Forgotten Exercises: Cyclist Back Squats

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Just this week we spoke about Dr. Karl Klein and his 1960s research on the back squat. As a quick reminder, Klein found that squatting below parallel or pushing the knees over the toes was detrimental to the knee’s stability and long term health. Klein and those following in his wake advised against full range of motion and stressed the fact that knees were not to go over the toes when squatting.

Though discredited in later decades, Klein’s ideas are still prevalent and are perhaps the cause of contemporary fears surrounding the back squat. Disregarding everything that Klein fought against, today’s post looks at the Cyclist Back Squat, an often neglected exercise that not only requires squatting below parallel, it necessitates bringing knees over the toes (Gasp!). Today we’re going to examine what this exercise is, what its origins are and why you should include it into your own training.

Cyclist Back Squats

The exercise’s name admittedly hints at its origins but we’ll get to that point shortly. First we have to discuss the correct technique.

Begin by placing the heels on an elevated surface, ideally a wedged board but steps, barbell plates and anything else you might use can work just as well. Feet are narrowly separated, roughly a gap of 4-6 inches between them. Keeping the chest up, squat down and push the knees as far forward as possible.

Kim Jones does a great job of explaining it.

Origins

Now if you watched the above video you’ll have heard Kim Jones credit Charles Poliquin with this exercise. Stemming from Poliquin’s 1997 book ‘Poliquin Principles‘, the Cyclist Squat has for many become synonymous with the regularly praised and regularly criticised Poliquin.

I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy of the original work so here is the Cyclist Squat as described by the Strength Sensai himself

Olympic-level cyclists use these to attain world record performances in track events. In this variation of the back squat, you want to use a board to rest your heels on in an narrow stance (four to six inches between the heels). The best type of board to use for this is wedged, so that the pressure on your foot arch is minimal. The higher the wedge, the more recruitment of the vastus medialis you will get. You will also find that you will squat more upright when using the wedged board so less recruitment will occur in the gluteal muscles (p. 71).

Did Poliquin invent the exercise? It is difficult to say. Lifters had of course, long been squatting with a board or their heels elevated. Likewise trainers such as Vince Gironda had promoted the Sissy Squat for reasons similar to Poliquin (targeting the vastus medialis and lowering the involvement of the glutes).

What Poliquin most certainly did do was promote the exercise to a mass audience. For this alone he deserves credit.

Using the Cyclist Squat

Why should one try the Cyclist Squat?

Similar to Kim Jones, I suffered through several years of knee problems owing to weak vastus medialis (‘VMO’) in both legs. My back squat was strong but it was glute and not quad dominant. More of the same was not going to fix it. I needed to strengthen the quad muscles, in particular the VMO.

The Cyclist Squat is a fantastic way of isolating the vastus medialis, the ‘tear drop’ portion of the quad muscles. Several months of cyclist squats helped lessen the knee pain that was forcing me to wear knee sleeves every time I walked. So from personal experience the exercise has great rehabilitative elements.

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For the general weightlifting and bodybuilding populace, this exercise is nothing short of fantastic for bringing greater definition and size to the quad muscles. While several exercises target the VMO, some of which we have covered previously like the Sissy and Hack Squat, I find that issues of balance or appropriate loading can be problematic. What I like about the Cyclist Squat is that it’s simple, but not easy, to perform. You can progressively increase the weight and unlike the hack squat machine, it mimics the plane of a normal squat.

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For those interested in trying it out my favourite method revolves around slow tempos and high reps. Try a 4 second eccentric (lowering phase) for 10 reps and see what you think. Chances are you’ll understand what I mean about it targeting the VMO.

So what are you waiting for? Try it out and let us know how you get on in the comments below.

As always…Happy Lifting!

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