What's Cool In Road Cycling

Resistance Training 3: Form Considerations

In our continuing look at optimizing your resistance-training program we’ve come to the most critical element: how to lift safely and correctly. A grasp of program design and familiarity with weight room terminology are of little use if you execute the moves with mediocre, or worse dangerous, form!

By Matt McNamara

Look Good, Feel Good, Dahling
If you go to a gym regularly watch others and see if you can identify bad form. Among the things to look for are weights being moved with lots of extra body movement (what I call ‘momentum lifting’) or reps that utilize only part of the Range of Motion (ROM). Bicep curls are a classic place lifters ‘cheat’ their way to bigger weights by using their hips to generate momentum or only extending through part of the ROM. If you can’t lift the weight through a full range of motion then you can’t lift the weight.

What about foot, shoulder, arm or body position? Are they lifting from a seemingly stable body position? When all else fails ask a senior staff member for assistance, but do so with a hint of skepticism. Does their explanation sound reasonable? Can they explain the factors that make a movement safe or dangerous? “Fait attention!” as they say in France. This stuff is important…

A good baseline for form considerations is to look at the muscles and the joints used in each exercise. Try to center the movement around the main joints being worked. Squats are a good example. Think of making a ‘line of best fit’ between the shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle joints. No single joint should be over-stressed. It’s easy to cheat and make it look like you’re getting really low by bending over too much at the waist, but that places far too much stress on your lower back and spine. Rather, think of yourself as an accordion, with all of your joints contributing equally.

It’s similar for most exercises. Below are some explanations for a few of the core lifts we talked about last time. It is by no means a comprehensive list. There are any number of variations and iterations for the ones listed below, and a myriad of other exercises you can put in a program. Simply consider these as a solid starting point for your program. Next time we’ll finish up with a great little spreadsheet to help you determine how much weight to lift for each exercise.

Hip Sled/Leg Press:
Primary Muscles: Quads, Hams, Calves, Glutes,
Supporting Musculature: Abdominals, Hip Stabilizers
Notes: The hip sled is an excellent two joint exercise for the lower body. It combines both the ability to lift heavy weights through a full range of motion with a safe and efficient position that minimizes the risk to the spine and low back. To effectively use the hip sled set the seat (if adjustable) so that it forms a 45 – 60, angle with the floor. Another explanation is that the back support should lie at about 60 – 90 degrees to the foot pad. It is OK to relax this angle a bit if you are not comfortable, but do not increase it. You want to have your butt firmly planted in the seat, and your spine straight and well supported by the back support. Start with your feet placed approximately shoulder width apart on the main plate of the sled. In general you’ll want the feet slightly above the shoulders when you start. This is so at the “bottom” of the range of motion your knee is aligned in a straight line with your ankle, and the front of the knee (patella/patellar tendon) is behind your toes. You want to weight the foot evenly, or even a little bit more from the heel as you drive the sled up. Stay off your toes. Most people set their feet a bit too low and create a lot of force on the knee at the bottom of the rep. Be sure that you don’t go much below 90 degrees at the knee (relative to the ankle and the hip) at the bottom of your rep. Try variations in form with light weight first and use your powers of observation to determine if it is going to be a safe movement.

Keep the knees at about 90 degrees. No need to lower the knees all the way to the chest with the leg press

Partial Squats: Squat Rack, Smith Machine Rack, or 83 Degree Smith machine
Primary Muscles: Quads, Hams, Calves, Glutes,
Supporting Musculature: Abdominals, Hip Stabilizers
Notes: Partial squats are a great way to build muscle endurance and a bit of power/force. Just like the name says you are only doing a partial ROM on this exercise. In general you only want to drop to a 45 – 80 degree angle at the knee relative to the hip. Remember to slide your hips/butt back slightly as you start the exercise in order to help “weight” the heels. Like with the hip sled you want the knee to remain largely over the ankle throughout the exercise. When setting up under the bar (usually a 7ft, 45lb bar is used) be sure to carry the weight of the bar on the tops of the shoulder blades (scapulae) instead of on the neck or first thoracic vertebrae (the slight bulge at the base of the neck). Another good rule of thumb is to draw a “line of best fit” from the shoulders through the hips, knees and ankles so that shoulders and ankles are aligned while the knees are slightly in front of the imaginary line and the hip joint is slightly behind it. Keep the back straight, use a belt if the weight is significant (generally anything over about 100lbs is a good rule) and don’t press the abdominals forward. Instead concentrate on “holding” your middle tight all the way around. I also encourage athletes to keep air moving throughout the movement. Simply breathe in on the way down and out on the way up!

