Abs on the UP, Glutes on the DOWN

I had the opportunity to go on my 1st mountain bike ride of the season last Sunday morning. Yes, I am aware it is JUNE, but the snow has finally melted (we had over 7 FEET at arapahoe Basin in May) and you need to understand that I am usually a runner). In the cool morning 44 degree air I was reminded of the importance of my gluteal muscles (rather than just my quads) while climbing a technical hill which was clearly pushing my aerobic capacity. We have the opportunity to perform many bike fits in the office and treat many cycling ailments. We also train and retraing pedal stroke and one of our mantras (in addition to skill, endurance and strength) is “Glutes on the downstroke; Abs on the upstroke”. Meaning use your glutes to extend the hip from 12 to 6 o’clock and use your abs to initiate the upstroke. Quadricep (on the downtstroke) and hamstring dominance (on the upstroke) is something we see often and this mantra often proves useful in the “retraining process”.

I have been a fan of Ed Burkes work (“Serious Cycling” and “Competitive Cycling”) for years and have read (and lectured about) these books many times. In my effort to find a basis in the literature for my mantra, I ran across a paper (1) that seemed to substantiate, at least in part, the mantra. It is a small study looked at elite athletes that explores changes that occur in muscle recruitment as the body fatigues after a sub maximal exercise session.

Their conclusion “The large increases in activity for gluteus maximus and biceps femoris, which are in accordance with the increase in force production during the propulsive phase, could be considered as instinctive coordination strategies that compensate for potential fatigue and loss of force of the knee extensors (i.e., vastus lateralis and vastus medialis) by a higher moment of the hip extensors.”

This makes sense, although may be contradicted by this study (2), which showed LESS gluteal activity at higher mechanical efficiency, with increased tricep surae activity. They conclude “These findings imply that cycling at 55%-60% V˙O(2max) will maximize the rider’s exposure to high efficient muscle coordination and kinematics.”  Although this study looks at mechanical efficiency and the 1st lloks at muscle activity.

Being seated on a bike and having your torso, as well as hips flexed is not the most mechanically efficient posture for driving the glutes, but clinical observation seems to dictate that the less quad and hamstring dominant people are on the down and up stroke respectively, then the more pain free they are. This does not always equte to being the fastest, but it does equate to fewer injuries showing up in the office.

  1. Dorel S1, Drouet JM, Couturier A, Champoux Y, Hug F. Changes of pedaling technique and muscle coordination during an exhaustive exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Jun;41(6):1277-86. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31819825f8.
  2. Blake OM1, Champoux Y, Wakeling JM.  Muscle coordination patterns for efficient cycling. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 May;44(5):926-38. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182404d4b.

Sometimes, you just need to add a little pressure….

Cyclists are no different than runners; often when the effort is increased (or the conditions reproduced), the compensation (or problem) comes out.

Take a good look at this video of a cyclist that presented with right sided knee pain (patello femoral) that begins at about mile 20, especially after a strong climb (approx 1000 feet of vertical over 6 miles through winding terrain).

The first 7 seconds of him are in the middle chain ring, basically “spinning” ; the last portion of the video are of him in a smaller (harder) gear with much greater effort.

Keep in mind, he has a bilateral forefoot varus, internal tibial torsion, L > R and a right anatomically short leg of approximately 5mm. His left cycling insole is posted with a 3mm forefoot valgus post and he has a 3mm sole lift in the right shoe.

Can you see as his effort is increased how he leans to the right at the top of his pedal stroke of the right foot and his right knee moves toward the center bar more on the downstroke? Go ahead, stop it a few time and step through it frame by frame.  The left knee moves inward toward the center bar during the power stroke from the forefoot valgus post.

So what did we do?

·      Worked on pedal stroke. We gave him drills for gluteal (max and medius) engagement on the down stroke (12 o’clock to 6 o’clock) to assist in controlling the excessive internal spin of the right leg. Simple palpation of the muscle that is supposed to be acting is a great start.

