A Simple Journey: Bicycles, Bones, and Kettlebells

Happy Valley Womens Cycling Team

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.

Background

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.   

Biering-Sorensen isometric test

Initial Testing Spring 2020

Initial testing spring 2020 table
Click on the image to enlarge.

The first three months of training included:

  1. Development of isometric core stiffness, including abdomal, gluteal/pelvic floor, and breathing considerations.  
  2. Development of isometric core stiffness in various postures, including supine, sidelying, prone on elbows, high plank, and standing.
  3. Development of key movement patterns, including bridge/hinge, squat/hurdle, get-up, and overhead/press.

Sample Training Session Spring 2020

Sample training session spring 2020 table
Click on the image to enlarge.

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

2008 Rat study table
Click on the image to enlarge.

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

Sample training session fall 2020 table
Click on the image to enlarge.

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.

Simple Goals

Simple women’s weight standards
Click on the image to enlarge.

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. 

Brianna and Mary Ann performing the Simple & Sinister kettlebell swing

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].

Loaded hurdle step

Post Simple and Sinister Training and Percent Change

Post Simple and Sinister training and percent change
Click on the image to enlarge.

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.

Personal Messages

Mary Ann
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.

Brianna

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.  

Acknowledgements

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.

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Website: www.dronediculous.com


Resources

[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.

Tom Whipple
Tom Whipple MS, PT, is a Physical Therapist, currently in solo private practice (Strategic Orthopaedics). He holds academic degrees In Physical Therapy (Northwestern Univ., 1989) and Orthopaedics (Georgia State Univ., 1996) and was Board Certified as an Orthopaedic Clinical Specialist in 2000. His clinical interests include therapeutic exercise, manual therapy, and sport biomechanics/endocrinology. He has written both popular press and scientific articles and co-authored a book, The Endurance Paradox; Endurance Athletes Guide to Bone Health with Robert Eckhardt PhD. He is married to Jody and they have two children Jacob and Abbey.

16 thoughts on “A Simple Journey: Bicycles, Bones, and Kettlebells

  • Thank you for an excellent and rare article about strength training for endurance sports.

    As someone who has spent the last 15 years combining weight training with endurance sports, I have always felt that the weight training has benefited the endurance side. However, I have also struggled to work out the best combination, and for many years the two have types of training have been as detrimental to one another as they have been beneficial.

    In more recent years, training higher frequency and lower volume with kettlebells has given me a better balance. As I have moved from doing traditional gym exercises with kettlebells, to more kettlebell specific exercises such as the Simple programme (currently progressed to 28kg) I am seeing strength and endurance more in harmony with one another. Now in my early 40s there is no doubt I will continue to learn more and and adapt my training for many years to come.

    My challenge right now is summer and the desire to be out on my bike or hiking as much as possible. Should I keep S&S going, but with three sessions a week and slower progress? Should I switch to a different programme for summer and pick up S&S in the autumn? Decisions, decisions!

    • Thanks Alex for your input and question(s).

      Strength is a relatively well maintained capacity. Depending upon a number of factors, your current level of development can be maintained (and/or even improved?) with a reduction in training volume/frequency.

      Coaches describe retaining loads in the 30-60% range. For example, you may drop your sessions per week or number of TGU’s/Swings by 30-60% and not miss a beat. This is especially true if you have been on the program for months/years.

      One tactic we have used successfully “in season” is to reduce a total S&S session reps by 30-60% or consider performing the full number of TGU/swing reps on alternate days. 5 TGU’s on M, W, F; 100 swings on T, Th, Sat. Full S&S program on Sunday.

      Personally, I have found that performing the S&S warm-up, Goblet Squats, and 6-10 sets of 10 swings pre-ride is a great way to prime sport specific training. Then, follow the ride with 2-3 TGU’s as this helps re-establish thoracic spine and hip mobility as well as normalizes muscle tone.

      Again, thank you for your interest and commentary.

      tw

      • Thank you for the advice Tom. I will certainly give that a try over summer before getting back into the full S&S programme in the autumn/winter and progress towards 32kg kettlebells.

  • Great article, thank you!

    I have a couple of questions:

    1) Re your reply above: why did you put Brianna’s foot in dorsiflexion on the slant board when, as you also commented, her rear leg would be in triple extension when the opposite hip is flexed while running?

    2) I noticed that as well as an improvement in raw numbers for the side plank, there was also an improvement in the ratio between R and L (from 28% difference to 20% difference). Was this a goal? And would you aim to reduce this discrepancy further? Stuart McGill has noted that more than a 5% difference between sides on the side plank correlates with an increased risk of injury. What are your thoughts on this?

