how to improve barbell cycling

Barbell Cycling 101

Crossfitters tend to either love barbell workouts or hate them with a fiery passion.

Love them or hate them, a lot of frustration can be saved by practicing and perfecting the skill of barbell cycling.

You’ve probably seen cycling before: Athletes knocking out rep after rep with 40, 60, and even 80 kilos as if they were moving an empty barbell.

Let’s break down the benefits of cycling as well as some ways to get better at it.

What is barbell cycling?

Barbell cycling (sometimes known as touch and go) is a fast-paced, and highly efficient way of completing reps of barbell exercises, especially snatch, and clean & jerk.

When cycling, the athlete forms sets of the exercise by stringing together reps.

Where one rep ends, another begins and since there is no resting in between reps, the athlete can complete more of the work in less time.

Cycling can be very challenging aerobically, and demands that athletes spend considerable time under tension, however the advantages are significant if you develop the skill. 

what is barbell cycling

That said, if you don’t feel comfortable moving a barbell in general, or your Olympic lifts need fine-tuning, hold off on cycling for now.

Instead, check out some of our extensive guides on snatch and clean and jerk. You should never perform an exercise fast if you can’t perform it well.

How to do it

Keep in mind that barbell cycling is meant for moving lighter loads.

Even though moving safely is always the most important in training, working with light loads implies that we can make a few changes to the technique of the lifts to perform them more quickly without risking injury.

The main difference between cycling a bar and performing singles is in how we change our own position to keep a straight bar path after the first rep.

The following example is specific to snatch cycling, but applies to cleans as well. 

  1. Approach the barbell and set up with a slightly wider stance to make the first lift. 
  2. Once the barbell is overhead, break at the elbows bringing your head and chest slightly behind the bar as you lower it towards your hip crease.
  3. Without stopping completely at the hips, allow the bar to make contact and begin to send your hips back. Reposition your upper body so that it is over the bar again as you slowly control the descent towards the ground.
  4. Keeping your hips high, brace your core, allow the bar to touch the ground briefly before going for the next rep. 

We can see that as the bar descends, it briefly brushes the athlete’s hips (or in the case of a clean, the athlete’s mid-thighs).

This contact slows down the descent, making it easier to keep the bar close and stay in control of the bar path.

Controlling the eccentric phase (the lowering) of the lift, especially as the barbell moves from the hips towards the ground, ensures that we can initiate the next rep successfully.

When working with extremely light loads, we can skip this contact and lower the bar directly to the ground to shave off some extra seconds.

How can I get faster at cycling? 

Nail the positions

First things first, if you want to move fast, you must be efficient.

All too often when we want to move as fast as possible in a WOD, chaos ensues, and form goes completely out of the window.

The result is that we wear ourselves out a lot more than it’s worth, making the rest of the workout even more of a struggle. 

When you watch how more experienced athlete cycle, they move quickly, but they also maintain the same positions (more or less) in their lifts as if they were doing singles.

Each rep looks identical, and this is the key to efficiency.

For the most part, we can think of lifts as a straight line with a clearly defined start and finish.

The barbell begins on the floor and finishes in the front rack position (as in the clean), or overhead.

In contrast, think of cycling as a loop: the first rep goes directly into the second, which goes into the third and so on.  To be successful at cycling, you must keep the barbell moving within a fluid bar path.

Deviating from the bar forces the athlete works harder by compensating for sloppy setups, lack of extension, and over pulling.

To maintain a good bar path, make sure you keep the bar close.

Proximity makes the bar easier to manipulate and therefore easier to control.

Another tip is to keep your hips high as the bar gets closer to the ground.

This makes setting up for the lift a lot quicker, but be sure that your lower back isn’t taking the brunt of the work.

barbell cycling tips

Stay active

Barbell cycling operates under the pretense that the athlete can maintain tension in between repetitions.

Moving the barbell through its full range of motion relies heavily on the posterior chain and core.

The posterior chain refers to the muscles that make up the back of your body including your calves, hamstrings, glutes, and lats. 

If you want to be good at cycling, you’d better make sure that you have a solid posterior chain.

Not only done these muscles need to be strong, but they also need to be well-conditioned so that you can stand the demands of performing speedy, high-volume sets.

The posterior chain structure is the source of power when completing Olympic lifts, so it’s vital that it can stay engaged and active even when you get tired.

Incorporating strength exercises such as good mornings, hip thrusts, and reverse hypers will translate to higher work capacity when working with the barbell.

Marathon Mentality

Becoming a proficient cycler means knowing how to make adjustments when necessary, without losing time.

Letting go of the barbell to reset your stance, re-adjust your hands, or save your grip add precious seconds that you don’t want reflected in your final score. 

As the fatigue sets in, staying active while completing longer sets becomes more complicated.

Keep your breathing regular, and your limbs relatively loose.

Regrip at the top of your rep to save your forearms, or even take a quick breather before lowering the bar and proceeding to the next rep.

Ditch the bar before your form starts to go, rest a bit and repeat for the next set.

Barbell cycling isn’t always a sprint, sometimes it’s a jog.

One reason for this is that you can only go as fast as you can stay in control of the barbell.

Second, getting as much work done in as little time as possible doesn’t always mean going fast, but being able to last.

How can I lift heavier while cycling?

As you become better at cycling, you’ll see that you can perform consecutive reps with heavier weights.

The result won’t be as fluid or as fast, and the sets will definitely be shorter, but becoming more comfortable with cycling moderately heavy loads is an effective way to develop an athletes’ power output.

You can get better at cycling heavier weights by perfecting your technique with lighter loads first.

Then, increase weight gradually to be able to perform heavy doubles and triples.

As the load becomes heavier, lowering the bar becomes more taxing.

This is especially noticeable when the exercise ends overhead.

To maintain control over the bar path, the athlete may need to take additional “breaks” when lowering the bar.

Taking the bar from overhead back to the shoulders before continuing to the thighs and the ground will help to alleviate some tension of the eccentric load.

Bounce cycling / Rebounding from hang position

When the WOD prescribes snatches or cleans from the hang position instead of from the floor, we can save time by using the bounce method.

This style is extremely explosive and involves “bouncing” the bar off the lower body to quickly preform reps.

Like with conventional cycling, keeping the bar close is crucial.

How to do it

Again, let’s use the example of a snatch from hang.

  1. Take the bar from the floor, and extend your body completely before lowering the bar above the knees and completing the first rep.
  2. From the receiving position, drop your elbows back to lower the bar towards your hip crease. 
  3. As the bar approaches the hips, bend slightly at the knees and hips as if starting a lift from a high hang position. 
  4. When the barbell makes contact, extend explosively and drive under the bar to complete the next rep. 

In the lowering phase, the athlete must properly coordinate bending the legs just before the bar makes contact with the hips. This part of the exercise is how the athlete sets up for the hip extension, the driving force of the lift.

Final Thoughts

Many people think that as long as you’re strong, you’ll dominate barbell work but that’s not necessarily true.

Strength is a key factor, but so are speed, accuracy, and endurance. Now that you have the tools, it’s time to practice.

Use intervals and EMOMs to perfect your cycling skills. Vary the lifts, loads, and rep ranges in your training.

You never know what the WOD will throw at you.

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