Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Forgotten Muscles Remind You

One form of exercise always seems to lead to another. When I started cycling a lot in the late 1970s, the cycling-related parts of the body grew stronger. Other parts of the body soon reminded me that they needed attention, too.

Many cyclists experience neck and shoulder pain, and other discomforts. Once the bike is properly fitted, the rider needs to put some effort into strengthening the supporting muscle groups to help avoid problems there.

My program is simple and cheap. It uses free weights and standard exercises to provide a minimal level of conditioning for a commuting or recreational cyclist. If you want to get more elaborate, go ahead. A hard-core, high mileage rider in a racing or near-racing group will probably want more. But most of us can benefit from a concise routine we can fit into a tight schedule.

I know my system works because I can feel the difference when I don’t do it. This summer I let it slide and was able to get by on residual strength until quite late in my normal season. But then I developed neck problems. The neck pain comes and goes. It has many causes, from accumulated injuries over the years to tucking a telephone or a violin under there. I’m far, far better on the telephone than on the violin, but I continue to throw myself at the challenge of learning some kind of musical instrument before I die. I won’t subject anyone to my results, fear not.

My off-bike conditioning frequently suffers during the height of the summer, when I have little time to do more than ride to work, work, and ride home, rest up and go back for the next day’s repair shop madness. Lacking some of the snap I had when I was comfortably far from 50, I just don’t hop out of bed and onto the weight bench at 0600 anymore. I dive into a deep mug of coffee, eat breakfast, pack lunch and stagger out onto the road. But enough excuses.

A different affliction seems to strike me each summer. One year it might be gritty knees. Another it might be back pain, upper or lower. Muscle aches in the neck are not uncommon, though this year’s pain has been distinctly different, of lower intensity, relating to how I hold my head or move it.

All neck pain has responded well to neck curls. The muscles of the back of the neck support the head in road cycling position. Unthinking medical practitioners and chiropractors suggest silly solutions like riding in a perfectly upright position, but that is not only aerodynamically inefficient, it is muscularly inefficient as well. Cure pains by a two-pronged approach, adjusting riding position a little and conditioning support muscles as well.

Neck curls strengthen the opposing muscles to the ones used and abused by long periods of cycling with a low back angle. When I do them on a regular basis, at least three days a week, preferably four or five, I have no neck pain. They’re much more helpful than neck extensions that try to strengthen the muscles of the back of the neck. I find those muscles are usually so strong already from supporting my head that I can’t come up with a good exercise to strengthen them further.

A few exercises for the triceps help build those supporting muscles. Balance these with curls for the biceps, just to even up the strain on the elbow. You don’t need a bulging beach muscle, just balanced strength. Round out the arm set with wrist curls and reverse wrist curls for the forearm.

Strengthen abdominal and lower back muscles to support your torso as you ride. This helps take weight and pressure off your hands, believe it or not, because you can tighten the muscle complexes around the lower abdomen and lower back to hold yourself up, rather than bounce around with your weight held completely by your crotch over the saddle and your hands on the bars. That sort of floppy-spine flailing will lead to back injuries.

Feel the effect of tightening the lower abs and back when you want to push a bigger gear or climb a hill while seated. It will square your hips over the saddle, avoiding some of the forward roll that leads to crotch discomfort. At the same time, it gives your quads a firmer foundation for the hard effort. After a while you will learn how much you need to tighten to get the optimal effect without burning those muscles so much that you actually lose energy through them.

For abdominals I do crunches on an inclined bench and leg lifts of various kinds. Choose the specific exercises you like. It doesn’t have to be exactly my way.

For the lower back I do rear leg raises and Good Mornings, a forward bow with weight plates held across the shoulders. Start with little or no weight and gradually add it. I do long sets with light weights or several shorter sets, 10 reps or so, for most of my exercises. It really doesn’t take much, and you don’t want to lug a lot of bulk around.

To reinforce a separated shoulder, I do lateral raises and front raises with small hand weights, just under 7 pounds each. In the separation of the acromioclavicular joint, the collarbone gets knocked off the top of the shoulder. This is what you get in a crash when the collarbone itself does not break.

For the curls, flat flies and pullovers on the bench, the weight bars themselves weigh 4.2 pounds, and I have 15 pounds of plates on them, for 19.2 total. I don’t need much, just enough toning to offset the wear and tear of the cycling, and a little fitness base for kayaking and the beginning of cross-country ski season.

To combat boredom, I don’t do all the crunches or leg raises at once. If you do sets of 10 or 15, interspersed with short sets of the other exercises, you can add up a significant total by the end, without having to endure an endless count.

If I get right to it and keep moving steadily, the whole routine takes about half an hour. If you don’t even have half an hour, you can split the routine, half in the morning, half in the evening, or slip in a set here and a set there to get it all into a day. Because it doesn’t use big weights and a lot of calculated-destruction lifting, the routine doesn’t demand a really thorough warmup, although you should always warm up somewhat. One benefit to the short sets is that you can ease into it with short sets of crunches and light lifts, with some stretching.

If I have more time, I get more into it. In the late fall, after easy biking ends, but before nordic skiing sets in, I’ll expand the weight program and other exercises to build the base for the transition to snow. But that’s another whole topic.

No comments: