by Isaiah Newkirk, October 2016
Cyclists can pair Muscle Tension Intervals with weight training for cycling for an even better physiological adaptation.
As we leave the 2019 season behind, do you feel that your 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 you aerobic. 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 high torqued cadence. 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 (2×5) 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 till 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.
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 technology in EMG (electromyography) which is where electrodes are placed on the skin and can track muscle activity through electrical signals, 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 the glutes are much more active when standing. Which means that by focusing and then strengthening the glutes you will be increasing endurance and strength while standing, which is often vital in key moments during races.
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, MTI’s 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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