TL:DR Be strong like a tree 🌲 not wiggly like a worm 🐛
What's the optimal position and posture?
When you climb, you want to focus your energy on pushing force through the pedals. It's the pedalling that gets you up the hill. Nothing else. Have you ever seen someone bob and wiggle their upper body as they climb? It might make them feel like they're working harder, but it's not helping; it's wasting energy and time.
Every time you push force into the pedals, there is an opposite force* on your trunk**.
Have you ever seen a person 'bracing' their trunk
to lift a barbell weight in the gym?
When it comes to cycling, you need to adopt the same idea to keep the force in the right place – the pedals. If you have a weak, wiggly trunk, the force you put in the pedals will dissipate out to the rest of your body. Sure, you don’t need to brace like you would for a deadlift, but you do need your trunk to be reasonably solid (think tree trunk!).
What happens if you don't have a solid trunk?
If your trunk is weak and/or overly relaxed, then a few things might happen...
(1) The force to move the pedals is lost into your trunk
(2) Your upper body moves excessively, wasting more energy as you try to retain stability
If you do a lot of high force work with a weak trunk and/or bad posture, you also increase the risk of lower back injury and putting unwanted pressure on your spine.
How do I know if I have a solid trunk?
What to look for off the bike
Trunk strength exists in FOUR quadrants:
(1) anterior (lower abs)
(2) posterior (lower back)
(3) lateral left (left side)
(4) lateral right (right side)
Optimal trunk health requires relatively even strength in all four quadrants. For example, if you can hold a four minute front plank but only hold a left plank for 30 seconds, it's time to even out those differences. Elite endurance athletes are expected to be able to hold isometric positions for all four quadrants for more than 180 seconds.
What to look for on the bike
What do you look like when you are climbing?
Can you push the pedals down without bobbing and wiggling your upper body?
How much does your pelvis move when you are pedalling?
Ask a friend to film you cycling up a hill. There’s nothing better than visual feedback to help you to make sense of your technique and find out where you need to improve.
Seated or standing?
It’s often said that seated is more ‘efficient’ than standing. Staying seated is better strength training because you don't have the benefit of your body weight to push down on the pedals. When you stand, there is also naturally more movement of the upper body. So it's easier to waste more energy when you are standing because there is more wiggle room 😉
On the other hand, standing on the pedals will likely get you up the hill quicker. Cycling and training isn't purely about training for efficiency. It's also about versatility. A bike race isn’t a controllable event in which riders can choose the most efficient way to cycle at all times. It's vital to develop strength and competence in both seated and standing positions. Once you do this, you will be a versatile rider who can respond to the challenges the environment throws at you!
Ultimately, whether you are seated or standing, a solid trunk is key to getting up that grade faster!
* Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
**The trunk is a 'global system' that consists of many muscles, spans many joint segments, and forms a muscular corset between the rib cage, spine, and pelvis.
Please GET IN TOUCH if you have any questions, comments or want to find out more!
Wolf, Alex. Strength and Conditioning for Rowing. 2020. The Crowood Press: Ramsbury. Grappe, Frédéric. Cyclisme : Optimisation de la performance. 2018. De Boeck Supérieur: Louvain-La-Neuve.