Cyclist Squats for Beginners and Advanced Trainees

By Matt Walter
Published on:
Cyclist Squat

You’ve probably heard the long-standing advice that your knees should never travel in front of your toes when squatting. I’m about to blow that perception clean out of the water with cyclist squats.

Cyclist squats purposefully push your knees in front of your toes. But with the addition of a slant board, bumper plate, or a block of wood, you are able to get into this position without excessive pressure on your knees or low back.

Cyclist squats are an incredible movement for targeting the lower portion of your quadriceps muscles, give you an additional compound movement you can add to your leg training routine and can be used by anyone looking for a great lower body workout at home without equipment!

Here is how you do them safely and effectively.

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Table of Contents

Video: Marcus Filly Explains How to Perform Cyclist Squats

How to Perform the Cyclist Squat

Cyclist squats can be performed with your bodyweight only, with a single dumbbell or kettlebell held in the goblet position or over one shoulder, with two kettlebells or dumbbells held in the front rack position, or with a barbell in either the back or front rack.

Or any other variation you’d like to hold the added weight.

The only real standard suggestion I have for adding weight is to rack a barbell high on your traps if you are performing cyclist squats like a back squat. Do not hold the barbell in the low-bar squat position.

Step-by-Step Instructions:

Step 1: Set up your slant board or heel-elevating platform and position it behind you

Step 2: Get your weight (barbell, kettlebell, or dumbbell) into your desired position

Step 3: Carefully step back onto your slant board or riser with both feet close together and toes pointed straight ahead

Cyclist Squat Starting Position

Step 4: Begin your squat by bending at the knees, not at the hips

Step 5: Let your knees pass in front of your toes as you squat to the lowest depth you can comfortably and safely reach

Cyclist Squat Completion

Step 6: Maintain a fully upright torso throughout the descent

Step 7: Pause slightly at the bottom before reversing the movement and returning to a fully standing position

Step 8: Repeat as many times as necessary

Remember, the goal of the cyclist squat is to specifically target the VMO. Any forward lean will shift the emphasis from the VMO to the lower back and glutes. You want to maintain a fully upright torso, almost leaning back like a sissy squat.

This definitely means that you will need to start out using far less weight than you think you can. This is also why I prefer a KB or DB goblet-style hold or front rack position with KBs, DBs, or a barbell, as opposed to the barbell held on the back or in the overhead position.

The barbell held on the back or overhead tends to force people to lean forward, shifting the emphasis of the movement and diminishing its effectiveness.

Add Variety With the Cyclist Squat

If you want to make continue making progress month after month, year after year, you’re going to need to have some kind of variety in your strength training program.

Variety not only keeps your muscles guessing and adapting, but it’s boring doing the same old exercises workout after workout.

You don’t want to get caught up in shiny-object syndrome, bouncing from exercise to exercise without ever getting the benefits from each one, but gym burnout is real and it’s hard to make any gains if you stop hitting the weights entirely.

My favorite way to add variety to your routine, especially if you train and home and have limited equipment, is to take the standard movements like squats, pull-ups, and bench presses and find challenging new variations.

The cyclist squat is a squat variation that focuses specifically on the lower quadriceps muscles, especially the vastus medialis oblique (VMO). They can be used in place of any squatting movement, or as an addition to your leg routine.

What Is the Cyclist Squat?

The cyclist squat is performed with your feet very close together, (4 to 6 inches between your heels), sometimes even touching, and your heels steeply elevated.

The movement was originally used by Olympic-level cyclists because the positioning mimics the way cyclists’ feet look when they’re clipped into their pedals; toes pointed straight ahead and down, heels raised, knees in front of toes.

It was Charles Poliquin, however, who popularized the movement in his 1997 book, The Poliquin Principles. He described using cyclist squats to target the lower muscles of the quadriceps near the knee.

You can perform the cyclist squat anywhere that you normally perform other squat movements, such as in a squat cage, rack, or the center of a room. All you need is something to raise your heels.

The best and most stable way to elevate your heels is with a slant board. You’ve likely never seen one of these at your local gym, and it’s even rarer to actually own one, but they are gaining in popularity.

The wedged shape of the slant board takes the pressure off your foot arch and allows the heels to be comfortably raised well above the height of the toes. The higher the wedge, the more emphasis is placed on the vastus medialis (VMO).

The slant board also allows you to more easily maintain a fully upright torso as you squat, which keeps the emphasis on the VMO and away from your glutes.

The slant board above from The Slant Board Guy is the one I recommend. It’s definitely more expensive than others, coming in at around $130. I like that it doesn’t fold (I want a sturdy foundation so I can add as much weight as I want, not something that might accidentally fold on me), it’s incredibly sturdy and grippy, and it’s the one that Kneesovertoesguy and Marcus Filly use (use see him explain how to do cyclist squats in a minute).

