Knowledge of the Power Phase of the pedal stroke is crucial, and by following these tips you will be able to maximize it! It’s all about your Glutes!
If you are satisfied in the ability just to take a ride, not concerned with how to make yourself faster, ride longer with less fatigue or discomfort, and avoid injury, your carefree spirit is admirable.
If, like me, however, your prevailing daily thought is much to the contrary, and knowledge of the pedal stroke and the muscles used during it is perceived to be of utmost importance.
Spoiler alert: It’s not all about the quads!
Read on to determine why and what you can do to optimize your power, efficiency, and comfort while “turning the pedals in anger.”
The pedal stroke has been intensely scrutinized, and there are several contrasting theories, each with its merit and compelling evidence. It is not my intention to tell you which is the right one. I have taken a different approach and utilized my physical therapy experience to dive into this topic from a different perspective.
Phase One of the Pedal Stroke: The Downstroke
Often referred to as the ‘Power or Extension Phase,’ the downstroke is the portion of the pedal stroke between 11 and 5 o’clock (300 through 140 degrees). The downstroke is considered the most crucial phase and the stroke portion in which you generate over 90% of your power while cycling.
The glutes produce powerful hip extension, while the quads produce knee extension, and together they work to extend your leg and generate force downward into the pedal during the initial phase of the pedal stroke.
The Role of the Quads
The quads activate just slightly before the top of the stroke (around 11 o’clock) and begin to extend the knee, reaching maximum force production at ~2 o’clock (60 degrees). The force produced by the quads reduces significantly at ~3 o’clock (90 degrees) and ceases altogether at ~4 o’clock to allow for pulling back on the pedal.
The Role of the Calves
We use the calf muscles to counteract the external forces pushing the toes up and heel down and prevent the heel from dropping at ~3 o’clock (90 degrees). Weak calf muscles can be a significant reason for heel drop and loss of power during the downstroke.
During the transition between the downstroke and the upstroke, referred to as the backstroke, we fire our calf muscles to point the toe. At the bottom of the stroke, you should point the toes down 20 degrees to ensure that we put all of the power produced during the downstroke into the crank.
This controversial technique is referred to as ‘ankling’ and was popularized by Greg LeMond when he said,
“Act like you’re scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe.”
The Role of the Hamstrings
During most of the downstroke, we activate the hamstrings to stabilize the knee to coordinate motion, ensuring smooth action and controlling the direction of force transferred to the pedal. It is similar to the role of the calf muscles until the transition to the bottom of the stroke. Then a contraction of the hamstrings is required to facilitate an optimal transition to the next phase, the backstroke.
The hamstrings are also activated to extend the hip as you come over the top of the stroke. The key is to drop your heel at 12 o’clock, going from a position where your toes are pointed down about 20 degrees to a heel position 10 degrees past parallel by the time you reach 3 o’clock.
The Role of the Glutes
The glutes, which consist of the maximus, medius, and minimus, are the largest muscle group in the body and are crucial to providing powerful pedal strokes. In addition, they control the rotational motion at the hip and stabilize the knee.
The glutes activate at the top dead center of the stroke (12 o’clock or 0 degrees) and remain active during the entire downstroke. Peak power production occurs at ~4 o’clock (120 degrees), where we maximize the combined force of the glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
Are the Glutes Our Most Important Cycling Muscle?
The glutes are perhaps the most important muscles to consider when trying to optimize your pedaling power and efficiency. Here’s why:
- A large and powerful muscle group, one which is activated almost 50% of the time while pedaling and is accountable for over 25% of the force generated.
- Weakness and fatigue of the glutes will limit force production and impair performance.
- Increased force production by the glutes is required while climbing in the saddle and out.
- They are vital for knee health because pedaling is primarily a single plane movement (with very little leg rotation). If we don’t control rotation at the hip, it will force the quads and hamstrings to compensate, causing them to become overworked, leading to knee instability and overuse injury.
- Prolonged trunk flexion while cycling causes tightening of the muscles of the front of the thigh (hip flexors) and reciprocal inhibition of the elongated glutes, causing them to become weak and rapidly fatigued. More on this can be found in this article detailing the importance of the Psoas Muscle.
- Sitting while at work or home can also cause shortening of the hip flexors, and as the glutes lengthen it inhibits the ability to contract their muscle fibers.
- A condition known as Dead Butt Syndrome as detailed in this earlier post, (gluteus medius tendonitis) can occur due to the muscle imbalance caused by prolonged seated postures when the aforementioned goes unaddressed.
Tips for Maximizing Glute Muscle Function
- Perform a consistent stretching and foam roller program focused on the hip flexors, while also including the hamstring, calves, and quads.
- Strengthen the glutes through an exercise program designed to isolate the muscle group and improve its endurance.
- Utilize a muscle activation program to prepare the glutes for optimal function before activity performance.
- Concentrate on pedaling with a smooth stroke at a higher cadence to prevent pushing too hard, because a tired glute muscle responds exactly like a weak one.
- Keep your core muscles strong to provide a stable base for your glutes and the other muscles of your legs.
- Make sure that your bike is fitted properly to avoid being overly stretched and placing excessive lengthening stress upon your glutes.
- Sit deep in the saddle and drop your heel while applying force to the pedals, while at the same time thinking about engaging your glutes while you do so.
- Adjust your workstation to make sure that it is ergonomically sound to correct a tendency towards a slumped posture, and take frequent standing breaks to stretch (every 20 minutes).
When most cyclists think about the muscles used while pedaling, thoughts immediately turn to the quads and how to get them as strong as possible. In actuality, the quads play an essential role in our performance, but it doesn’t stop there.
The other muscles of our lower body, the hamstrings, and calves, which often go overlooked, play a part and must be strong to provide force and maintain stability.
Most important, however, is the role that the glutes play in maximizing our cycling performance and preventing injury. It is essential not to neglect your glutes if you want to ride strong and not have pain in the process.
Doing so will decrease power production during the downstroke, causing rapid fatigue and progressively worsening soreness of the back and joints. That is no fun at all!
Did you know how important the glutes were to your riding? If not, does it change the way you will prepare and ride in the future? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!