Strength Training – The Suitcase Hold for Strength Improvements
A deceptively challenging static strength exercise
TOOLBOX: The suitcase carry is not just what we do on business trips or holidays. It is a staple strength training exercise to have in your workout arsenal for both diagnostics and strength improvements.
A large part of a cyclist’s strength training programs goal is to help unwind some of the odd positions and postures that we hold on the bike. This allows our bodies to return to better postures and positions, allowing the muscles and joints to work as efficiently and effectively as possible. Doing so allows us to get even more from our bodies as we push those pedals harder and longer, without leaving our bodies kinked up like a rope at a boy scout convention at the rope merit badge station.
The Suitcase Carry is a highly effective and often overlooked exercise, but it can offer you big returns for a very small time investment. This exercise, which is usually added at the end of a strength workout to add a global full-body coordination & stiffness challenge, is a fantastic way to build your grip strength & posture, as well as to identify how well your strength program is (or is not) working to improve your overall movements.
A unique task to help address common energy leaks in cyclists
There may not be a better task which demonstrates so simply the role that many muscles of your core – everything between your neck, elbows, and knees – must play in order to protect your spine, deflect forces around and not through the spine, as well as helping you get movement only from the hips.
As explained by Dr. Stuart McGill in his book Back Mechanic “…One simply cannot try to change one muscle without affecting the entire muscular “orchestra. By the same token the orchestra must play with all players in tune with each member, at the correct volume and at the correct tempo and time. Muscle function follows the same rules.” (Back Mechanic, p 27).
It’s this very notion which has left many a rider endlessly stretching their hip flexors and foam rolling, only to be stuck in an endless loop and rarely seeing true progress. One cannot simply roll or stretch away a pain; muscles and positions need to be trained in a way that adds the proper strength in order to maintain these new positions.
The suitcase carry can play a central role in this re-orchestrating of the muscles to perform better.
The Isometric Suitcase Hold
The Major Players
In a suitcase hold or carry there are a large number of muscles active, from your gripping muscles all the way down to your small stabilizers, but we will focus in on the 5 key players that can help you build performance and decrease strain on the spine.
- The gluteals. On the opposite side from which you’re holding the weight, the gluteals (all 3 of them) work together to help hold the pelvis up, which allows your leg to swing through a normal walking cycle. In the static (isometric) version, these muscles help to hold the pelvis steady, and pull the head of the upper leg bone backwards into the hip socket.
- Quadratus Lumborum. When fired individually these muscles (one on each side of your spinal column) will flex your torso side to side, or in this case, will help to hold the hips steady through the suitcase carry or hold.
- The internal and external obliques. These two muscles work in chorus with each other (when a “canister” position of the hips under the ribs is obtained”) to create a stop-twist, helping your hips and ribs to stay stitched together as you move, as well as to keep the hips from tilting down.
- Latissimus Dorsi. This large muscle connects the shoulder to your spinal column, and when used appropriately in the suitcase carry, allows you to create spinal stiffness, and thus avoid the spine bending or flexing.
Bear in mind that in order for each of these muscles to do their jobs properly, good posture needs to be maintained. This is far more difficult that it sounds, which is why it’s best to start off learning these postures and positions first with the Isometric (static) Suitcase Hold.
This innocent looking exercise, when done correctly, will challenge you to maintain a solid grip on the weight, while keeping your head, shoulder, ribs, and hips in good position, while standing nice and straight.
Start off with 3 sets of 30 seconds each side, at a perceived exertion of 6-7.
It’s best to perform these in front of a mirror, so that you can see that your nose, chest, and zipper are in a straight line, and that your feet are just about shoulder width apart. Be sure to take 2-4 minutes of rest between sets, as this exercise will challenge your nervous system, which needs a bit more time to recover between efforts than if it were just a muscular effort.