Do One Leg pedaling drills help?
The idea of one leg (1-leg) pedaling drills can be a bit of a lightning rod topic in the bike world. If you’re not familiar with the idea, it consists of performing intervals on the indoor trainer (at least most people don’t try to do them outside on the road for safety reasons) by unclipping one foot from your pedals and turning the pedals over with one leg with a lot of push-pull done by the active leg.
The idea is that it can help create a more complete and round pedal stroke so that the cyclist is exerting power throughout the entire pedaling cycle. Some believe it critical to train the hip flexors and muscles that pull the leg up during the recovery phase (AKA the back side of the pedal stroke or when the pedal is rising back up to the top or twelve o’clock position). By training themselves to exert force on the back side of the pedal stroke they hope to eliminate any dead spots in the pedal stroke.
When you look at a graph of a cyclist exerting force on their pedal (something similar to the figure to the right), it will show that at the back of the pedal stroke during that recovery phase, the rider is pushing down on the pedal even as it’s rising. So they are exerting a negative force on the pedal.
Why do we consider it negative? Because as one foot is recovering and rising back to the top of the pedal stroke, the opposite pedal is being forcefully (hopefully anyway) pushed down. If the recovery foot is also pushing down then it’s resisting the effort put out by the active (down-pushing) leg.
So the back/passive side of our pedal stroke is subtracting from the more powerful, active side that’s moving from twelve o’clock to three o’clock (in the case of the right leg).
This was one of the main reasons people initially dove into 1-leg pedaling drills. If we could even out our pedal stroke and exert a positive force on the recovery side, then that’d be ideal and we’d really boost our power output.
Problem is, it doesn’t work like that. Period.
A few reasons. Turns out that in order to completely neutralize negative forces on recovery, a lot of effort needs to be put into it. As in….A LOT. Enough that it tends to upset the energy balance and we fatigue more rapidly. Even getting past this point and building up endurance for this type of pedaling style (remember, lots of pulling up) will decrease the amount of pushing down on the active side of the pedal stroke. So now a rider may in fact be pulling up enough to eliminate the negative forces on their recovery, but the power exerted on the active side has decreased (and usually by a greater amount than what was added on the recovery side) and that rider is worse off than they were before.
Our quadriceps, gluteals and other hip extensors are so much stronger pushing down than our hip flexors and associated muscles ever could be in pulling up, primarily because we are weight-bearing creatures and we’re always using the bigger quads/gluteals to fight gravity as we move. The next time you go to the gym to work out, think about how you’d rather move 200 pounds of weight — on the leg sled as pictured on the left or the knee raise (hip flexor) machine on the right?
Another strike against trying to totally eliminate negative forces might be looking at the professional. Even the best and most efficient pedalers in the world exert some negative force on their recovery stroke. All of the them.
So One Leg pedaling drills are a waste of time, right?
Well….maybe not. At least for some athletes. There is no research to back this up, but it’s just something I’ve seen in my work as a PT and working with clients from the professional level down to the lowliest age-groupers:
When a cyclist attacks 1-legs drills in a certain way (which I’ll outline below) I’ve found that, at least partially the smoother pedal stroke that results can also result in better endurance (especially with climbing) and improved power output.
But you just got done saying that pulling up on the back-stroke is a fool’s errand, I hear you saying. I know, but I don’t find that the improvement comes from the act of pulling up on the pedal. I believe it comes from improved coordination throughout the lower extremity. The hips and the knees to a lesser extent, and at the ankle to a much greater extent.
In a related vein, I get asked a lot, What position should my ankle be at different points of the pedal stroke? or What’s the proper way of ankling when I pedal? I answer these questions this way:
You shouldn’t think about it. At all.
You shouldn’t actively/consciously think about it anyway, because its a waste of time. Our pedal stroke, when most efficient is moving much too fast for us to consciously make corrections in the exact angle of our ankle even when focusing on only a couple different spots in the pedal stroke.
This is why I like to use 1-leg drills to functionally train proper ankle movement. If the focus is placed on speed and cadence rather than forceful pulling up, the 1-leg drill changes from a force or power exercise into a coordination exercise. If you do the 1-leg drills this way, your ankle will go where it should go. Sounds simplistic, and it is. It’s a great way to refine our pedal stroke and improve our lower extremity mechanics.
Unlike focusing on “push/pull” and making the elimination of negative pedal forces our main goal which subtracts from our ability to generate power with our lead or active leg, because we’re focusing on cadence and coordination there won’t be a negative effect on active power generation.
A few notes, rules, and instructions on how to get the most out of 1-leg drills:
- Do them in an EASY gear. This is a departure from most cycling-specific drills, but it is the key to doing these correctly. Start in the small chainring in front and anywhere from the 2nd to the 4th biggest cog in back. The easier the gear, the faster the cadence. The faster the cadence, the harder this exercise becomes.
- Do one leg and then the other. When you’ve done each leg once, this makes up “1 set”.
- Try to get in 50 pedal strokes in 30 seconds. This is your goal and (if you’ve done your basic math) it works out to a cadence of 100 rpm. I simply have a timer set and I just count out 50 times my foot hits the 12 o’clock position.
- With my athletes, I tell them to do at least 3 sets of these any time they do a workout session on the trainer. You certainly can make them the focus of some workouts though and do up to 10 sets.
- It should be a challenge to keep a smooth pedal stroke through the interval. If you’re doing it correctly, as you fatigue you might notice your leg hitting no resistance toward the top of the pedal stroke and then it might “clunk” forward as it engages the drivetrain again. This means that the drivetrain (and freehub more specifically) is moving faster than your leg can in it’s fatigued state. This is good — it’s a sign that you’re challenging your legs and making them work harder to remain coordinated for a longer period of time.
- As your proficiency improves with this drill you’ll notice that the “clunking” occurs less, you’ll get in more revolutions in the 30-second time limit, and you might even be able to do them in an easier gear.
By focusing on an easy gear, speed, and high cadence we’ve taken this strength exercise and turned it into coordination training that can make you a more efficient pedaler.
He lives with his wife and two kids and runs multiple businesses in Grand Junction, Colorado.