BY DELAINE FRAGNOLI
P erhaps no part of a woman's anatomy suffers more self-scrutiny than her butt. "Too big" and "too flabby" is our collective hue and cry. And letting it all hang out on bike rides in leave-little-to-the-imagination spandex shorts doesn't do much to alleviate our cracked rear view.
But if we can stop judging the appearance of our backsides long enough to understand their anatomy and cycling physiology, we can find many reasons to appreciate the locomotive uses of our cabooses. In what may be the ultimate exercise of mind over matter, you can learn to love your butt, build it right, and use it to your advantage.
Your butt is the seat of your cycling power, so to speak. Among the largest and strongest of all muscle groups, the gluteals in your rump aid hip extension and rotation, helping you initiate strenuous movements like climbing stairs, squatting, and pedaling.
Much of the power of each pedal stroke comes from the gluteus maximus, which comes into play in a major way through the first 90 degrees of each push. Two other buttocks muscles, the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, provide balance during side-to-side weight shifts, such as when you're steering a bike--the lone case where a bum steer is a good thing.
We're designed to bear children, so it's our pelvic structure, rather than our musculature, that makes our butts look and work differently from men's butts. While each woman is shaped a bit differently, in general, a female pelvis is wider (relative to shoulder width) and more shallow than a male pelvis. Women's pelvises also tend to tilt at a greater angle. This increases the curve in our lower backs and makes our buttocks jut out more. Our backsides also seem larger than men's because we tend to store more fat in our hips and buttocks than they do. Blame it on that darn childbearing thing.
Speaking of childbearing, our pubic arches are wider (usually greater than 90 degrees, while men's are less than 90 degrees). This means that our ischial tuberosities or "sit bones"--the two main points that contact a bike seat--are farther apart. Also, our sit bones angle outward more, which contributes to this gender gap. This wider bone placement is why saddles won't support us correctly unless they're broader at the back.
Even the slightest anatomical differences between women and men can have significant effects on cycling comfort and performance. "Exactly what muscles you use, and when, will vary," says Andrew Pruitt, Ed.D., director of Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Colorado. "Activation of specific gluteal muscles depends on pelvic shape and size, the position of your pelvis over the bike's crankset, riding position, and bike setup--particularly saddle adjustment."
Here's the rub. Our "butt jut" rolls our pelvises forward on the saddles and weights our soft tissues. Long top tubes and rangy stems exacerbate the problem, forcing us even farther forward onto our genitals. Add to this our wider pubic arches and outward-angled sit bones, and it's no wonder that many women suffer untold torture when riding hard-nosed, skinny-tailed saddles on bikes sized for men.
Other aspects of our anatomy also affect riding posture. For instance, because of our relatively larger hips and butts, our strength and center of gravity are naturally distributed rearward. "Women, in general, sit more on their butts. They're heavy on the seat," says Christine Wells, Ph.D., author of Women, Sport, and Performance: A Physiological Perspective . "I tell them that cycling is not a sitting sport."
The short, high-rise stems that many women prefer, often as compensation for improper bike fit or poor upper-body strength, encourage this upright, anchored-to-the-saddle riding style. While it may temporarily seem more comfortable, in the long run this butt-heavy position can increase saddle soreness. Compared to leaning farther forward, sitting too upright is also apt to overwork the legs and underwork the glutes--a waste of muscle power.
Such a riding position adversely affects bike handling as well. Uneven, rearward weight distribution can compromise steering and handling. (Sit up straight the next time you climb a steep pitch, and you'll see how hard it is to keep the front wheel pointed ahead.) Double-check that your position is properly balanced by reviewing the guidelines in chapters 11 and 12.
Despite its strengths, however, your butt is not without its weak points. Dr. Pruitt notes that our wider hips cause our thigh bones to angle more when they connect our hips to our knees. This increases the angle at which the top of each femur fits into the hip, making us more prone to gluteal tendinitis, hip bursitis, and overuse injuries to our wide-hip-induced "knock" knees. Again, the way to limit the risks is to make sure your riding position is correct.
The Bottom Line
Now that you know what your butt can and can't do for you, what can you do for your butt? How can you better harness your seat of power and help it look and work its best?
If you're riding your bike, you're already improving your butt. "Next to cross-country skiing, cycling is probably the best exercise for the buttocks," says Dr. Pruitt, who has served as the medical coordinator for the national cycling team.
While it's "physiologically impossible," in Pruitt's words, to spot reduce, cycling coupled with sound nutrition can lead to overall weight loss. Stick with it, and you'll have a much better chance of transforming those "buns of puddin'" into "buns of steel."
You can further tone your hips and buttocks--and increase your strength and cycling performance--with weight training. Exercises for the glutes, abdominals, and lower back can improve your sprinting, climbing, and balance. Many women are reluctant to do lower-body weight training for fear that their butts will get even bigger. Relax. Several decades of research show that while women make similar strength gains as men while lifting weights, we lack the hormones to increase bulk.
Now that we have our worries behind us, let's move on to which exercises work best. "I favor multi-joint exercises that closely simulate the movements of cycling: stepups, squats, leg presses, and dead lifts," says Joe Friel, a masters racer and cycling coach who has written one of the most respected books for serious riders, The Cyclist's Training Bible .
Dr. Pruitt recommends that women do standing hip extensions as well. Work with a certified instructor at your local gym or health club to learn the proper techniques for these exercises.
In addition, strength training your upper body develops the muscles needed for an efficient riding position so you can use your butt to its best advantage. With a stronger upper body, a more forward-reaching position (within the limits of genital crunching) can be attained. A bent-forward position improves aerodynamics (more speed with the same effort), climbing efficiency (more gluteal muscle recruitment), and uphill bike handling (especially off-road); and it reduces the potential for saddle soreness by putting a bit more of your weight on the handlebar.
Finally, remember that the mind is stronger than the butt. On the bike, concentrate on the positive. Think of all the power and balance that your glutes give you. Visualize them getting stronger and you getting faster. See your butt. Be your butt. Love your butt.