More performance, without more training!

Muscular imbalances and inefficiencies are responsible for a great amount of energy wastage and performance loss. This is fairly obvious to most, but what isn’t so obvious and massively important, is a concept called proprioception. Proprioception is in effect a neuromuscular term that describes communication between the muscles and the brain via things called proprioceptors. They affect our lives in so many significant ways, from making you feel stable and ready to exercises in your old age, to controlling muscles over exaggeration in chronic pain sufferers (particularly of the knee and back). This is a huge topic which I could speak about for an age and will do so in the near future at CycleZone.

Proprioception can unlock another level of performance (in conjunction with good biomechanical function) and can allow an individual to use his or her potential to the fullest by earning your brain’s trust. I will attempt to simplify an extremely complex subject, in essence, your brain is inherently mistrustful of you as the driver of the vessel that is your body. So let’s say you cycle 10km at 40km/hr with a cadence of 90rpm. That’s a total of 90rpm x 15mins = 1350 revolutions. On every revolution you press down with a leg, that leg has many muscles working to generate that force to propel you forward. What you may not know is that while certain muscles are contracting to accelerate you forward, certain muscles are working against you to make sure that things don’t break. This is called an antagonistic contraction and it is present in almost all muscle orders we can issue to our body. Again for simplicity, take a contraction of the quadriceps muscle (thigh). There is an antagonistic contraction of the hamstring on the opposite side of the leg at the same time and its job is to decelerate the limb so you don’t injure yourself. This is actually how soccer/football players can injure a hamstring when kicking even though if you think about a kick it’s the thigh doing all the work. The hamstring is present as it is slowing the limb down to stop the kick once the job is done.  Professional soccer player are masters of proprioception – their brain trusts their body to exert maximum effort when striking the ball.

Back to cycling, so you are doing your 10km. You have 1350 revolutions to complete, you are pressing down onto the peddle using your thigh, you are generating 60kgs of force in your quads and 10kgs of resistance in your hamstrings. So your net power output is 50kgs into the peddle, but you had to pay the price of 70kgs. Your cycling partner however also generated 60kgs of force in her quads. But her proprioception was good. So her hamstrings only generated 2kgs of resistance, therefore the maths shows us that she has a resultant power output of 58kgs vs your 50kgs, and to add insult to injury only had to generate a total of 62kgs (vs your 70) to do it! Thereby conserving energy as well as dominating you. Let’s do a final sum. 58kgs x 1350 = 78 300 kgs in 15min vs 67 500kgs, so you are 13.8% behind a person of exactly your strength, height, weight etc with the only difference being neuromuscular communication.

So how can you train proprioception? There are many ways to do this effectively. One of the most convenient methods for doing that I have found when prescribing this to my athletes is to simply stand on one leg while brushing your teeth with your eyes closed. The lack of eyesight from the equation forces your proprioceptors to provide information on position and loads of muscular tension to the brain and the only outcome is interpret proprioceptive information or fall over. I do advise that when attempting to do this neuromuscular exercise you do not try it in a bathroom due to the nature of bathroom construction (slippery and sharp edges) but it gives you the idea of a basic proprioception exercise.

So those elite riders out there are not necessarily all that much stronger. They are more ‘highly tuned’, they have better mechanics and they have better neuromuscular facets – all via intelligent training.


Andrew Elliot is a biokineticist with Exercise Solutions and will be running individual and group based Strength and Conditioning sessions at CycleZone, which incorporate proprioception techniques and exercises. Andrew also conducts in depth biomechanical assessments at CycleZone Performance Lab.

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