Trusting our Cockpit

Trusting our Cockpit

by Coach Sarah

So much of our focus when training on the bike falls to the lower half of the body. Understandably so, as our legs/hips (and all muscles that comprise them) are our biggest power producers on the bike.

But, what if:

1) Lack of use of the upper body is actually INHIBITING your power potential in the lower half of your body?

And what if:

2) Focused training on the upper body could actually help you ride with more confidence, especially in situations where an aggressive stance is ideal? (i.e. Being in the drops on a descent on your road bike, or being on your aerobars in a strong crosswind on your Tri-bike).

In actuality, at least a third, if not more (depending on bike and hand-positioning in the given moment) of our body weight should be placed over the front of our bikes via handlebars or aerobars. Different rides demand different body positioning (sprinting, or climbing long gradual hills, or descending straight, steep hills, or riding in a pack….etc.), but for us triathletes, it’s important to spend time strengthening our upper bodies so we have total control of our bikes when riding aero.

Here are some general, personal observations I’ve made from a group rides, Computrainer classes, races, and ride events:

  • Newer riders are often times uncomfortable “going aero”, and the result is a twitchiness to their pedal stroke and overall rhythm. The result is that it can feel “unsafe” to ride amongst cautious riders, as their movements are not predictable.
  • Many riders sit upright to drink or take in nutrition, changing their pedal stroke and rhythm. And in some cases, they stop pedaling altogether and simply coast when going to drink. These leads to a couple less-than-ideal issues:
    • Sitting upright breaks aero, which of course causes deceleration. If other riders are riding behind someone, this sudden slow-up in pacing can cause an unsafe scenario if the trailing riders are not paying attention.
    • As going upright means changing position, this means a potential switch-up in the current rhythm/flow/cadence of the ride. Subconsciously, this upset to our rhythm can actually DETER riders from drinking if they are not completely seamless in this process.  This in turn leads to a gradual lack of hydration and caloric intake, both of which will cause their own issues as the ride or race progresses.
  • I’ve seen many, many riders who are deathly afraid of descending a hill. Their shoulders tense up, they clench their handlebars, they sit as tall as they can, creating massive deceleration, and they engage their brakes way too often while going down the hill.  Going aero, or riding in their drops (if on a road bike) is the last thing these riders would feel confident doing, and as a result they lose precious seconds and sometimes cumulative minutes in races.

So what exactly is going on in all these scenarios?  What is one element all of these situations have in common?  These riders, in every one of these cases, do not have complete trust and faith in their cockpits.  They are missing the fluid relationship between their upper body and lower body to continue propelling them forward with assuredness, confidence and deliberate purpose. 

The strength we have in our shoulders, chest, upper arms and forearms is KEY in riding.  If we train it, and use it, it WILL make us stronger riders in any and all situations.  If we do not train it, or use it, it will inevitably hold us back from reaching our potential.

Train the Upper Body.  Trust the Upper Body.

Here are some questions worth asking yourself:

  • Am I confident riding in crosswinds?
  • Am I confident drinking while pedaling?
  • Am I comfortable accelerating and pushing myself on straight downhills?
  • Can I drink while riding aero?
  • Can I switch back and forth easily between aerobars and bullhorns (tri-bike), or drops and hoods (road bike)?
  • Do I coast or continue pedaling when I go to take a sip of my drink?
  • Do I have a designated “go to hand” for grabbing my water bottle?
  • Can I find my water bottle/replace the water bottle in its cage WITHOUT LOOKING DOWN?
  • Can I drink in windy conditions, or do I need to pull over to do so?
  • Do I clench my hands and tense my upper body when going downhill?

If any of these questions or scenarios have you feeling a little nervous or anxious just imagining them, then odds are that you are not fully trusting your cockpit!

Great…now what??!  😊 I’m a big fan in giving black-and-white exercises in “how” to fix form.  So, here are some ways you can begin training your cockpit and using your upper body musculature to help you become a more confident rider in all the scenarios above:

On-the-bike (on an indoor trainer!!) Exercises:

  1. Sitting tall and upright, NO hands on the handlebars, engage your core while pedaling with MODERATE resistance (think small ring, harder gearing). Reach forward with your right hand only, and gently grab your right bullhorn or hood. Pedal 10-15 seconds.  Sit upright and repeat the process with your left hand only.
  2. Same as the above exercise, but now place your right hand/forearm on the right aerobar. Pedal for 10-15 seconds.  Sit upright and repeat the process with your left hand only.
  3. Assume your “race position” and start pedaling. With your eyes closed, ENGAGE YOUR CORE, then reach down for your water bottle with your right hand.  Remove it, take a sip, then work on replacing the water bottle with your eyes still closed.  Repeat the process with your left hand.
    1. **This is a good exercise to determine which hand feels more natural for grabbing your water bottle. What is really happening here, is that one hand will feel more natural at “controlling and steering the cockpit”, leaving the other hand available to reach down to grab/replace the water bottle.
  4. Sitting upright, no hands on the handlebars, pedal for 15-30 seconds. Engage your core (imagine someone was going to come a try to push you off of your saddle….engage your core in a way that you would be able to resist that.)  Activate your shoulders while keeping your arms and elbows relaxed, and lean forward to place both hands simultaneously on your handlebars.  Pedal 15-30 seconds. Try this with both your bullhorns and aerobars (tri-bike), or both your hoods and drops (road bike).
  5. Hoods to drops….Drops to hoods…Bullhorns to aerobars….Aerobars to bullhorns – Simply practice going back and forth from each to the other, 5x-10x over the span of 2-3 minutes. Engage your core before doing this, for a solid and firm foundation.  Activate your shoulders and chest muscles.  Keep your arms/elbows relaxed.  Loose jaw!
  6. Tall Torso/Ribs out of hips – Ride “tall” for a few minutes, trying to feel your upper body pulling out of your hips. This “release of upper body pressure” allows your lower body/legs to pedal with more power as they are less inhibited by extra unnecessary weight from our torsos.

