Climbing Hills- Technique and Tactics
By Chuck Graziano, Inspired Performance Multisports

Anatomy of Cycling
Cycling uses all of the muscle groups of the body, despite common perception that the legs are the only important muscle groups to focus on.

  • Traps, Deltoids, Rhomboids, Triceps and Biceps stabilize the handlebars and counter the forces of the legs exerting huge forces on the pedals.
  • Core muscle groups allow for stabilization of the upper body against the lower body.
  • The calf muscles (Soleus and Gastrocs) stabilize the ankle and foot so that force is efficiently transferred to the pedals through the foot.
  • The major muscle groups in the legs propel the bike forward and can only do so efficiently if energy is not lost through a weak core or upper body.

The revolution of the pedals is broken down into phases, with different muscles in the legs acting as the primary movers in each of the phases:

  • The “sweet spot”, which normally runs from about 1 o’clock to 6 o’clock is powered by the Gluteal muscles.
  •  At 6 o’clock, the hamstrings pull the pedal back and up toward the sweet spot.
  •  At about 11 o’clock, the Quadriceps push the pedal forward and over the top and back to the sweet spot, where the Gluteal muscles fire powerfully through the sweet spot.

When looking at a Spinscan image on a Computrainer, it’s obvious that the most power is generated through this sweet spot range. Pedaling “in circles” means to utilize all of the muscles effectively to optimize the level of power throughout the cycle. The ideal Spinscan image is shaped like a peanut, reflecting high power sweet spots in the wide ends of the peanut and reduced but optimized power in the waist.


Strength Training- Whole body

It goes without saying that, in light of the above; a program of full body strength training will enhance cycling performance significantly. I recommend doing primarily functional strength work and avoiding machines wherever possible. The classes that are offered at Velocity Sports Performance or similar programs are focused more on this type of training than on strictly pumping iron. Still, pumping iron is beneficial. For those under the age of 40, strength training 3 days per week in the off season and reducing to twice or once during the later parts of the training season and into the racing season is recommended. For those over 40 and women of all ages, strength work should continue at least twice per week year- round. Routines that should be included in your strength work include:


·         Squats or Leg Press ·         Triceps Extensions
·         Leg Extensions ·         Upright or Seated Rows
·         Leg Curls ·         Abdominal Crunches
·         Lateral Pull Downs ·         Abdominal Twists
·         Chest Press ·         Planks- Front, Left and Right
·         Biceps Curls



Bike type- Tri Bike v. Road Bike

A question that I’m always asked and one that is frequently debated is whether it’s best to use a Tri-Bike or a Road Bike on a hilly course. Tri Bikes (also known as Time Trial Bikes) are designed for one purpose: to go straight and fast on a relatively flat road. The geometry of a Tri Bike makes it much more reactive (and therefore less stabile) than a road bike and the position that the rider is placed in puts more emphasis on the Quadriceps engagement. A Road Bike has a geometry that is a more “relaxed” position, placing the rider further back (behind the bottom bracket relative to a Tri Bike) and allowing for more effective use of the Gluteal muscles in combination with the Quads. Road bikes also have handlebars that provide more effective hand positions for climbing. There are lots of other factors that distinguish one type of bike from another, but suffice it to say that in my opinion, you would be far better off on a Road Bike when riding on hilly terrain.


Burning a Match

Road cyclists refer to any surge or attack as “burning a match”. There are only so many matches in the book, and so pro riders need to know what intensity/duration constitutes a match and how many they have, given their fitness level. I also like to compare these surges to a turbo charged engine. You can get some pretty good gas mileage from a turbo as long as you stay within your “zone” and just cruise along. But if you move left and gun it to pass someone, your gas mileage goes way down. Although the rapid acceleration feels good, and you aren’t really aware of the long term impact, if you pass too many people, or do too many rapid starts and stops, you’ll wind up in a gas station a lot sooner than if you stayed in your zone. So, as you climb hills, you can regulate your zone. Certainly, if you have a power meter and watch it as you climb, your power output is going to increase, but if you attack the hill, it will increase a whole lot more (as the turbo kicks in). That’s burning a match and, although it may feel fine (now), come later in the ride, your legs may feel a bit differently about those hills you attacked earlier in the day.

So my recommendation is this: Unless you’re doing a pretty short ride and can afford to attack the entire ride, stay within, say 20 or 25% of your planned power average when climbing. If you don’t have a power meter, you have to estimate based on perceived exertion. Watching your heart rate monitor will not work, since your heart rate lags effort by two or more minutes. Being a bit conservative in this manner will without question pay off in the later miles.

Riding Position

When climbing, you can use a tactic that will widen the sweet spot significantly. First, scoot back in the saddle. This will put you further behind the bottom bracket. Next, drop your heel early as you lift the pedal through the back of the pedal cycle (6 o’clock to 11 o’clock). Scooting back and dropping your heel will result in power being generated through the mid-foot rather than the “toe box” and also provide for an early engagement of the Gluteal muscles in conjunction with the Quads. The result will be a sweet spot that with an extended range that starts at about 11 o’clock rather than 1 o’clock! Another “position tactic” is to imagine that your pelvic area is a pitcher of water and the spout is in front. Tilt the pelvis forward as if to pour water from the pitcher. Maintain a firm grip on the brake lever hoods. This will provide for maximum stability and transference of power.

Seated or Standing

A common question about climbing: Should I stay seated, or climb out of the saddle. Generally speaking, you use too much power inefficiently when you’re out of the saddle. That being said, it may be that you have to stand out of the saddle in order to stay on top of your gear. Otherwise, standing should be saved for that last surging attack at the finish line!


Hills make riding both challenging and fun. Applying good tactics and technique to your climbing will increase the fun factor exponentially. Being ineffective in the hills can make a ride torturous and take the enjoyment out of riding. Don’t make gravity your enemy. It will win every time!


Chuck Graziano is an endurance sports coach and owner of Inspired Performance Coaching. Chuck has written numerous articles on endurance training, which have been appeared in several publications including “Inside Triathlon” magazine. He is a USA Triathlon Expert Level (II) certified coach, is a Training Bible Elite Level Coach and is a Level III Alpine Ski Coach, as certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America. For information about this article or other training questions, contact