A Cyclist's Guide to Overcoming the Effects of Prolonged Sitting by Countering the Adverse Effects of Dynamic Muscle Shortening and Reciprocal Inhibition
Cycling is a multi-faceted sport requiring complex and coordinated neuromuscular coordination. Two fundamental physiological phenomena particularly relevant to cycling performance are dynamic muscle shortening and reciprocal inhibition. Understanding these concepts can help cyclists optimize their performance and prevent injuries.
When functioning normally, the interplay between antagonistic muscles involved in the pedal stroke produces power and efficiency. However, the increasingly sedentary nature of modern life, characterized by prolonged sitting—at work or even on the bike—can influence these physiological mechanisms, potentially affecting cycling performance and overall health by causing a condition called Lower Crossed Syndrome.
Dynamic Muscle Shortening and Reciprocal Inhibition: A Crucial Lower Crossed Syndrome Duel for Cyclists
Dynamic Muscle Shortening
Dynamic muscle shortening refers to the physiological process when a muscle reduces in length due to a contraction while exerting a force. In cycling, the pedaling motion requires both the concentric (shortening) and eccentric (lengthening) contractions of muscles.
For instance, during the downward phase (power stroke) of pedaling, the hip and knee extensors, such as the gluteus maximus and quadriceps, undergo concentric contraction, i.e., they shorten dynamically to generate force. On the other hand, during the upward phase (recovery stroke), these muscles switch to eccentric contraction, lengthening while controlling the motion.
Understanding dynamic muscle shortening can guide cyclists in developing targeted strength training routines, ensuring these muscles are well-conditioned for the demands of cycling. Exercises that simultaneously train muscles in concentric and eccentric contractions, such as squats and lunges, can be particularly beneficial for cyclists.
Reciprocal inhibition, or reciprocal innervation, is a neuromuscular reflex that helps facilitate movement and is essential to normal function. When one muscle (agonist) contracts, it signals the opposing muscle (antagonist) to relax automatically, allowing smooth, coordinated action.
While riding, when you’re in the power phase of the pedal stroke and your quadriceps contract to extend the knee, reciprocal inhibition causes your hamstrings (the opposing muscle group) to relax. The mechanism ensures efficient movement by preventing opposing muscles from working against each other.
The theory of reciprocal inhibition also underscores the importance of balanced strength training for cyclists. If one muscle group is excessively stronger than its antagonist, it will over-inhibit the weaker muscle, leading to imbalances, poor biomechanics, and increased injury risk.
To maintain this balance, cyclists should ensure their training routines adequately target all major muscle groups involved in cycling, not just those traditionally associated with power production. For example, while the quadriceps and gluteus maximus are crucial for the power stroke, the hamstrings and hip flexors, active during the upward recovery stroke, should not be neglected.
Dynamic Muscle Shortening and the "Sitting Disease" —Lower Crossed Syndrome When Cycling
Dynamic muscle shortening refers to a muscle’s contraction and subsequent reduction in length while producing force. For cyclists, this happens prominently in the gluteus maximus and quadriceps during the power stroke of pedaling, where these muscles contract (shorten) to generate force.
However, prolonged sitting, whether at a desk job or during long cycling rides, can lead to a phenomenon often called “adaptive shortening.” In this situation, muscles, particularly the hip flexors, can become habitually shortened due to remaining in a flexed position for extended periods.
Dynamic or Adaptive muscle shortening occurs when muscles change their functional resting length to adapt to the length they are habitually used or positioned.
It can cause an imbalance, reducing the range of motion, impairing pedaling efficiency, and potentially leading to discomfort or injury.
Implementing strength and flexibility exercises that target these muscles can help mitigate this issue and maintain the dynamic muscle length necessary for optimal cycling performance.
Reciprocal Inhibition and the Consequences of Prolonged Sitting To Lower Crossed Syndrome in Cyclists
Reciprocal inhibition is a neuromuscular reflex that enables smooth movement by causing the relaxation of a muscle (antagonist) when the opposing muscle (agonist) contracts. During cycling, when your quadriceps contract to extend the knee in the power stroke, reciprocal inhibition triggers the relaxation of your hamstrings, the antagonist muscle group.