·      Did manual facilitation of the glutes and showed him how to do the same

·      Worked on abdominal engagement during the upstroke (the abs should initiate the movement from 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock)

·      Manually stimulated the external oblique’s

·      Placed a (temporary, hopefully) 5mm varus wedge in his right shoe to slow the internal spin of the right lower extremity

·      Taught him about the foot tripod and appropriate engagement of the long extensors; gave him the standing tripod and lift/spread/reach exercise (again to tame internal spin and maintain arch integrity)

Much of what you have been learning (for as long as you have been following us) can be applied not only to gait, but to whenever the foot contacts anything else.

The Gait Guys. Experts in human movement analysis and providing insight into biomechanical faults and their remediation.

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Orthotics and Footbeds. What’s the difference?

Orthotics and footbeds, they’re the same thing, right? This is a question that is posed to us all the time.  No, they’re not the same, but oftentimes one or the other can be appropriate. To explain the difference, we need to understand a little bit about foot mechanics.

The foot is a biomechanical marvel.  It is composed of 26 bones and 31 articulations or joints.  The bones and joints work together in concert to propel us through the earth’s gravitational field.  It is a dynamic structure that is constantly moving and changing with its environment, whether it is in or out of footwear.  Problems with the bones or joints of the foot, or the forces that pass through them, can interfere with this symbiosis and create problems which we call diagnoses.  They can range from bunions, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, TFL syndrome, abnormal patellar tracking, and lower back pain just to name a few.

Before we go any further, we should talk a little bit about gait (ie walking pattern). Normal walking can be divided into 2 phases, stance and swing. Stance is the time that your foot is in contact with the ground. This is when problems usually occur. Swing is the time the opposite, non weight bearing foot is in the air.


The bones of the foot go through a series of movements while we are in stance phase called pronation and supination. Pronation is when your arch collapses slightly, to make your foot more flexible and able to absorb irregularities in the ground; this is supposed to happen right after your heel hits the ground. As your foot pronates, the leg rotates inward, which causes your knee to rotate in, which causes your thigh to rotate in, which causes you spine to flex forward. Supination is when your foot reforms the arch and makes your foot a rigid lever, to help you propel yourself; This is supposed to happen when you are pushing off with your toes to move forward. It is at this time that the entire process reverses itself, and your leg, knee, and thigh rotate outward and your spine extends backward. When these movements don’t occur, or more often, occur too much, is when problems arise. This can be due to many reasons, such as lack of movement between your foot bones (subluxation), muscle tightness, injury, inflammation, and so on.


Many people overpronate. This means that their arch stays collapsed too long while in stance phase, and they remain pronated while trying to push off. As we discussed, during pronation the foot is a poor lever. This means you need to overwork to propel yourself forward. This can create arch pain, inflammation on the bottom of the foot (plantar fascitis), abnormal pressure on your foot bones (metatarsalgia), knee pain, hip pain and back pain.


Skiing is a stance phase sport. While skiing, your foot stays relatively immobile in a ski or snowboard boot (i.e. it is not moving through a gait cycle). A footbed is designed to create a level surface for your feet and keep them in a neutral posture. It accomplishes this by “bringing the ground up to your foot.” They are generally custom designed to an individuals foot through many different methods. They work incredibly well (as long as the foot remains in a static posture) and many people extol the benefits and improvements in their snow sports when using these.


Running, hiking and cycling are more dynamic. Sports like these demand a device that changes the biomechanics, so here an orthotic would be most appropriate.


Orthotics are always custom made devices. They actually improve the mechanics of your foot and make it function more efficiently by altering the shape and function of the arch as the foot moves through various activities. They act like a footbed but have the added benefit of functioning while dynamic (i.e. moving) as well. This works as well or better than a footbed, and is usable in other sporting activities, such as running, biking, hiking, skiing or snowbaording. Many people use their orthotic in their everyday shoes, to help prevent some of the problems and symptoms they are experiencing.


In summary, a footbed supports the foot in a neutral posture. It is great for activities where your foot is static or held in one position. An orthotic supports the foot in a neutral posture and improves the mechanical function of the foot. It can be used in static or dynamic activities. Remember to always consult with a professional who is well versed with the mechanics of the feet, ankles, knees, hips and back, since footbeds and orthotics have a profound effect on all these structures.

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All material copyright 2013 The Gait Guys/ The Homunculus Group. All rights reserved.