The Happy Valley Women’s Cycling (HVWC) team is an organization committed to advancing women’s cycling. Their mission is to provide cycling opportunities for females of all ages and ability levels. Based in central Pennsylvania, the team members ride and race in multiple disciplines, including road, gravel, and mountain. They are the only female cycling team on the East Coast of the United States to be sponsored by a major bicycle manufacturer.
Cycling improves numerous physical and mental health metrics. That said, cyclists may be at risk for undesirable acute and/or long-term musculoskeletal consequences. Specifically imbalances, fractures, and exercise induced osteoporosis (bone loss)[i].
In 2020, a core group of the HVWC team was interested in enhancing their health and bike performances. Their search led them to begin training with the kettlebell. This is the story of two team members: Brianna Bair and Mary Ann Hanlon.
Both ladies would be classified as athletic, consistently training 6-10 hours per week for multiple years. Training histories included various endurance sports and some form of strength training.
Baseline testing included grip strength (measured with an electronic dynamometer), side plank, and the Biering-Sorensen Isometric Trunk Endurance test. Grip strength is especially relevant for cyclists as it is positively correlated with both total body bone mineral density[ii] and cycling performance[iii]. The Biering-Sorensen test is an isometric trunk endurance test (see image below). In males, performance of greater than 198 seconds is considered the clinical gold standard. No such data currently exist for females.
Initial Testing Spring 2020
The first three months of training included:
- Development of isometric core stiffness, including abdomal, gluteal/pelvic floor, and breathing considerations.
- Development of isometric core stiffness in various postures, including supine, sidelying, prone on elbows, high plank, and standing.
- Development of key movement patterns, including bridge/hinge, squat/hurdle, get-up, and overhead/press.
Sample Training Session Spring 2020
After 12 weeks of training, Bri and Mary Ann had achieved requisite stability and movement competency and were ready to begin loading. The foundational kettlebell exercises (squat, deadlift, get-up, swing) were initiated. Asymmetrical and bottoms-up versions were emphasized in order to improve focus, minimize asymmetries, and maximize grip induced neuromuscular irradiation.
Strength training sessions were suggested to precede riding whenever possible or practical. Studies demonstrate that if strength exercises are of adequate intensity and not performed to failure, both power and endurance are improved[iv]. Many readers will recognize this as complex training; the window of heightened activation may persist for up to two hours.
High training frequency (more than 3-5 times per week) and moderate volume training (±10 total repetitions per strength exercise) was implemented. Pavel has recommended similar protocols in his books Easy Strength and Kettlebell Simple & Sinister.
The results of a 2008 rat study are useful to emphasize how this particular combination of frequency and volume influence bone strength[v]. Researchers studied leg bone strength as a consequence of different weekly training frequencies. Each training session consisted of 10 jumping reps.
2008 Rat Study
The results demonstrated that training once per week had no significant effect on bone strength. Training 3-5 times per week resulted in ±12% bone strength gain and daily training resulted in an additional 40% improvement (19.8%). The takeaway: a little daily training goes a long way in improving structural strength.
Sample Training Session Fall 2020
After reading Pavel’s book, Kettlebell Simple & Sinister, Mary Ann expressed an interest in working toward the simple standard for females. These standards are shown in the table below.
During the Winter of 2021, Mary Ann and Brianna trained 5-6 days per week during their lunch breaks, rarely missing a scheduled session. Training was pure Simple & Sinister: bridges, halos, goblet squats, swings, and get-ups. Both ladies made steady progress and achieved the simple benchmarks by the end of Summer 2021.
In his article “Spices vs Main Dishes: How to Program a Proper Training Menu,” Brett Jones, StrongFirst Director of Education, professed the value in balancing Simple & Sinister main dishes (get-ups and swings) with supplemental exercise spices. The ladies heeded Brett’s advice and discovered the value of several key cycling specific spices, including the loaded hurdle step.
