If you want to make progress over the course of months and years, your training program needs to incorporate a variety of methods and exercises.
This is harder to do in a garage gym with limited equipment but learning simple variations of traditional movements will get you further than you think.
Over the next several posts, we'll explore different variations of squatting movements that can add variety to your programming and improve your results.
In this first post, we'll dive into how to perform my favorite complimentary squatting exercise -- the cyclist squat. Continue reading to learn what it is, how to perform the movement properly, what makes it different, and why it's so useful.
What Is the Cyclist Squat?
The cyclist squat is a squat variation performed with your feet very close together and your heels steeply elevated. The movement gets its name because your feet mimic the position that they’d be in if they were clipped into a pair of bicycle pedals. That is, close together and pointing straight ahead. The cyclist squat can be performed with the same gear (a barbell and rack) that you’d use for a standard back squat, with the addition of something to serve as a heel riser. The best choice to elevate your heels is a slant board, but these are generally pretty rare even in most commercial facilities, much less a home gym. More likely you’ll use either an aerobics stepper or a bumper plate. The most important things are that you have about 3” of elevation and that the riser is perfectly stable.
How to Perform the Cyclist Squat
To perform the cyclist squat, begin with the barbell racked high on your traps and your hands as close as you can reasonably manage with a full grip. As you step out of the rack, slowly, carefully find the riser with your heels. If you’re using a stepper or stack of plates, be sure that it’s only your heel that’s in contact with the edge of the riser. If the edge is too close to the arch of your foot, your foot may pivot on that edge in the same way that a teeter-totter pivots on the fulcrum. Having each end of your foot supported - heel on the riser, toes on the floor - makes for a much more stable base.
What Makes the Cyclist Squat Different
The key difference between the traditional back squat and cyclist squat is heel position. The cyclist squat has your heels in a steep elevated position. This removes ankle mobility as a limiting factor for how deep you can get into your squat.
If you’ve ever worn weightlifting shoes to perform a back squat, you may already have a sense that an elevated heel allows you to achieve a deeper squat. Same principal here, but to a more significant degree.
When you perform a standard back squat, your ankles (along with your hips and knees) need to bend significantly in order to get to full-depth. If your ankles can’t flex like they need to then the deepest ranges of the squat are going to be out of reach (along with the training benefits that come with it).
The heel elevation of the cyclist squat gives your ankles what you might think of as a head start. If you perform a back squat in flat-soled shoes, your ankles have to move from about a 90° bend at the top to a 60° bend at the bottom. But if you start with your heels elevated, now you begin with, say, 120° at the ankle. That means to cover the same distance from top-to-bottom, your ankles will only finish around 90° at the bottom. In other words, by propping up your heels at the TOP of the movement, it means that the BOTTOM of the movement isn’t any more challenging (with regard to ankle mobility) than simply… standing upright.
Why Adding the Cyclist Squat to Your Strength Program is a Good Idea
One of my favorite quotes from the great Charles Poliquin is “strength is gained in the range that it’s trained." You don’t automatically get stronger at a movement because you add it into your training program. You only improve at the specific parts of the movement that you practice. So if you’ve learned to stop at parallel with your back squat, then any ground below parallel is going to lag behind, and this is a big problem regardless of your training goal.
The perhaps-obvious first issue here is that if you ever have reason to get below parallel, either in the gym or in the real world, you might find yourself in some trouble. But it goes beyond that.
You may have heard a squat described as a ‘compound’ movement, which means that multiple joints are moving to complete the movement. From it follows that several different muscles have to work in tandem to get the work done. The thing is, these muscles (namely your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes) work in different proportions at different points along the range of motion. Your glutes and quads, for example, have the most work to do when you’re below parallel. This means that if you never train with full joint-range, these muscles don’t get properly trained. This is worrisome because muscles that are out of balance are inherently more susceptible to injury. And if part of your training goal is to improve your physique, training with incomplete ranges leaves certain muscles underdeveloped. Or to put it more simply: no depth, no booty.
What's Better: Standard Back Squat or Cyclist Squat?
I'm not saying the cyclist squat should replace your standard back squat. It’s simply another tool in your toolbox to be used when it’s appropriate. A good training program should incorporate a variety of movements and methods at various points of the cycle to make sure that every aspect of your training has been adequately addressed. Exactly when or how often is a complicated question that depends on multiple factors, but in the case of the cyclist squat you might start by adding it in as a complimentary exercise every three or four training cycles.
It’s very seldom that one exercise is better than another one. It’s much more about knowing the nuances about different exercises and understanding how these nuances pair properly with one another. A cyclist squat isn’t ‘better’ than a back squat any more than a steering wheel is ‘better’ than a gas pedal. They’re both important. And if you want to arrive at your destination safely and efficiently, it’s in your interest to understand how each of them work and when it’s best to use them.
About the Author
Noah Gabriel-Landis is a strength and conditioning coach in Portland, Oregon who has trained professional athletes, junior Olympians, and Miss Universe Finalists. His company Priority Strength provides coaching and workout programs specific to both home gyms and commercial facilities.