Prolonged sitting, however, disrupts this balance. The continued flexed position leads to overactive, shortened hip flexors and underactive, lengthened gluteal muscles, often termed “lower crossed syndrome.”
Lower Cross Syndrome (LCS) represents a postural imbalance predominantly centered around the pelvic muscles. The imbalance can affect an individual’s movement and posture and lead to pain or discomfort. Specific patterns of muscle weakness and tightness that crisscross between the body’s dorsal (back) and ventral (front) sides characterize the syndrome.
Reciprocal inhibition occurs when habitual tightness in one muscle lengthens the muscle on the opposite side of the joint.
The imbalance negatively affects the reciprocal inhibition process. The overactive muscles excessively inhibit the antagonist muscles, causing inefficient movement and decreasing pedaling power.
In prolonged cases, the imbalance compromises the nerves that signal the muscle fibers to fire, and the condition known as Gluteal Amnesia or Dead Butt Syndrome results.
Incorporating targeted exercises to strengthen the glutes and stretch the hip flexors help restore muscle balance, preserve efficient reciprocal inhibition, and enhance cycling performance.
Implement these three key strategies to counteract the adverse effects of Lower Cross Syndrome in cyclists: stretching, strengthening, and proper bike fitting.
Stretching: Reversing Adaptive Shortening For Cyclists With Lower Crossed Syndrome
Regular stretching can significantly help reverse adaptive muscle shortening caused by prolonged sitting. It can increase flexibility, improve the range of motion, and facilitate better reciprocal inhibition. Here are the primary muscles cyclists should focus on:
- Hip Flexors: Extended periods of sitting can cause these muscles to become tight and shortened. Performing regular hip flexor stretches can help restore their normal length and flexibility.
- Hamstrings: Though not directly shortened by sitting, tight hamstrings can affect your cycling posture and pedal stroke. Hamstring stretches can help improve flexibility.
- Upper and Mid-Back Muscles: Regularly stretching the spinal muscles can help maintain their flexibility and function, particularly after long periods of cycling or sitting.
Strengthening: Countering Lower Crossed Syndrome For Cyclists
To counter lower crossed syndrome—characterized by weak glutes, abdominals, tight hip flexors, and lower back muscles—targeted strengthening exercises should be integrated into your training routine. These exercises can restore muscle balance and optimize the dynamic muscle shortening and reciprocal inhibition processes.
Key muscle groups to focus on include:
- Glutes: Glute-strengthening exercises, like bridges and hip thrusts, can help counteract the weakening caused by prolonged sitting.
- Abdominals and Spinal Muscles: Strengthening the core muscles, particularly the abdominals and spinal extensors, can help improve your cycling posture and efficiency.
- Hamstrings: While often tight from sitting, your hamstrings may also be weak.
Proper Bike Fit: Enhancing Comfort and Efficiency To Prevent Lower Crossed Syndrome When Cycling
Proper bike fit is essential to counteract the adverse effects of prolonged sitting and promote efficient cycling. A proper bike fit by a certified professional is always a good idea. Here are a few suggestions in the meantime:
- Saddle Height: A saddle that’s too low will increase hip flexion, further shortening the hip flexors. Make sure your saddle height allows for a slight bend in your knee at the bottom of your pedal stroke.
- Saddle Fore/Aft Position: If your saddle is too far forward, it can put extra pressure on your hands, arms, and lower back and increase the angle at your hip. Be sure to position the saddle to ensure that you distribute weight evenly.
- Handlebar Height and Reach: Too much reach can lead to an overly aggressive riding position, straining the lower back and neck. Make sure your handlebar position allows for a comfortable, sustainable posture.
A Four-Step Lower Crossed Syndrome When Cycling Plan
Step One: Perform a Foam Roller Routine
Rolling the muscles of your legs will make them more relaxed, making it easier to stretch, thereby improving your flexibility. In addition, by relaxing the glute muscles, the spasm which occurs due to being overworked will decrease too. Here’s how:
Foam roll the piriformis!