When executed properly, the loaded hurdle step is both corrective and performance enhancing. Hip flexion is neurologically and functionally linked to contralateral hip extension via the crossed extensor reflex. Cyclists are known to lose hip extension mobility and have altered strength curves relative to runners[vi]. A 2012 study of well-trained cyclists demonstrated that 12 weeks of strength training, featuring resisted hip flexion, improved pedaling efficiency and performance[vii].
Post Simple and Sinister Training and Percent Change
Brianna and Mary Ann’s results are presented to provide insight for athletes, coaches, and sports medicine professionals on the value of Simple & Sinister programming for cyclists. In order to achieve competitive success in cycling, both peak power and fatigue resistance are mandatory. Although surprising to many, tests of peak power lasting 5-20 seconds are frequently found to be the most predictive tests of endurance sport performance.
Simple & Sinister training resulted in significant improvements in both peak absolute (grip) strength as well as relative strength endurance. The only notable exception was Mary Ann’s left grip. Prior to this training block, she had sustained a complex wrist fracture that resulted in reconstructive wrist surgery and removal of her scaphoid bone.
Cycling is known to result in significant imbalances that may lead to pain or compromised long term health. Protruded head, excessive thoracic kyphosis, protracted scapulae, and limited hip extension are the most common. The corrective benefits of the get-up and swing are well suited to counter extended time in the saddle, while developing both fast and slow neuromuscular capacities.
Readers may be interested in knowing that muscle strength is one of the strongest predictors of bone density. Although cycling is a metabolically demanding sport, the relative degree of muscle and bone loading is low in comparison to court sports or gymnastics. As such, high volume cycling is a known risk factor for osteoporosis. The kettlebell swing induces ballistic loads to cancellous bone locations known to be most at risk for fracture and bone loss. These include the wrist, spine, and hip. Simple & Sinister programming, with the loaded hurdle step as a supplemental exercise, provides an adequate stimulus for adaptive changes with minimal fatigue. The get-up and swing are simultaneously corrective and performance enhancing, optimizing a cyclist’s mobility, power, and endurance.
As a cyclist and runner, I didn’t have much upper body strength or a strong core. I started going to CrossFit 10 years ago and while I did get somewhat stronger it conflicted with cycling because I would often be too sore to ride. I remember how hard it was to initially swing a 16kg kettlebell with two hands; and now with Simple & Sinister programming, I can easily swing a 24kg kettlebell with one hand! My increased strength helps me power up steep rocky climbs and it has improved my endurance on longer rides. I love the progress I’ve made, and I am looking forward to continuing my kettlebell journey.
Since I started my kettlebell training, I’ve noticed significant gains in my overall strength and power. I find the demands of the kettlebell swing really transfer over to my mountain biking. Explosive power, core strength, and grip strength are all key components to what you need on your bike when riding tough technical terrain and also while performing swings. My advice to anyone just getting started is to be patient and really concentrate on getting proper form before moving up in weight.
Berta DeDonato and Missy Quick are co-owners of Kinetik Fitness in State College, PA. They graciously donate their gym to the HVWC team.
Brad Fey, Licensed FAA UAV Pilot, provided the photographs and video for this article.
[i] Bone health in endurance athletes: runners, cyclists, and swimmers. Curr Sports Med Rep. Nov-Dec 2012;11(6): 328-334
[ii] Association between gip strength and bone mineral density in general US population of NHANES 2013-2014. Arch Osteoporos 2020 March 16;15(1):47.
[iii] Predictors of performance in a 4-h mountain bike race. J Sports Sci. 2018 Feb; 36(4):462-468.
[iv] Post-activation potentiation (PAP) in endurance sports: A review. Eur J Sport Sci. 2018 Jun; 18(5):595-610.
[v] High Impact exercise frequency per week or day for osteogenic response in rats. J Bone Min Metab. 2008;26(5):456-460.
[vi] Moment-length relations of rectus femoris muscles of speed skaters/cyclists and runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1991 Nov; 23(11): 1289-1296.
[vii] Cyclists’ improvement of pedaling efficacy and performance after heavy strength training. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2012 Dec;7(4):313-321.