Cyclist squats have been identified as one of the most effective squat variations for targeting the quadriceps due to their narrow stance. A study titled “Effects of Stance Width and Barbell Placement on Kinematics, Kinetics, and Myoelectric Activity in Back Squats” found that cyclist squats with a narrow stance produced greater myoelectric activity in the vastus lateralis, one of the four quad muscles. This exercise is particularly beneficial for individuals with limited ankle mobility, as the elevated heel position during cyclist squats helps to compensate for this. To ensure proper form and maximize the benefits of cyclist squats, I have created a simple guide that includes instructions on how to perform the exercise correctly, the muscles targeted, useful tips and variations, and common mistakes to avoid.
To perform cyclist squats correctly, follow these steps:
Step One: Assume the Starting Position
Load an appropriate weight onto a barbell and place a 45-pound weight plate (or a squat wedge) on the floor behind you. Position the barbell on your upper back, unrack it, and step back. Place your heels closer than shoulder-width apart on the edge of the weight plate. Throughout the entire movement, ensure that your back remains straight.
Pro Tip: Before unracking the loaded bar, practice a few bodyweight cyclist squats with your heels on the weight plate. This will help you familiarize yourself with the foot placement and body alignment required for the exercise.
Step Two: Lower Into a Squat
Bend your ankles, knees, and hips to lower into a squat. The elevated heels allow for greater squat depth. Go as low as your mobility allows and hold the bottom of the squat for one second.
Pro Tip: Focus on keeping your knees aligned with your toes. The elevated heels can increase the tendency for the knees to drift inward, so it’s important to maintain proper alignment.
Step Three: Extend Your Ankles, Knees, and Hips
Extend your ankles, knees, and hips to return to the starting position. As you stand up, ensure that your back remains flat and your core is contracted to maintain stability and prevent injury. Avoid locking out your knees at the top of the range of motion (ROM) to maintain constant tension on your quads.
Pro Tip: Push through the balls of your feet on the concentric phase while keeping your heels on the elevated surface. This will maximize engagement of the quadriceps throughout the movement.
During cyclist squats, the primary muscles worked are the quadriceps and gluteus maximus. Additionally, the exercise also engages secondary muscles such as the adductors, hamstrings, calves, and erector spinae.
To get the most out of your cyclist squats, here are some helpful tips:
Controlled Descent: Descend into the deep squat position with control. Slow eccentrics will help you master the technique, activate more muscle fibers due to higher time under tension (TUT), and reduce the risk of potential injuries.
Squat Depth: Achieving proper squat depth is crucial for targeting the quads effectively. Many lifters try to compensate for limited ankle mobility by leaning forward, which compromises squat depth and places excessive stress on the lumbar spine. If you struggle with ankle mobility, stack multiple weight plates to elevate your heels and achieve better squat depth.
Progressive Overload: Gradually increase resistance, volume, frequency, and intensity to ensure progressive overload. This principle is essential for strength and hypertrophy training.
Breathing: Pay attention to your breathing technique during cyclist squats. Take a deep breath at the starting position and hold it during the eccentric phase of the exercise. Breathe out sharply on the concentric phase to maximize performance.
Common mistakes to avoid during cyclist squats include:
Improper Heel Elevation: Incorrect heel elevation can lead to poor posture and suboptimal quad activation. The purpose of elevating the heels during cyclist squats is to achieve greater squat depth, even with limited ankle mobility. Ensure that the weight plate or squat wedge you use is appropriate for your needs and allows you to safely enter the deep squat position without compromising form.
Too Wide a Stance: Cyclist squats are designed to target the vastus lateralis. However, a wider stance can shift the focus to the vastus medialis. Choose the narrowest possible stance that allows you to safely enter the bottom squat position without compromising form.
Excessive Forward Lean: Excessive forward lean during squats is often a result of poor dorsiflexion. Elevating your heels compensates for limited ankle mobility, but some lifters lean forward excessively due to lack of body awareness or a desire to rush through the exercise. Try looking up slightly during cyclist squats to help drive your butt down and shift the emphasis to the quads rather than the hamstrings and glutes.
Neglecting Core Engagement: Activating your core muscles is crucial for stability and balance during cyclist squats. Proper core engagement will also protect your spine and prevent back injuries. Stay conscious of your core muscles and keep them active throughout the entire movement.
Ignoring Individual Biomechanics: Everyone has unique biomechanics, including limb length, joint mobility, and muscle strength and flexibility. It’s important to consider these factors when performing cyclist squats. Adjust your stance width and angle, incorporate mobility exercises, and strengthen supporting muscle groups based on your individual needs. Progress gradually to avoid injuries and maximize results.
In addition to the standard cyclist squat, there are several variations you can incorporate into your exercise routine. One example is the bodyweight cyclist squat, which can be a great starting point for beginners or individuals who prefer to focus on bodyweight exercises.