If you don’t have a slant board, the best alternative I’ve found is to prop a weight or bumper plate up on a heavy dumbbell. Hex-style dumbbells are definitely preferred here because they won’t roll away on you. Or you can use a step-box, block of food, or any other stable structure that will comfortably elevate your heels.

You’re aiming for roughly 3-inches of elevation from your toes to your heels.

Wait, I Thought Your Knees Weren’t Supposed to Pass Your Toes?!!

Yes, your knees can go in front of your toes! Look at any child sitting in the bottom of a squat all day long, their knees comfortably sitting well past their toes. And then they just stand up!

Children have the ability to sit into a deep squat for long periods of time

The idea that your knees should not go in front of your toes goes all the way back to the 1960s and Dr. Karl Klein.

Dr. Klein studied the back squat and determined that squatting below parallel or allowing the knees to travel in front of the toes reduces knee stability and long-term health.

And so a new era of squatting was born. One in which you were advised to not squat below parallel and to never let your knees pass in front of your toes.

Yeah, you can build a good quality set of legs that way, but just think about the mobility we lost by not training our legs through a full range of motion. We all had the ability to get into and out of a rock bottom squat as kids. We don’t just lose that because we get older, we lose it because we don’t train it.

I remember learning to squat. My dad was an avid lifter and coached every sport imaginable. When it was time for me to learn how to squat I was given a broomstick and a wall. My dad had me stand with the toes of my shoes touching the wall and the broomstick on my back. I was to squat down to parallel without my knees touching the wall.

He had me do this regularly for months before I ever got to put a barbell on my back. On the positive side, I learned how to hinge at the hips, how to balance the back squat, and I earned a strong powerlifting-style back squat.

Luckily for me, I’ve always been very mobile and stretchy. And I was a wrestler, so I spent a good portion of my life in hyper-mobile positions.

But I look at friends my age that have such poor ankle mobility that they can barely pick something up off the ground without their heels raising like they’re doing a calf raise! We lost something because of Dr. Klein’s work.

Klein’s work was eventually discredited, but his ideas live on to this day in gyms everywhere.

Muscles Worked by Cyclist Squats: the VMO

If you can squat, squat. Few exercises will build size to your lower body like the king of all leg exercises.

But to specifically target and engage the innermost muscles of the quadriceps, especially the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO) muscle, affectionately known as the “Tear Drop,” there are few exercises better than the Cyclist Squat.

The VMO’s job is to help stabilize the knee joint, and its development is essential for long-term knee health. But there are few exercises that target it specifically because it receives the most stimulus in extreme acute angles.

Vastus Medialis Oblique

In other words, 90 degrees ain’t gonna cut it.

You need to get your hamstrings as close to your calves as possible at the bottom of your squat in order to fully engage the VMO.

Olympic weightlifters are the prime example of athletes that live in this position. When they catch a clean or snatch in the bottom position, their torsos are upright, their hamstrings are smashed into their calves, and their shoes are specifically designed to elevate their heels so their knees can track forward in front of their toes without causing knee pain.

Olympic Squat Clean

But Olympic lifting is incredibly hard to learn, and many people lack the low back and ankle mobility to get into this deep squat position.

Free-standing sissy squats will also target this muscle effectively, but they are an incredibly advanced movement and most people are not able to perform them safely or effectively.

This is where cyclist squats shine!

During the cyclist squat, your heels are elevated roughly 3 inches above the toes. This allows you to lower into full knee flexion while maintaining a completely upright torso. This is what fully engages the VMO without excessive pressure on the knees and low back.

What’s Better, the Barbell Squat or Cyclist Squat?

Barbell Back Squat Bottom Position Parallel

Many people will say the barbell back squat is the holy grail of leg exercises and that nothing can replace it. I agree, to a point. It’s an amazing exercise if you have the right proportions and mechanics for the movement. But remember that a squat is simply a pattern of movement. Front squats, split squats, and lunges also follow the squat pattern.

And cyclist squats make a great alternative or addition to traditional back squats! It’s another compound exercise in your leg training arsenal.

One exercise is not necessarily better than another. It’s not a question of either cyclist squats or back squats – both have their place.

Cyclist squats are great because they can be performed with just your body weight and still be challenging! This makes them completely accessible to most trainees regardless of ability level. The lack of equipment needed for this exercise further adds to its value, especially for those of us who train at home.

Cyclist squats also have the added benefit of working your balance and proprioception. This is because you are required to maintain balance your heels raised very, almost like squatting on your tip-toes. Balance and proprioception, along with mobility, are skills that are important for athletes in all disciplines, as well as in everyday life activities like walking or standing on one leg.

Cyclist squats are also great if you struggle to squat below parallel or to maintain an upright posture with traditional back squats.