Don’t cheat and go low by bending over at the waist too much. Remember, like an accordion, all of your joints should be working in concert. Keeping the bar on the shoulders and off your neck prevents potential damage to the vertebrae

Alternating Iso-Lunge: Dumb Bells or 7ft bar (45 lbs)
Primary Muscles: Quads, Hams, Calves, Glutes,
Supporting Musculature: Abdominals, Hip Stabilizers
Notes: Standing upright with feet shoulder width apart and holding the dumbbell at your sides (or the bar on the top of the shoulder blades) simply step back and take a knee. As you move backwards and down the weights should be kept at the hip. At the bottom of the movement each leg should be bent at approximately a 90 degree angle. Keep the shoulder joint over the hip as well to maintain a neutral spine. From the bottom of the movement stand with the focus on the ‘up’ glute and leg muscles. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other leg. This is preferable to a forward lunge because it minimizes the force exerted on the knee by keeping the foot in a fixed position (see the explanation of a closed-kinetic chain exercise in the first part of the series).

Straight Leg Raise: Dumb bell or 7ft bar (45 lbs)
Primary Muscles: Hamstrings, Glutes, Low Back
Supporting Musculature: Quads, Calves, Abdominals
Notes: Standing with feet shoulder width apart and holding the dumbbells in your hands you basically bend over to touch your toes while trying to keep a ‘neutral’ spine. Make the axis of ration at the hip, rather than the low back. On the way back up you want to raise your head immediately upon starting to move in order to “see” yourself in the mirror ASAP. This keeps the spine straight and brings the focus of the movement to the low back instead of mid-back. Without this focus you will often have a rounding of the mid back, which is contra-indicated, especially with heavier weights.. If you have a hard time touching your toes with your legs straight, then slightly bend your knees to decrease the resistance and/or discomfort you feel behind the knee/hamstrings.

In contrast to the squat, here the whole purpose is to work the lower back. Therefore, keep the legs fairly straight, stick with light weights at the start and do NOT cheat by swinging the body wildly. As is true with all of resistance training, NEVER sacrifice proper form or you’ll be sacrificing your body to injury!

Flat Press: Dumb Bell Bench, Flat Bench w/ 45lb bar
Primary Muscles:Pectoralis major & minor. Triceps,
Supporting Musculature: Anterior/Middle Deltoids (shoulder), abs
Notes: This is the standard bench press, or Dumb bell press. Ideally you should try and retract (hold together) the shoulder blades underneath you as you lie back before starting the lift. If using the regular bar (7 ft, 45 lbs) you want to place your head just under the bar so that you have ample room to “clear” the rack before beginning the movement. Lift the bar off the rack and position it so that your arms are in a straight line with your shoulders. As you lower the bar to your chest you want to try and touch approximately 2 –3 inches above the solar plexus (bottom point where the ribs join at the sternum), right along a line approximately mid-chest. Place your hands far enough apart so that at the bottom of the movement they are flexed just over 90 degrees at the elbow. Focus on keeping the weight moving slowly and controlling all extraneous movement of the bar. For dumbbells the movement is the same, but you must control each arm independently, a more difficult task.

