Whether to incorporate squats depends on your commitment to cycling. If you enjoy casually taking a spin on a bike from time to time, squat exercises -- a key component of strength training -- may not enhance your outing. However, if you are an avid or competitive cyclist, strength training in the off-season, including plenty of squats, will give you more power and speed. Cycling coach and Dr. Jesper Bondo Medhus, the founder of Training4Cyclists, says "squatting should always be the bread and butter exercise. That is why you might have heard squats mentioned as 'the king of exercises.'"
Benefits of Squats
A traditional squat for strength training usually involves resting a barbell on your shoulders and then dropping your hips toward the floor. Squats are particularly valuable for building up your legs because they work your quads and glutes at the same time, the key muscles that give you pedaling power. In addition, you extend both your hips and knees as you stand up out of the squat, which mimics the motion of a downward pedal stroke on the bike, making squats a sport-specific exercise as well.
Impact for Cyclists
Little hard science proves that squats and weight training improve a cyclist's performance. However, as FasCat Coaching states, many elite cyclists and cycling coaches believe in the value of strength training for your legs -- "climbers, sprinter and everyone else in between can benefit from lifting weights." Strength training is primarily done during the off-season for a cyclist, which generally runs from October through April. During the season, such rigorous strength training will result in fatigued legs when you climb on the bike. Strength training twice per week builds up your leg muscles, which gives you more power on the bike. It increases bone strength as well, which helps prevent osteoporosis. It works some leg and hip muscles that aren't used much while cycling, giving your lower body more balance. Strength training also helps maintain muscle mass, which tends to decline as people get older.
Proper Squat Technique
The proper technique for squats is a critical part of the exercise, making it not only more effective, but also avoiding injury. Stand with your feet apart at hip-to-shoulder width, with your toes pointed forward. Keep your knees in line with your second and third toes. Slowly lower your hips and bend your knees, allowing your butt to stick out as if you were about to sit in a chair. You'll be leaning forward with your shinbones and torso parallel -- don't bow forward. Squat down as far as you can while maintaining good form. Avoid arching or rounding your back. Keep your head in a neutral position in line with your spine -- don't force yourself to look straight ahead. When you drive upward, keep your weight evenly distributed.
Types of Squats
Although competitive cyclists work their way up to squats with heavy barbells to build extremely powerful quad muscles, not all cyclists need this level of intensity. You can use just the bar alone, or eliminate the weight altogether -- especially if your goal is simply to build up your legs to better enjoy recreational cycling. If your knees don't bother you and you are a serious cyclist, do a full squat by dropping your hips far enough so that your thighs are parallel to the ground. Add squat jumps, a plyometric exercise to develop explosive lower-body power. Start in a squat position with your hands on your hips, jump as high as you can, land lightly on your feet and drop back into the squat position. Pause momentarily and jump again. Gradually build up the number of jumps and reps you do.
Squats and other leg strengthening exercises are not just for cyclists. They give you a stronger and more explosive base for any type of sport you enjoy, from jogging to soccer to swimming to basketball. As an added bonus, your legs will look more toned in shorts or a swimsuit. If you intend to go into a rigorous off-season training program for cycling, work with a trainer to get the most out of your workout time. If you are not accustomed to such a demanding program, or if you a history of knee or lower-body injuries, check with your doctor before proceeding.
Jim Thomas has been a freelance writer since 1978. He wrote a book about professional golfers and has written magazine articles about sports, politics, legal issues, travel and business for national and Northwest publications. He received a Juris Doctor from Duke Law School and a Bachelor of Science in political science from Whitman College.