If you’re looking for a squat variation to build strong, powerful quads… it’s time to talk about cyclist squats.
Inspired by… well, you guessed it… cyclists, and popularized by strength coach Charles Poliquin, the cyclist squat pays homage to how the traditional squat can be so elegantly adapted to suit specific goals and training outcomes.
For many, the glutes and hamstrings absorb a lot of the load during lower body compound movements and as a result, the quads can often get neglected.
The cyclist squat ensures this simply isn’t possible and brings the quads to center stage during the exercise.
In this guide, we outline how to do cyclist squats properly, the muscles worked, benefits and tips for making the most out of the exercise in your training routine.
If you’re looking to strengthen and tone your quads, check out our guide on the best outer quad exercises too.
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What Are Cyclist Squats?
Cyclist squats involve squatting with a narrow stance and raised heels. This activates the quads, and in particular the VMO, more than a traditional back squat does.
Your knees will pass over your toes during the exercise and the elevated heel position allows for greater bend at the knee.
The higher your heels are elevated, the more your quads are activated. This is effective for activating your vastus medialis (VMO)… which is the part of the inner thigh that looks like a tear-drop. This muscle is responsible for helping to stabilize the knee joint.
The traditional cyclist squat is a back squat, with a barbell held on your upper back… but you could use elevated heels and a narrow stance with other squats, such as a goblet or front squat too.
How to elevate your heel
The best way to elevate your heel is to use some type of decline slant board. Alternatively, you could use a barbell plate.
Cyclist Squat Benefits
Ultimately, cyclist squats are one of the best squat variations for quads. The raised heel and narrow stance reduces the workload of the glutes and hamstrings and ensures your quads have nowhere to hide during the exercise.
Particularly if you naturally have a wide stance when you squat, you may find your quads have been hiding behind strong glutes and hamstrings, and that when exposed, they aren’t as strong as you’d have expected.
This is why exercises like cyclist squats are popular with professional athletes, as a way to ensure they aren’t developing muscular imbalances during training.
As well as the benefits of improved performance and functional movement, targeting the quads more efficiently is also a common desire for bodybuilders and those following such workouts in the gym.
Vastus Medialis Activation
The vastus medialis (VMO) plays a vital role in stabilizing the knee… which makes sense as it is the part of the quad that sits above it. Weakness in this muscle could lead to an increased risk of knee injuries as your knee may struggle with stability.
A strong VMO is also incredibly useful in sports, such as cycling, to help generate explosive power from the lower body, as it extends the knee.
The problem with targeting your VMO is that it is actually very hard to activate this part of the quads effectively, which is why the elevated heel squat has often been used by athletes, such as cyclists, as the best solution.
Cyclist squats help increase the range of motion at the knee, activating the VMO.
Cyclist squats inadvertently do a very good job at creating good posture during a squat. If you find you often lean forward during squats, the cyclist squat is a fantastic solution to encourage a more upright position.
Leaning forward will create instability so you’ll naturally try and maintain a more upright position. Leaning forward will also put less tension on the VMO and more on the glutes/hamstrings, reducing the benefits of the exercise for your quads.
This largely means you’re better off using lighter weights and focusing on your technique and keeping that back upright, to ensure it’s your quads and VMO staying activated.
Combat Partial Reps
Sometimes a lack of mobility, such as mobility in the ankles, can impact someone’s ability to get into a deep squat and reap the benefits of the full range of motion of the exercise.
In these instances, cyclist squats can help create an environment that allows for a full range of motion, without needing the ankles to bend as much (which might be a limitation after injury, for example).
If you do struggle with ankle mobility, we’d recommend trying some Asian squats as a simple way to combat this.
Our guide on the best squat variations for quads outlines 4 other exercises, alongside cyclist squats, that are effective ways to target the quads.
If you’re looking for VMO activation, you really want to be looking at exercises that involve a deep knee bend, such as on a leg extension machine.
A lot of physical therapy exercises for knee injuries involve squeezing a ball between your knees, as a way to strengthen the VMO, so this may be something you want to consider too.
Why Is It Called Cyclist Squats?
The origin of the cyclist squat isn’t fully known, but Charles Poliquin discussed it in a training book from the 90s. Charles describes how this squat variation is popular with cyclists as a way to train and strengthen the quads and VMO.
Ultimately, cyclists need very strong quads to be successful, especially for indoor track cycling, so it’s likely cyclists have included such movements in their strength programs for years.
If you’re unsure about the effectiveness of training like a cyclist, just take one look at the quads of Olympic track cyclists and it’s clear to see they know how to strengthen the quads!
Are Cyclist Squats Good?
If your goal is to strengthen and build muscle in the quads then cyclist squats are definitely a good exercise to try. Compared to a normal squat, they will put more emphasis on the quads and less on the glutes and hamstrings.
Due to the ability to strengthen the VMO of the quad, the cyclist squat has not only earned its place in leg workouts, but also in physical therapy rehabilitation programs for knee pain.
The exercise may take a bit of time getting used to, so start slow and just focus on bodyweight repetitions first and only add additional weight once you feel comfortable.
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