Tricep Pushdowns:
Primary Muscles: triceps
Supporting Musculature: biceps, shoulder (deltoids)
Notes: The tricep pushdown is an excellent way to focus on the three muscles of the triceps. Be sure to avoid using extraneous or “momentum” based movements to assist with completing the exercise. For this reason I usually have athletes stand facing the machine rather than resting their backs against the pad. Standing with your arms fully extended and holding the weight simply bend your arm at the elbow and allow the weight to rise until the point at which the elbows want to “slide” forward and off the hips. This is the top of your ROM for the exercise. Once at the top extend the arm to the straight position again, completing the repetition. Variations – using different bars, for example there is an A shaped bar or a rope pulley that are both excellent for attacking a specific muscle of the triceps (inside, outside or medial).

Here we have a cheating tricep pushdown, where the whole body weight is leveraged against the weight. This results in bigger weights, but takes the primary responsibility for the movement away from the triceps

Here the back is more neutral, allowing the triceps to get the workout you’re aiming for.

Pull Downs:
Primary Muscles: Latisimus Dorsi, Rhomboids
Supporting Musculature: triceps, biceps, shoulders
Notes: Sit at the machine with knees slightly flexed and supported by the attached pad. Start with your hands shoulder width apart and fully extended above your head. Lean slightly back and hold your spine erect and in a straight line. To complete the exercise simply pull the bar down until it touches your chest 2 – 3 inches above the solar plexus, return the weight to the top of the ROM, then repeat! You can try different hand positions to emphasize different parts of the back. For a rear pull down grasp the bar with your hands approximately 6 – 8 inches apart and pull the bar down ONLY as far as the notch in the back of your head. To pull any farther is to expose the shoulder joint to injury and is unwarranted for cyclists.

Plyometric Exercises

Squat Jumps:
Primary Muscles: Whole Body!
Notes: A throwback to your junior high gym class! From a standing position quickly drop to your hands and feet by throwing your feet out behind you so you end up in a push up position, do a full depth push up and then “jump” both feet up close to the shoulders (between the arms), pop up to your feet and quickly jump as high off the ground as possible, repeat.

Jump Lunges:
Primary Muscles: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves, Glutes,
Supporting Musculature: spinal erectors/low back
Notes: Similar to the iso-lunge described above, this exercise is great as an explosive movement. Simply start with feet shoulder width apart, step back and take a knee, just like a regular iso-lunge. The difference is at the bottom of the movment you will explode up trying to get as high off the ground as you can. The goal is to get as much ‘hang time’ as possible. While in the air simply switch to the other foot, land as softly as possible and return to the bottom of the movement where one knee is resting on the ground and the other is bent at approximately 90 degrees. Two key considerations are to get as much vertical movement as you can, and to land as softly as possible. Once you’ve got the movement down pat, you can add dumb-bells to really increase the intensity! Caution should be taken when starting these to make sure you are executing good form throughout. That means landing on the toes and immediately transitioning the hips back and down to keep the weight centered over the mid-foot instead of the toes. On the explosive drive segment stay focused on driving from the mid foot to heal, instead of the toe.

Eccentric Single Leg Squats:
Primary Muscles: Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes
Supporting Musculature: spinal erectors
Notes: These are a favorite of the US Ski Team. Stand on a platform at least 12 inches off the ground. Align your body so that one foot is on the edge and one foot is hanging off the side of the platform. Keeping the dangling leg straight perform a single leg squat until the heel of the straight leg touches the ground then slowly raise yourself back to the starting position. This exercise should be done slowly and you should keep your feet flat on the platform during all movement. Repeat on other side.

Plyometric Jumps:
Primary Muscles: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Spinal Erectors, Calves
Supporting Musculature: Abdominals, bicep/tricep, shuolders
Notes: Stand on a platform 12 – 15 inches off the ground with another platform of similar height (or higher) placed approximately 15 inches in front of the first platform. Simply drop off the first, do a squat to approximately 60 degrees (at the knee, not a full squat!) and jump onto the 2nd platform. Try to jump as high as possible and land as softly as possible. As you get better raise the height of the 2nd platform to keep it challenging.

About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is the President of Sterling Sports Group and races road, track, and cyclocross in Northern California. Sterling Sports Group is a growing company focused on creating a seamless interface between athlete and coach, technology and personal attention. Visit us online to learn more at www.sterlingwins.com.

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