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Is The Upper Body Important In Cycling?

15 Jan 2015
Andrew Wynd
Let’s face it, cyclists are not well known for having superb upper body development. What they gain in the leg department, they sacrifice in the arm department and this makes sense, given the legs are “the engine room”. What is not always considered however, is the influence of the trunk and upper body in cyclists of all abilities. Over years of performing countless bike setups, I now screen the upper body and trunk as part of the cyclist screening and assessment. Let me tell you why.

As one of the key contact points to the bike via the handlebars, the upper body plays a crucial role in stabilising the rocking action the legs create by pushing on the pedals. A counter rotation occurs via the trunk, down through the arms and hands, to keep the bike level. Without this, the cyclist would simply tip over. There is also the consideration of braking, gear changes and steering that the upper body is in control of.

Try this test at home to see if your upper body is doing what is should whilst on the bike:

  • Stand feet shoulder width apart, knees bent slightly and lean forwards onto a bench or similar
  • Your body should mimic a cycling position with a reasonable amount of pressure on the hands.
  • Keeping your trunk, and spine still, lift one arm off, then the other.
  • Are they equal?
  • Does your back twist or drop?

A well functioning upper body should provide effortless “lift off” with each arm from the bench with no difference between sides. Not the case? It might be time to consider a professional opinion.

Many stubborn knee, hip and lower back complaints in cyclist often reveal themselves via a deficits in the trunk or upper body. 

Not where you might first think to look. 

This is more often the case in sub-elite or novice cyclists, as revealed in a recent study from the Australian Institute of Sport, titled “The influence of body position on leg kinematics and muscle recruitment during cycling”.

The researchers demonstrated a change in leg muscle activity when the upper body position was shifted into a time trial position from a more conventional cycling position.  Also of interest was a difference between elite cyclists and both amateur cyclists or elite triathletes. The more trained cyclists showed better control of their leg actions when they changed trunk positions than their counterparts. A possible conclusion of this study is that how you position the trunk and upper body CAN influence how the legs move, which muscles contract and the timing of those contractions.

The take home message for cyclists of all abilities…… pay close attention to the upper body and trunk position on the bike and don’t discredit a seemingly unrelated shoulder or upper limb injury. That dodgy elbow may very well be causing your knee pain on the bike!


Photo Credit: Andy Jones

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