Roll out the hip flexors!
Foam rolling is okay for the hamstrings!
Foam Roll the Thoracic Spine
Step Two: Perform a Stretching Program
Adding hip flexor, adductor, piriformis, spine, and hamstring stretching to your daily routine will counteract the adverse effects of prolonged periods in the saddle. Here’s how:
Seated piriformis stretch
Hip flexor stretch
Hamstring stretch with strap
Cat and Camel
Step Three: Perform a Muscle Activation Routine
Muscle activating your glutes before riding will stimulate inactive muscle groups to improve their function. Focus on the glute muscles and visualize them to fire. It will improve contraction strength through enhanced fiber recruitment.
Concentrate on the muscles you’re trying to activate in your mind. Perform each exercise slowly and control the movement through a full range of motion. The goal is to warm up and engage the specific muscle groups without fatigue. Follow this link to learn more.
Follow These Glute Muscle Activation Tips
Activation exercises are simple motions to isolate and activate a specific muscle group. A quad dominance routine targets the glutes and spinal muscles to help you feel them contract and know they’re engaged and ready. Here are a few tips you can use along the way.
- The key to pre-activation is waking up and activating the proper muscles by concentrating on a full contraction.
- Take it slow and controlled, making each repetition deliberate for a maximal contraction through a full range of motion.
- Focus on really thinking about the muscles you’re trying to activate.
- Maintain constant tension through the band during all phases of the movement
Step Four: Perform a Strengthening Routine
A program focused on improving and maintaining glute and hip extensor strength and addressing the core will prevent muscle imbalance when cycling and improve performance. Add a few of these focused movements to your lower body strength training routine to target inhibited muscles. Follow this link to the Training & Performance page of The Zommunique’ to learn how.
Clamshell Bridge with Elastic Band
Start on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Brace your abdomen and perform a bridge holding it at the top. Take a small breath and as you exhale pull your thighs apart as shown and inhale as you return to the start position. Perform the required repetitions and then keep your abdomen tight as you lower back down the floor.
Fire Hydrant with Elastic Band
Start in a quadruped position with an elastic band around your thighs. Hands should be directly under your shoulders and knees directly under your hips. Next, raise your leg out to the side as shown. Maintain a straight upper and mid-back as you rotate your hip outward while concentrating on your glutes.
Quadruped Bent Knee Hip Extension with Elastic Band
Start in a quadruped position, on your hands and knees, with a band around your knees. Hands should be directly under your shoulders and knees directly under your hips. Begin by extending your leg back, with your knee bent at 90 degrees. Make sure to keep your core engaged and squeeze through your glute at the top of this motion. Bring your leg back to starting position. Try to keep your weight center and do not use your back in this motion.
Standing Clamshell Squat with Elastic Band
Start with a band placed directly above the knees and feet shoulder-width apart. Sit back into a deep squat and push the knees out and back to neutral in a slow and controlled movement repeatedly while still keeping good form. Be sure to concentrate on your glutes with your knees over your feet and your toes visible at all times.
Lateral Monster Walk with Elastic Band
Place a looped elastic band around both knees or ankles. Next, bend your knees and step to the side while keeping tension on the band the entire time. After taking sidesteps to the side in one direction, reverse the direction taking sidesteps until you return to the starting position.
Conclusion—Lower Crossed Syndrome When Cycling
Prolonged sitting can negatively impact the neuromuscular mechanisms crucial for efficient cycling. The interplay between dynamic muscle shortening, reciprocal inhibition, and prolonged sitting can significantly influence a cyclist’s performance and health by causing Lower Crossed Syndrome. Understanding these concepts can guide cyclists in creating comprehensive training routines that counteract the potential adverse effects of prolonged sitting.
Implementing regular stretching and strengthening routines and ensuring a proper bike fit can significantly help counteract these effects. In the pursuit of cycling efficiency and overall muscular health, every aspect of life counts—even those hours spent off the bike.
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!