Why Unilateral Strength Exercises Are Important for Cyclists


We’re all short on training time, so there’s always a need to optimise what we do to produce the best results in the time available.  Whilst plenty of cyclists find strength training beneficial for their cycling performance, would you know exactly what type of strength exercises give the biggest return on investment for your training time?

One of the consistent findings in all strength training research is that specificity is crucial.  If you train certain muscles a certain way at certain joint angles, then this is exactly what gets better, with limited carry-over to other movements at other angles.  What are the specific movements that produce power in cycling?  For cyclists it is the downstroke where power is produced, not the upstroke.  One leg pushes hard on the pedals using the gluteus maximus and quads at the top of the pedal stroke, with the hamstrings and gastrocnemius (upper calf) muscles activated towards and across the bottom of the pedal stroke.  So our strength training needs to mimic this movement at the sort of angles required in cycling if it is to be maximally beneficial for a cyclist.  A runner, in contrast, would need a different strength program as their joint angles are completely different to those required in cycling.

This is where unilateral strength development (one leg strength) comes in as it mimics the pedal stroke.  If you focus on this aspect of strength you will find improved pedal power as you progress over the weeks.  I spoke with Stewart Briggs, strength expert from Acceleration Australia, who notes that unilateral drills have a stability and flexibility component that bilateral drills do not, which helps the cyclist to develop a good stable body position on the bike.   

Stewart underlines the importance of having a good connection between the foot pushing on the pedal and the hips.  The hip muscles (eg. Gluteus Maximus) are some of the most powerful muscles so they need to be well connected to the foot that’s producing force on the pedal.  To make this connection, the unilateral drills selected in your program need to improve intermuscular coordination, intramuscular coordination, and cross sectional area of the muscles.   That is why your program needs a variety of exercises to stimulate the nervous system to adapt and make a better cycling athlete.

Some examples of unilateral strength drills that an expert strength coach might prescribe for a cyclist include:

  • Barbell Step Ups
  • Barbell One Leg Bridge Back
  • Split Squats
  • Single Leg Dead Lift or Straight Knee Dead Lift
  • db Lateral Box Step Ups
  • Swiss Ball Single Leg Hamstring Bridge Back and Curl

Obviously there is a lot more to strength training than unilateral leg strength, but this is an important area for a cyclist.  I would always recommend seeking expert coaching advice when embarking on a strength program, as beginning a resistance program or plyometrics without appropriate technique, testing and periodisation can cause injury.  Acceleration Australia is a strength and speed training organisation focussed on sports performance that have well trained coaches with exercise physiology degrees to help improve your performance.

If strength training is working for you, over 4-8 weeks you should notice a better connection between your core and the pedal.  Typically peak power for sprinting and 30second efforts also increase.


Good Training

Acceleration Australia have just offered all Cycle Physio clients a discount for their summer training camps.  The camps run over the school holidays and more information can be found by clicking on the links below.  To get your discount simply enter your voucher Code: CyclePhysio to save $10 on any of their enrollment form: