The Unconventional Guide to Strength Training for Cyclists

Categories: Periodization, Strength Training, Training Programs, and Training Tips.

Who should do strength training for cyclists?

Elite amateurs or pros spending 25+ hours a week on a bike probably won’t get much benefit from strength training for cyclists. But for the rest of us, it makes us more useful humans and keeps muscle imbalances and injury at bay. Done the right way, it brings improved bike control on technical trails and greater confidence and stability when cornering on the road bike to name two things it can do. It may even improve power output overall.

Strength training for cyclists can benefit both male and female athletesWhy is strength training for cyclists important?

Strength training for cyclists reduces risk of injury

Stronger, more flexible muscles and connective tissues (tendons) are less likely to be injured from over-use, impacts (crashes), and the strains of daily life. If you have weaker muscles you are more likely to incur injuries. Even from relatively innocuous everyday activities like lifting the shopping out of the trunk on a Tuesday night.

These can be devastating. I hate the long slow path to rehabilitation, and I’m sure you do too. I’d rather be out riding my bike.

The better your general strength is, the better coordinated and more stable your movement patterns are, and the more likely you are to stay injury-free.

Strength training wards off age-related muscle loss

The sad fact is we naturally lose muscle mass as we get older and hormone levels drop. Weight training helps reduce and can even reverse these losses. Good muscle strength and mass improves your ability to keep it as you get older.

Weight training keeps your metabolism high

Muscle burns energy faster than other body tissue types. Greater muscle mass – a bigger engine – helps you to keep your weight under control.

Weight training for cyclists should concentrate on the prime movers - muscles that power and control the bike

Prevents muscle imbalances

Cyclists can have underdeveloped core and upper body strength, and long hours in the bike can lead to postural problems such as rolled-forward shoulders. You are especially likely to be in this category if your bike fit is sub-optimal. Strong outer (lateral) quads can lead to knee tracking issues if the medial quads are underdeveloped. I battle with overdeveloped quads and underdeveloped glutes caused by my previous desk job, which contributes to ITB issues I need to continue to manage. An appropriate program of strength training for cyclists is able to address these issues and reduce the likelihood of injury.

Weight-bearing exercise improves bone density

Maintaining stronger bones is particularly important as we age. Some research claims that a steady diet of non-weight-bearing endurance-only exercise can lead to osteoporisis. For cyclists, this is a serious concern, especially when it comes to managing the potential consequences of crashes and falls. Broken bones suck.

Conversely, weight-bearing exercise is said to improve bone density. Given the human body’s “use it or lose it” adaptability, this makes sense. Studies in 2013 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23754172 and 2014 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4214007/ confirm the view.

Potential for cycling performance gain

Stronger muscles improve the ability to exert force on the pedals and subsequently improve power output.

It can also improve cycling economy. As maximal strength increases, the amount of muscle fibre needed to produce a particular amount of sub-maximal force decreases, allowing you to do the same amount of work with less effort according to studies like this: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23914932.

Upright row helps improve shoulder strength for bike control obstacle negotiation

What does the science say?

The science as we have seen in an earlier article shows mixed results.  However, those studies showing no performance gain or performance loss generally added maximal strength training over the top of an existing high endurance training load.

In contrast, those studies showing a performance gain generally fitted in strength training for cyclists with a lower or moderate endurance training load, allowing for more recovery.

Why do some coaches think strength training for cyclists sucks?

Some coaches are concerned that weight training for cyclists will add to muscle bulk, destroying their charges’ power-to-weight ratios. Many have the belief the time devoted to strength training is better spent developing the rider’s aerobic engine.

The impact of fatigue from weights sessions definitely can get in the way of completing high intensity aerobic sessions to the appropriate level of quality. There are plenty of examples of this reported (eg http://www.cyclingweekly.com/fitness/strength-training-for-cyclists-is-it-worth-it-125222)

I think they are wrong. The strength building approach that helps cycling performance is largely about improving muscle recruitment. In other words, it is about getting the brain firing more of your existing muscle fibre, rather than adding new muscle.

Where weights training is criticised as being ineffective I believe the cause is not the weight training itself but using the wrong strategy at the wrong point in time. Doing their maximal strength training earlier before the target event would have controlled fatigue. Following it with different routines to convert raw strength into useful power production, and then maintain it, would have managed fatigue and yielded better results.

Weight training for cyclists

What is “Periodization”?

Varying your training loads according to where you are in relation to your main target events for the season is called “periodization”. The philosophy was pioneered by Hans Selye and further developed by by Soviet exercise physiologist Leo Matveyev and Romanian sport scientist Tudor M Bompa, and has since permeated Western sports science.