Why I Personally Like Cyclist Squats

I don’t back squat that often anymore. I’m not built for it. I have really long legs and a short torso. Because of this, I tend to lean forward substantially when I squat. I have a strong back, but it’s always my back that tires before my legs because of my forward lean.

I much prefer front squatting, which forces me to maintain a very upright posture.

Which is exactly why I love cyclist squats!

Even with a barbell on my back, the narrow stance and extreme elevation of my heels keep me upright, allowing me to target and tire my legs without my lower back tiring prematurely.

I also train at home and don’t have access to a leg press, hack squat, or leg extension machine. This movement gives me another compound exercise to target my legs, and a quad-specific movement to replace leg extensions as a pre-exhaust or burnout.

How Often Should You Add Cyclist Squats to Your Routine

How often you should perform cyclist squats depends on your goals.

If you’re planning to compete in powerlifting, you need to back squat often. You will follow a program that is designed to get you stronger at squatting, peaking for competitions. Cyclist squats may fit in as a complementary movement during your training cycle, or as a break from back squats after a meet.

If you are bodybuilding or trying to build muscle in your legs, you need both variety and progressive overload. You want to have a stable of leg exercises you can pick from, and vary them from workout to workout. Most bodybuilders already use back squats, leg presses, and hack squats in their training.

Some days you may start with leg extensions and then back squat. Maybe you do leg presses in one leg training session and then hack squats on the other. Cyclist squats will give you a new variation to add to your rotation. And their focus on the VMO will add development to your Tear Drop, helping you stand out from your competition.

If your goal is fat loss/shredding, cyclist squats are a great addition because they fire up the muscles in your legs while also working balance and stability. You can add cyclist squats to your existing leg workout or do a cyclist squat superset with another lower body exercise, such as deadlifts or lunges.

If you are just trying to be fit, cyclist squats will give you another movement you get to play with, providing you a new challenge and fighting boredom in the gym.

Cyclist Squat Progressions

Cyclist squats are very beginner-friendly. The elevated heels allow you to squat deeply without compromising your knees or lower back, and they are a great bodyweight exercise for legs.

When you can consistently squat to a full range of motion with your own body weight, consider adding weight in the form of a weight vest, kettlebells, dumbbells, or a barbell.

Now that you’re confident with the standard cyclist squat, try a couple of these advanced techniques:

1 1/4 cyclist squats

Squat to the bottom of the cyclist squat just like normal. Start your return to a fully standing position, but stop after you’ve raised 1/4 of the way up from the bottom. Return to the bottom of the squat, and then rise to your fully standing position. That counts as 1 complete rep.

The 1/4 movement from the bottom keeps tension on the VMO for a longer period of time. This is great as a burnout exercise at the end of your leg training day.

Pistol Cyclist Squats

The pistol, or single-leg squat, is another great, advanced variation for the squat. So why not add it to the cyclist squat?!

If you struggle to reach full depth in the pistol squat, you may find that the cyclist squat setup can help you reach a full range of motion. But don’t let that fool you! Coming out of the bottom of the pistol cyclist squat is tough! This makes it a great challenge once you’ve mastered the traditional cyclist squat.

Tempo Cyclist Squats

Tempo training is where you specifically focus on the different portions of the lift: the descent (eccentric), the turnaround, and the rise (concentric).

You’ll see tempo training written like this:

41×0 or 3030 or 10X1

The first number is how long it should take you to perform the eccentric portion of the movement (lowering to the bottom of a squat, lowering a bench press, lowering from a pull-up).

The second number is how long you should pause after lowering the weight.

The third number is how fast you should perform the concentric portion of the lift (lifting the weight). X stands for explosively.

The last number is how long you should pause before beginning the eccentric portion of the lift again.

41×0 for a cyclist squat would be a 4-second descent, 1-second pause at the bottom, an explosive stand up, and no pause at the top before returning to the bottom position.

Any tempo you want to focus on will work, but try a 3-second descent, 1-second pause at the bottom, explosive return to standing, and no rest at the top (31×0). Perform that with a kettlebell goblet squat for 8 to 12 reps and absolutely fry your quads!

Conclusion: Cyclist Squats

The cyclist squat is a fantastic exercise to add to your routine, whether you’re trying to get stronger at squats, want to build more muscle, or are just trying to be more fit. I’ve outlined cyclist squat progressions so that no matter what level of ability you are, there’s always something new for you to try.

Experiment with advanced techniques like supersets, tempo training, or 1 1/4 squats to further push your training limits. The sky’s the limit when it comes to how much variation cyclist squats can add to your routine.

What other pieces of equipment have you used to get into a proper cyclist squat position?

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AUTHOR

Matt has been a personal trainer for more than 18 years. He is also a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, has a master's degree in teaching, and is a former competitive powerlifter and CrossFit athlete. His passion is helping others get in shape from mid-life and beyond.

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