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Muscle Tension Intervals

Cyclists can pair Muscle Tension Intervals with weight training for cycling, for an even better physiological adaptation. Prior to weight training, muscle tension intervals prepare the legs for the forces they will encounter in the gym and therefore are a large part of our Fall Foundation Training.

As athletes transition from Summer to Fall and review their seasons, many feel their biggest weakness was not having enough 'strength'. This is something I often hear from athletes. Many think: “I need to spend more time in the gym”, however that’s not always the answer, as this challenge can be targeted on and off the bike. 

The key is being able to apply any built strength directly to the pedals, and the solution is to pair a gym program with an exercise on the bike that builds sustainable strength, all while keeping the movement specific to cycling biomechanics. This exercise is commonly referred to as Muscle Tension work.

MTI’s or Muscle Tension Intervals are high torque intervals that are best performed either up a steady 2 - 4% grade hill or an indoor trainer. This is to keep the interval controlled and uninterrupted while maintaining a low cadence with high torque. "Big gear mashers" as we like to describe.

Start with a short duration, let’s say five minutes; shift into a large gear that requires decent work to turn over and gets your cadence in a range of 40-60 RPM’s. Don’t worry about power, but don’t push this effort too hard as the idea here is to keep the body aerobic and focused in on the very targeted muscular action especially your glutes. During the effort, stay seated while focusing on pushing with your quads and pulling with your hamstrings, engaging the glutes with a goal of applying torque to 360 degrees of the pedal stroke. You will find that the dramatized effort forces you to focus on all parts of the stroke and will make weaknesses (or dead spots) pretty obvious.

After you have mastered a few five minute efforts (2x5) you want to slowly bump up the duration of the intervals. A good multi week progression would look like this:

Week 1: 3 x 7 minutes ON 3.5 minutes OFF

Week 2: 3 x 10 minutes ON 5 minutes OFF

Week 3: 4 x 8 minutes ON 4 minutes OFF

Week 4: 5 x 9 minutes ON 4.5 minutes OFF

Week 5: 4 x 10 minutes ON 5 minutes OFF

Continue to build until you are holding 20 minutes steady and strong. During the off season you should be able to do this twice a week without putting too much stress on the body or need too much recovery time.
Textbook Example of a Muscle Tension Interval Performed Correctly!

The Sport Science:
MTi’s such as these will help you target the glutes, which is crucial as cyclists tend to be quadricep and hamstring dominant. With the use of EMG (electromyography) technology we are able to track how well intervals such as MTI’s target particular muscles. Through the use of EMG’s during the study “Muscular activity during ergometer cycling” Ericson (1986) discovered that hip extensors provided 27% of total provided work. As this is a sizable percent, it gives us the understanding of how focusing in on these hip extensors (which glutes are a large part of) is more than worthwhile.

Another study that also implemented EMG’s to test the use of particular muscles, was “Muscular Activity during uphill cycling: effect of slope, posture, hand grip position and constrained bicycle lateral sways” Bertucci (2006). This study found that on an incline and when comparing seated vs standing muscle activity, that a wide array of muscles (both upper and lower body) are much more active when standing. This backs why we recommend doing MTI's seated rather than standing so you are better able to control activation of the gluteus maximus.

Finally to to best engage the and recruit the glutes, strive to perform your MTi's up a 2 - 4 % steady grade hill. Research has shown (Sarabon et. al) a reduction in EMG activity (firing of the glutes) for MTi's performed up too steep grades.

Paired with weight training, Muscle Tension Intervals help the body stabilize strength into pure power transfer to the bike, which ultimately allows you to capitalize on strength gains you make in the gym. While shown to work through use of EMG’s and other such technology, MTI’s should be used carefully especially if you have a past history with knee injuries.

Ericson, M.O., Bratt, å., Nisell, R. et al. Europ. J. Appl. Physiol. (1986) 55: 229.

Duc S, Bertucci W, Pernin JN, Grappe F. "Muscular activity during uphill cycling: effect of slope, posture, hand grip position and constrained bicycle lateral sways." J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2008 Feb;18(1):116-27.

Sarabon N, Fonda B, Markovic G. "Change of muscle activation patterns in uphill cycling of varying slope." Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Jul;112(7):2615-23.

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About Isaiah Newkirk

Isaiah has been coaching for 12+ years and a FasCat Coach for 6. He came to us as a graduate of collegiate cycling powerhouse Marian University competing in Track, Road, and Cross. Isaiah raced Professionally on the Road for years, racing all over the world, and doing iconic US races such as Tour of Utah and Tour of Colorado. Since "retiring" he has shifted focus to doing races to the likes of LT100, Unbound, and other endurance events. Isaiah started coaching in 2008 when he was asked to coach a little 500 team in his home town of Bloomington, IN. Since then coaching has become a passion for Isaiah and he is eager to help any rider achieve their goals and potential. Isaiah has coached athletes to National titles, World Titles, and to the professional ranks. Isaiah is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach, TrainingPeaks Level 1, Certified Skills Instructor, and was a speaker at the USA Cycling Coaching Summit 2020. Isaiah is also director and performance manager for Domestic Elite Team : Project Echelon.

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