    Cheers,

    • Hi Andy,

      Appreciate your questions.

      1) Using the slant board as a foundation, an athlete can work through a full hip and ankle range of motion simultaneously.

      When the weight bearing leg is in maximal ankle dorsiflexion (heel is lower than toes), a strong link between hip extension and ankle dorsiflexion is achieved. This is precisely what is needed to perform a full walking or running stride (stance phase).

      Limited ankle dorsiflexion is often the root cause of gait dysfunctions and compensatory movement patterns.

      In order to maximize true triple extension, simply perform a heel raise from the slant board and carry on with your hurdle step training.

      If Pavel approves? perhaps a more comprehensive article on training the hurdle step for strength, power, and fatigue resistance may be a worthwhile endeavor.

      Regarding Mary Ann’s side to side discrepancy in the side plank testing. Yes, I am familiar with the research that correlates asymmetry and pain.

      Mary Ann did not have any notable pain in the lower back or lower extremity prior to or during this training. We used the side plank as part of the warm-up and an adjunct to her Simple and Sinister Training. Per Brett, it was a spice, not a main dish.

      It was interesting to see that both Mary Ann and Bri’s side plank improvement was so robust; and MA’s asymmetry was reduced.

      My thought was that the single handed swings and TGU training was responsible for the side plank improvements (good transference?!). Versus the relatively small volume of side plank training we did as part of the active warm up.

      That said, it will be interesting to see if the asymmetry continues to diminish over time.

      Thank you again for your interest and questions.

      • That’s great, very helpful, thanks Tom. Indeed, 1H swings and TGUs should have helped with that. I’ll look forward to your next article!

  • This article and the knowledge behind it, it’s application is absolutely great!

    Thank you for sharing of Tom.

  • Terrific article! The pre- and post-results clearly show the value of the program. Great explanations. References to the research literature. Nicely done!!

  • Amazing research based article! I have several friends in mind that I want to send this to. What benefits would the hurdle lunge present to runners, and/or non cyclists?

    • Hi Larry,
      Thank you for the question.
      The hurdle step is a useful exercise pattern to train for runners and other population(s).

      Please evaluate any elite middle distance runner and study their late stance phase. You will appreciate the “hurdle step” in which there is a significant degree of separation between the hips; with the forward hip in flexion and backward leg in triple extension. The mobility, strength, and power in this pattern is largely responsible for a runner’s distance per stride.

      Biomechanical analysis of the walking mechanics of aging adults reveals a loss of hip separation (especially hip extension). This correlates with reduced stride length and walking speed.

      The hurdle step is an expression of the crossed extensor reflex. Hip flexion on one side is connected to hip extension on the opposite/contralateral side through a spinal level reflex. As such, a stronger contraction of the flexors is linked with a stronger contraction of the extensors. It’s really something to experience!

      Significant core stiffness is a requisite to express simultaneous and optimal hurdle step performance. As training progresses, you will note greater core stability, hip mobility and strength. And consequential improvements in power and resistance to fatigue follow.

      For training purposes, and depending upon the population, there are some nuances in positioning of the limbs. For most, training the flexion path in “the plane of the hip/pelvis” is prudent. This involves flexion, slight abduction, and external rotation.

      The weight bearing or extending leg can be similarly positioned; in neutral relative to the trunk with slight external rotation and ankle dorsiflexion. You will note in the original article, Brianna is standing on slant board to facilitate ankle dorsiflexion.

      Hope this helps? Again, thank you for the question. tjw

      • Thank you! I sent this to all of my wife’s endurance friends. I’m going to start using this in my warm up as well as I prep for the Chicago marathon this fall. I already do plenty of swings and get ups, but am always looking for ways to strengthen my hips. I forgot about this question until now and i really appreciate the in depth response, even if it is slightly over my head. Going to need to reread slowly, lol.

        • Let me know if you want to discuss this further? Perhaps the most important consideration is to focus on keeping the weight bearing leg very stable.

          For example, as you are flexing the left leg (as in Bri’s example above), the haunch of the right leg (on the slant) MUST be fully engaged. The lower back must remain still and the right knee should not buckle forward.

          You will know when you get this right when there is a tremendous muscle contraction in the weight bearing haunch as the left reaches its terminal height. For most normal hips a goal of 120 degrees of total hip separation n is typical.

          The abdominals and hip flexors on the left will be strongly engaged as well. As development occurs, most will begin to appreciate the reflexic nature of the pattern…flexion on one side elicits extensors on the other.

          Best, tjw.

          • I would love to discuss further! Going to test it out today and report back. Any other simple, or at home exercises that you would recommend for marathons?

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