Functionally Speaking — The Importance of Upper Body Strength


What does developing and maintaining a strong upper body have to do with being a better cyclist?  A lot. But, before we explain why, it’s critical to make an important distinction: with musculature, strength does not equate to bulk.  Like any endurance athlete, cyclists do not need bulk (unless you are a sprinter or track cyclist).  So, do not confuse the development of strength with the addition of copious amounts of muscle.  For the cyclist, this would be counter-productive.  Significant amounts of muscle add significant weight to a body and the more weight you carry, the more energy you use in carrying that weight around. And, unfortunately, the amount of muscle you carry on your body has only a small correlation to the power you can generate to move that muscle — both in short, quick bursts of speed and in long, sustained efforts.

There is a common misconception that a cyclist only needs strong legs and strong lungs.  This would be true if cyclists only used their legs and lungs when riding.  But, cycling is full-body sport and requires an overall level of fitness that far exceeds that of your average ‘weekend warrior.’

In developing and maintaining strength, cyclists tend to focus solely on the body’s power center: legs, core, butt, and lower back.  While it is important for cyclists to build lean muscle in these areas, there are other parts of the body that need just as much, if not more, attention — like the arms, shoulders, and neck.  Yes, the upper body.

Consider this: comparing the bicycle and its rider to an automobile, if a cyclist’s legs are like the engine, then the cyclist’s upper body is like the suspension.  Think of how a finely-tuned suspension improves a car’s handling and responsiveness to steering.  Envision the suspension supporting the weight of the vehicle and subtly shifting the vehicle’s center of gravity as it accelerates, brakes, and navigates turns.  Now, think of the many ways you use your arms, shoulders, and neck when riding:

  • Steering the bike through sand or loose rocks on the trail
  • Leaning into turns when cornering on the road
  • Throwing the body back over the saddle when descending a steep trail
  • Absorbing road vibrations and repetitive shocks from stutter bumps
  • Pulling the bike up when bunny-hopping a pot hole or water bar
  • Pushing and pulling on the handlebars when climbing out of the saddle
  • Applying adequate pressure to the levers when braking

See the similarities? Only a strong upper body will enable a cyclist to repeatedly perform these tasks in an efficient and effective manner.

Whether you are riding a century, participating in a 12 hour mountain bike race, or competing in a four-day stage race, you will need a well-conditioned and strong upper body to go along with your powerful legs, ripped core, and solid lower back.

So, now that you understand the importance of developing and maintaining a strong upper body, the next step is finding the appropriate training program to help you achieve this goal.  In our next installment of Functionally Speaking, we’ll discuss a simple training plan requiring NO funky fitness gizmos, expensive gym memberships, questionable supplements, lame motivational posters and DVDs, or annoying personal trainers to help you develop and maintain a strong upper body.


About The Author


Aaron Hanson (a.k.a The Cap’n) is manager of the Southern California Colavita Regional Amateur Team.  A 25-year veteran of the sport and lifestyle of cycling, Aaron has raced both road and mountain bikes, advocated for bicycle transportation funding and facilities at the city, county, state, and federal levels, planned and facilitated numerous bicycle events, and helped several municipalities and counties create viable bikeway master plans.

Aaron has been honored by IMBA, CORBA, Clif Bar, the City of Los Angeles, the County of Ventura, the City of Simi Valley, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate for his bicycle advocacy work.  He has even won a bike race or two.

Aaron can be contacted via e-mail at: bikinguy@sbcglobal.net

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