riding and running in as little as two weeks!
While these kind of improvements may seem unusual, they are actually not all that uncommon, once we begin a strength training for performance program, which hits all the major weaknesses or untrained areas of that individual.
It just requires taking a step back from whats popular or common, and instead looking at the whole picture.
Until next time, remember to train smarter, not harder, because it is all about you!