On-the-bike (Outdoors) Exercises for Drinking while continuing to pedal:

  1. From your Bullhorns or Hoods, practice simply reaching down with one hand to your water bottle. Don’t worry about grabbing it initially, but rather just practice reaching for it.  Engage your core and activate your shoulder and chest muscles first to give you a stable platform from your upper body.  KEEP PEDALING!
  2. Next work on actually grabbing the bottle, taking it out, and replacing it. For those who feel nervous about this, make sure you have plenty of clear space ahead of you…this may mean a stretch of straight road with no stop signs or stoplights ahead.  Leave some space between yourself and the rider ahead of you if you are in a group setting.  Glance down to see where you are aiming before grabbing or replacing the water bottle if it helps.  Again, stable shoulders and stable chest muscles will make a huge difference here.  KEEP PEDALING!
  3. From your Drops or Aerobars, practice do the same thing as above, while continuing to pedal
  4. Progress this exercise to where you are actually taking a drink. 😊

Off-the-bike Exercises for building Upper Body Strength/Trust:

  1. Forearm Planks–
    1. Version 1: Hold this position for up to 1 minute.  Really concentrate on the stability at your shoulders and chest, along with your biceps.
    2. Version 2: Hold this position for 15-30 seconds.  Then go up on your right hand (making that arm straight), then additionally up on your left hand (also making it straight), then down on the right, and down on the left.  Repeat this process 8-10x total, switching the starting arm.  (So you are effectively going back and forth between a forearm plank and straight arm plank, changing the leading arm.  Try to keep your hips as stable as possible during this variation!)
  2. Side Planks—
    1. Version 1: Lay on your right side.  Then place your right hand on the floor directly beneath your right shoulder.  You can either place your left foot on top of your right foot, or you can stagger your feet if that’s easier.  Raise your body up so the only points-of-contact with the ground are your right hand and your right foot (and left foot, if staggered.)  Hold this position for :15-:60.  Repeat, but on your left side.  Focus on really stabilizing your shoulder girdle! 
    2. Version 2: Forearm is placed on ground, versus hand only.  Make sure your elbow is directly beneath your shoulder for a solid and structurally safe platform, and have your forearm at a perpendicular angle to your chest.  Hold this position for :15-:60.  Repeat, but on your left side.  Again focus on stabilizing your shoulder girdle!
  3. Forearm (Or straight arm)-to-side-plank combination—
    1. Start in either a forearm plank, or a straight arm plank, stabilizing your shoulders and chest, anchoring your core. Hold this position for :15-:30, then move directly into a Right-arm side plank (straight arm or forearm), holding the position for :15-:30, then moving back into forearm/straight arm plank for :15-:30.  Then move directly into a Left-arm side plank (straight arm or forearm), holding the position for :15-:30.  Then move back into one more forearm/straight arm plank for :15-:30.   PHEW!  Well done!  😊
  4. Chest Presses/Bench Presses using free weights on a stability ball, plates on a weight bar using a bench, or using an assisted machine . Err on the side of caution here if this is not part of your normal strength routine.  Always start with less weight than you can handle, as the effects will not be truly felt for 12-36 hours.
  5. Shoulder Presses using free weights on a stability ball, or a machine. Again err on the side of caution here if this is not part of your normal strength routine.  Always start with less weight than you can handle, as the effects will not be truly felt for 12-36 hours.
  6. Deltoid raises. Can be done using low-weight free weights (i.e. 5 pounds up to 12 pounds) or a machine.
  7. It’s always necessary to balance ourselves out, and work the opposing muscles groups to maintain an equal counterbalance. This means to also work the upper back/posterior deltoids/mid back via rowing machines, cable machines and/or free weights.

Downhill Trust

Much of “downhill riding confidence” on a road bike or tri-bike begins with a strong and stable upper body.  The more engaged our shoulder, chest, upper arm and forearm muscles are, the more we can trust our cockpit.  We drive our bikes downhill from the confidence in our upper body, while powering from our lower bodies.  The lower body follows suit, counter-balancing by placement of our bottoms/center of gravity.  (In many downhill cases, where the road is fairly straight ahead of us, pushing our bottoms farther back on the saddle while lowering the body to the bikeframe becomes the optimal position.)  There is much more to be said about the art of downhill riding, but to the point of this article, having a solid upper body platform that we trust innately to guide us, becomes absolutely imperative.

Wrapping Up

So I’ve thrown a lot at you here.  If you grab even a few points, that’s good.  The key thing is to have an innate awareness of our upper body platform as much as our lower body’s workload.  Looking for the unobvious is oftentimes where we stand to make gains in this sport.  I’d suggest spending some concentrated time focusing on WHAT your upper body is doing while riding.  See if you can notice muscles that have gone unutilized, or “quiet”, and work to engage them.  Try a few of these on-the-bike and off-the-bike exercises and see what subtle differences you begin to notice over the course of a few weeks.

Train the upper body.  Trust the upper body.  Happy Pedaling!

Sarah Wangerin is the Director of Cycling Programs and Massage Therapy at Experience Triathlon.   She is also a certified USA Cycling coach, USA Triathlon coach and Licensed Massage Therapist.   Learn more about Coach Sarah, Experience Triathlon and Experience Massage at

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