A little hip strength and flexibility work is crucial for cyclists looking to boost power, eliminate ‘dead spots’ in the pedal stroke and avoid straining the lower back.
For the purposes of this article, ‘hip’ refers to both the hip-flexors or iliopsoas, where the top of the thigh joins the front of the pelvis, and the glutes (buttock muscles).
We tend to think of pedalling as predominantly a leg activity, but it is the glutes that initiate the downward surge until the point where the thighs take over. The focus then shifts from these power-generating muscles to the hip-flexors, which draw the knee back up to complete the pedal cycle. The hips are thus the base of efficient pedalling.
Physio Tom Astley sees a steady stream of riders with hip-flexor tightness or strain, usually caused by two interrelated reasons. The first is down to the crunched cycling position, which compresses these anterior (front of hip) muscles — though a good bike-fit can widen the leg/hip angle.
The second reason is that, partly because of this position, it is easy to overload the iliopsoas — a mistake most new riders make. The commonsense solution is to increase riding volume gradually over a number of weeks.
The other key ingredient in ensuring hip health is improving mobility and strength. According to Astley, if a rider lacks hip range of motion they may end up ‘hip hitching’.
“The hip is key in cycling but it needs to work in an optimal range to generate the most power,” he explains. “If the hip can’t efficiently bring the knee to the top phase of movement, the body compensates through the upper body.
“This is commonly seen when you watch a cyclist from behind and see their back swaying from side to side with every pedal lift. The body makes room for the knee to be lifted and this puts
a great deal of stress on the back.”
The final element is ensuring that the glutes have sufficient strength over the course of the ride to maintain consistent power generation. One way of doing this is strengthening (see ‘Scooter’ technique below) as well as gradually increasing mileage on the bike.
Three hip-conditioning techniques for cyclists
Hips require a mixture of strengthening and stretching to withstand the rigours of cycling and to allow a rider to produce maximum power output from the pedal stroke with minimum strain.
Here are three conditioning techniques for healthy hips.
Try to perform the strength techniques three times a week and do the Low Lunge after every ride.
1) The scooter
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Mimic a riding position by tipping your upper body forward and moving your arms into right angles as if on the handlebars. Bend your right leg a little and shift your weight into the leg.
Lift your left foot off the floor and lift your knee up. Now extend the left leg back as if you are propelling yourself forward on a scooter.
Perform 3-5 scoots, eight times on each leg.
2) Plank with overhead reach
From a lying position, shift on to your side. Stack one foot on top of the other and lift up on to your left forearm.
The elbow should be directly under your shoulder and forearm, perpendicular to the body.
Ensure your body is positioned in a straight line from feet to head. Sweep your right arm up by your ear.
Hold for 30-60sec on each side.
3) The low lunge
A lunge performed either standing or kneeling, as outlined below, is a vital stretch for the hip-flexors.
You may want to pad the knee with a cushion to make it more comfortable. Start on all fours. Step your right leg up between your hands and lift the upper body.
Tuck your bottom in and slowly slide forward into the lunge. Stop when you feel the stretch where the top of the leg joins the front of the hip.
This is also an effective stretch for the upper thigh or quads.