Follow these four cycling climbing tips to transform your climbing on the bike — you might even keep up with the local group on those tough ascents.

You’re riding with your local group or a friend, and suddenly their voice gets further and further away — you begin breathing at an uncomfortable rate, you start rocking side-to-side and up and down, and you don’t know where to place your hands on the bars for maximum power and comfort.

Improving your cycling climbing will make cycling more enjoyable. You’ll also be able to keep up with local riders and not have to shout ahead, telling them that “you’ll catch up on the downhill.” 

Avoid grinding to a halt and witnessing your form break down by improving your climbing — there are numerous ways to do it, but we’ve got four tips to help you tackle those tough climbs without straying away from the group. 

How to improve your climbing on the bike 

There are several things you can do to improve your climbing, from choosing the right gear ratios to improving your hill climbing technique, fuelling correctly, and off-bike training, such as strength and conditioning exercises.

So, whether you’re planning a trip to the mountains or you’d like to attempt a Tour de France effort on one of your favourite climbs, we’ve got you covered.

Some ways to get better at cycling climbing are more obvious than others, but we recommend the following:

  1. Start strength training 
  2. Improve your VO2 Max and anaerobic power 
  3. Focus on technique 
  4. Prioritise training your core 

Continue reading to find out more about each method — you’ll go from being out of breath to admiring the beauty of a steep gradient.

Start strength training 

We know we should do it, but for many cyclists, the thought of lifting weights in the gym is not as exciting as riding your bike. 

Although, as little as three weeks of strength training can improve strength on the bike and cycling efficiency [3]. A period of eight weeks plus, however, is more likely to show better results, including improvements in maximal strength and power output, cycling efficiency and economy, and increased time to exhaustion while cycling [7,10].

Basic exercises to get started include the leg press, half squats, and body weight exercises such as hanging knee raises.

However, if you’re unsure where to begin or how to perform each exercise, you can check out our top gym exercises for cyclists with expert cycling strength coach, Dr Aaron Turner.

Improve your VO2 Max and anaerobic power

Aerobic training is the main energy system used by road cyclists. But often, many people forget that in any one given ride, you also tap into the anaerobic energy system multiple times — especially when tackling those steep climbs. Both aerobic and anaerobic power are important determinants of cycling performance [9]. 

VO2 Max, on the other hand, is your maximal uptake of oxygen during maximal exercise [4]. It’s a common measurement taken to determine the size of an athlete’s aerobic engine and potential. 

To increase your VO2 Max, perform zone 2 training — including long rides — paired with shorter efforts at or slightly above your functional threshold power (FTP). Likewise, to improve your anaerobic power on the bike, perform short sprints and efforts at 120% your FTP.

It should be noted that strength training also improves cycling economy and time-trial performance [10] — another reason not to skip off-bike training. 

Improving your aerobic and anaerobic energy systems will equate to better climbing when cycling.

Focus on technique 

Technique matters — but you might only notice this once you’re fatigued. You know the signs, so why not focus on improving your technique so you can minimise fatigue and maximise performance for better cycling climbing on the bike.

When you reach a climb, should you sit or stand? Current research finds body position (seated vs. standing) to have an insignificant effect on external efficiency and economy when cycling for 6 minutes at 75% of peak power output [5]. But most notably, standing products a greater force per pedal, perhaps the better option on intense gradients.

Switching between the two positions is likely the better option — it recruits different muscles, standing helps tackle those short but steep gradients, and alternating between in and out of the saddle recruits different muscle groups to combat fatigue. 

You’ll also want to select the right gearing to adopt a preferred cadence on the climbs — although typically, you’ll want a higher cadence to avoid grinding (unless you’re stimulating a lower cadence to encourage the recruitment of more muscle fibres for training purposes).

Prioritise training your core to improve your climbing 

While the above tips are the usual prescribed methods for improving your climbing, one of the more overlooked training aspects is specialised core training. Instead of leaving core exercises to the end of a regular strength session, you should train them individually and like you would any other muscle for better results.

Prioritising specialised core training, such as targeting the musculature around the hip and trunk, equates to improved trunk and hip stability in cyclists [6]. The lumbopelvic-hip complex (LPHC) serves as a direct energy transfer along the kinetic chain — improve stability and strength in these areas to directly improve postural control and energy transfer [2]. 

You’ll also reduce your risk of injury by reducing fatigue on the bike, i.e. you’re less likely to practice poor cycling mechanics when tired [1]. 

Good starting exercises include the bird dog, single-leg deadlifts, a standard plank, and a side plank [6,7]. But if you’d like further advice, guidance, and an explanation of how to perform each exercise, check out the RCA guide to stronger hill climbing below.

Download the RCA guide to stronger hill climbing

If you want to improve your cycling climbing, whether for a hill climbing championship or more comfort climbing your local hills, then focus on the tips outlined in this article. But most notably, consider implementing specialised core training into your training for better climbing performance.

Training your core will pay dividends on the bike and to your climbing, by limiting the breakdown of technique and form, while improving your energy transfer to the pedals.

And if you’re unsure where to begin or what core exercises to do, you can download the RCA guide to stronger hill climbing e-book.

References:

  1. Abt, J.P., Smoliga, J.M., Brick, M.J., Jolly, J.T., Lephart, S.M. and Fu, F.H., 2007. Relationship between cycling mechanics and core stability. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 21(4), pp.1300-1304.
  1. Kibler, W.B., Press, J. and Sciascia, A., 2006. The role of core stability in athletic function. Sports medicine36(3), pp.189-198.
  1. Louis, J., Hausswirth, C., Easthope, C. and Brisswalter, J., 2012. Strength training improves cycling efficiency in master endurance athletes. European journal of applied physiology, 112(2), pp.631-640. 
  1. Marsh, A.P. and Martin, P.E., 1997. Effect of cycling experience, aerobic power, and power output on preferred and most economical cycling cadences. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 29(9), pp.1225-1232. 
  1. Millet, G.P., Tronche, C., Fuster, N. and Candau, R., 2002. Level ground and uphill cycling efficiency in seated and standing positions. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 34(10), pp.1645-1652. 
  1. San Emeterio, C., Cochrane, D., Guillén-Rogel, P. and Marín, P.J., 2022. Short-term effects of lumbopelvic complex stability training in elite female road cyclists. Journal of Musculoskeletal & Neuronal Interactions, 22(1), p.62.
  1. San Emeterio, C., Menéndez, H., Guillén-Rogel, P. and Marin, P.J., 2021. Effect of cycling exercise on lumbopelvic control performance in elite female cyclists. Journal of Musculoskeletal & Neuronal Interactions, 21(4), p.475.
  1. Sunde, A., Støren, Ø., Bjerkaas, M., Larsen, M.H., Hoff, J. and Helgerud, J., 2010. Maximal strength training improves cycling economy in competitive cyclists. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(8), pp.2157-2165. 
  1. Tanaka, H., Bassett Jr, D.R., Swensen, T.C. and Sampedro, R.M., 1993. Aerobic and anaerobic power characteristics of competitive cyclists in the United States Cycling Federation. International journal of sports medicine, 14(06), pp.334-338. 
  2. Vikmoen, O., Ellefsen, S., Trøen, Ø., Hollan, I., Hanestadhaugen, M., Raastad, T. and Rønnestad, B.R., 2016. Strength training improves cycling performance, fractional utilization of VO2max and cycling economy in female cyclists. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in sports, 26(4), pp.384-396.