Pilates for Triathletes Bike Part II: The Pursuit of Apolo Ohno’s Legs

Apolo Ohno's Leg Strength for CyclingA few weeks ago, a patient of mine posted this photo to Facebook. She qualified for Kona this year and raced with the famous olympic speed skater, Apolo Ohno. At her PT session that morning we discussed lower leg biomechanics and the muscle development required to avoid injury during the next race season. I mentioned the leg muscles of professional cyclists and how their legs said: “Strength! Power!” A few hours later, she posted this photo with the caption: “Is it too much to ask to make my legs look like Apolo Ohno’s?” I instantly laughed and responded with: “Go speed skate for 20 years in a squat position and voila!” But, seriously, what is it about his muscular development that is key for a powerful cycle stroke? So glad you asked…

Muscles of Cycling

There are 11 muscles continually researched with EMG (electromyographic) studies.

  • Gluteus Maximus (1)
  • Quadriceps: vastus medialis (2), vastus lateralis (3), rectus femoris (4)
  • Hamstrings: biceps femoris long head (5), semimembranosis (6), semitendinosis (7)
  • Calf: gastrocnemius medial head (8) and lateral head (9), soleus (10)
  • Tibialis Anterior (11)

Well, that is a lot of muscles! And, it doesn’t even touch on all of the stabilizers: gluteus medius, transverse abdominis, posterior tibialis, etc. The muscles listed above continue to be researched because their strength, development and timing are crucial for an efficient cycle stroke. So, the big question: “Which of these muscles are the main power guys?”

Pilates for Triathletes: Leg Strength Cycling

Pilates for Triathletes: Leg Strength Cycling

The Big 5 Power Producers 

  • Gluteus Maximus (Glute Max)
  • Vastus Medialis, specifically it’s distal fibers: Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO)
  • Vastus Lateralis
  • Tibialis Anterior
  • Soleus

Note: All of these are monoarticular (cross only one joint) muscles.

The remaining 6 muscles are biarticular (cross 2 joints) and are more inconsistent as to when they activate during the cycle stroke. This inconsistency makes them unreliable as primary power producers but excellent helpers to balance the big 5 power players. This balance results in a synchronized, fluid, efficient, pain-free and strong cycle stroke. Isn’t this what every cyclist and triathlete is after? (Oh, and your legs look really good too!)

Clinically, the two cycling muscles usually out of balance are the Glute Max and VMO. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know I am a big fan of the Glute Max. This muscle is SO important and massively underdeveloped in almost everyone (athlete and non-athlete). In addition to a strong Glute Max, the VMO is a key player for optimal knee health and cycling power.

Two Common Cycling Injuries

  1. Patella Femoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS): pain inside or around the knee
  2. IT Band Syndrome: lateral knee or thigh pain

These two injuries are usually indicative of poor VMO and Glute Max strength.

VMO history

Pilates for Triathletes: Leg Strength CyclingThe VMO was first localized as a separate muscle in 1968. Until that time, it was considered as just “part of the quad;” isolating this specific muscle was ground-breaking research. The VMO acts as a medial stabilizer to the patella (knee cap) to keep the knee tracking correctly with the femur. The fibers run at an angle toward the patella, attaching to the quadriceps tendon. This angle gives the VMO leverage to stabilize against the strong vastus lateralis and rectus femoris. And, we know from research that these fibers have an increased angle in athletic populations (cool, huh?) For athletes, the median angle is 67.8º and for sedentary individuals the median angle is 53.6º. What does this mean? The increased fiber angle (or angle of pennation) allows for more muscle tissue to attach to the quadriceps tendon. More muscle tissue = more strength and power.

I mention the VMO because it has received some scrutiny over the past 10 years. The criticism: Why are we still doing VMO strengthening for knee pain? Many think this is an “old school” mentality and we need to look at the hip complex instead. When the VMO was first discovered in the 1960’s, rehabilitation centered around VMO strengthening for all knee issues. As the years continued, squats with a ball squeeze and the infamousPilates for Triathletes: Leg Strength Cycling straight leg raise (picture on left) became the main-stay of PFPS and IT Band Syndrome. Clinicians completely ignored the hip complex and so the pendulum has swung the other way. Here’s the deal. We need both. We need the Glute Max and the VMO. And, we need balance between these two.

So, why is Pilates a good choice to strengthen the VMO and Glute Max? Because Pilates teaches proprioception (body awareness) to these two muscles, better than anything I have found on the gym floor. And, with good awareness of muscle firing, the gym strengthening is 1000 times more effective. Let’s consider a squat for a moment.

Blog Activity

Stand up and perform a squat. What muscles do you feel? Likely your quad or thigh muscle. Maybe your hamstrings? Any glute? Do you feel the VMO?

Squats are very effective at strengthening the Glute Max and VMO, but only if you can feel them! Feel them? Most people only squat with their quadriceps and hamstrings and have absolutely no body awareness of the Glute Max or VMO doing any work. So, doing a bunch of squats is only going to make the quadriceps and hamstrings stronger; it WILL NOT develop the Glute Max or VMO. If you’re using squats to strengthen your legs for sport, but can not feel the Glute Max or VMO firing, you have a problem.

The lack of body or muscles awareness stems from the brain and muscle having communication issues. But, this is where Pilates steps in and works its magic. Pilates creates awareness to muscles and allows athletes to transfer that to strengthening, sport and function.

Russian Lunge/Splits. This is my favorite exercise to train awareness to the Glute Max and VMO at the same time. The lunge needs to be low and the leg needs straighten from 90° to have an optimal effect.

Pilates for Triathletes: leg strength cycling

© 2014 and Beyond. ALL BLOG CONTENT at duncansportspt.com by Lori Duncan PT


Lori Duncan, DPT, MTC, CPT is a respected Physical Therapist, Manual Therapist and Pilates instructor in Lafayette, CO. Lori is passionate about preventive physical therapy and education and is a nationally recognized presenter. She can be reached at [email protected]. You can also follow Duncan Sports Therapy + Wellness on Facebook & Instagram for more free tips and information.


Benjafield A, Killinback A, Robertson C, Adds P. An investigation into the architecture of the vastus medialis oblique muscle in athletic and sedentary individuals: an in vivo ultrasound study. Clin Anat. 2014.

Hug F, Dorel S. Electromyographic analysis of pedaling: a review. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2009;19:182-198.


  1. Dr David on November 19, 2014 at 1:23 AM

    Great article.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to Our Blog

* indicates required