Periodization acknowledges that peak condition and steady high loads are psychologically and physiologically difficult to sustain all year round. The quantity of high intensity, quality training efforts is limited to when it has the greatest benefit for the athlete’s highest priority events. Scheduling training sessions is done carefully to balance and maintain the frequently conflicting abilities for a particular sport such as endurance and speed, thereby reducing the risk of injury and burnout while maximising performance when it counts most.

Applied to a cycling training program

You will first build a base foundation of endurance and efficiency. You will move on to replacing some sessions with higher intensity and more difficult speed and power training sessions in the build phase as the target event approaches. Overall volume winds back a little to account for the increased training stress from these sessions to avoid dipping into overtraining. Your program will include appropriate recovery during each of the training cycles to take best advantage of the body’s adaptation response. These are inserted not just between major workouts within the week, but an easier week is scheduled every 3-4 weeks (depending on age) to flush out accumulated fatigue, after which you will usually find you have stepped up a level in your fitness as you start the next training block. A brief annual break is also scheduled to recharge the mind.

Strength training for cyclists can benefit both male and female athletes

Why is periodization relevant to strength training for cyclists?

The purpose of periodizing strength training for cyclists is to ensure the benefits are gained without disrupting key on-the-bike sessions through fatigue. This is especially important during the build and peak periods that develop speed and power. During these phases, the priority given to weight training is reduced to maintenance levels.

Training for maximal strength is most likely to have a lasting performance benefit when included earlier in the program. The endurance load is lower and less intense, which allows for better recovery.

Simply adding strength training on top of your existing bike endurance training, or adding the wrong type at the wrong point in the season can set you back. You may end up sacrificing the quality of your on-the-bike workouts through being too sore, or having “dead legs”. This can lead to erosion of your fitness, or doing too much and heading for overtraining.

Strength training for cyclists should involve working the core wherever possible

Periodization of strength training for cyclists has 4 parts

  1. Preparing your muscles and connective tissues for strength training

    • Also called the “Anatomical Adaptation” phase.
    • Weights should be set for 20-30 reps per set with 2-5 sets per session and 60-90 seconds recovery between sets.
    • Slow speed.
    • 2-3 times per week, 8-12 sessions total (typically 4 weeks).
  2. Training for maximum strength

    • Lift heavy loads. Gradually increase weights and reduce the number of repetitions.
    • Be careful to avoid injury – choose loads conservatively to begin with, and for the first set of each workout.
    • Low reps per set (3-6) and 2-6 sets per session with 2-4 minutes between sets to allow full recovery.
    • Continue other exercises per the preparation/AA guidelines.
    • Typically completed at the start of the first Base training period.
    • 2-3 times per week, 8-12 sessions total (typically 4 weeks).
  3. Converting newly-acquired strength into power

    • Typically started in the middle and completed in the second half of the base training period
    • Power endurance

      • Convert raw strength into the ability to quickly produce high power output, such as needed for an attack, long sprint, or a pinch climb.
      • Weights should be set for 2-3 sets per session of 8-15 reps with 3-5 minutes recovery between sets.
      • Continue other exercises per the preparation/AA guidelines.
      • Speed of lift is fast but keep it controlled. Do not “throw” the weight.
      • 1-2 times per week for 3-6 weeks depending how much you need to develop this ability.
    • Muscular endurance

      • Extend the ability to manage fatigue at high load levels.
      • Do prime mover exercises at 30-50% of 1RM and 1-3 sets of 40-60 reps per set with 1-2 minutes recovery between sets.
      • Continue other exercises per the preparation/AA guidelines.
      • Keep speed of lift moderate.
      • Once weekly for 4-8 weeks.
  4. Strength maintenance.

    • Use this phase to retain strength base set up in the strength training phase, while on-the-bike efforts develop power and muscular endurance
    • Only the last set of each prime mover exercise loads the muscles: 60-80% of 1RM and 2-3 sets of 6-12 reps. First 1-2 sets are a warm-up.
    • 1-2 minutes recovery between sets
    • Continue other exercises per the preparation/AA guidelines
    • Keep speed of lift moderate
    • Maintained through build and race phases
    • Perform once weekly, indefinitely except for taper week prior to “A” priority events.

Beginners should use machines to start strength training for cyclists

Beginners should use machines to start strength their strength training program

What are “prime mover” exericises?

Prime mover exercises move the bike forward and help with bike control. For cyclists these include hip extension, seated row and upright row. Seated row helps the lower back and arms. The upright row works the upper back and shoulder strength for bike control. This improves injury protection in a crash and your ability to loft the front wheel over obstacles. These are particularly helpful if you’re a mountain biker or CX racer.

Compound movement exercises involving multiple joints that copy the movements of riding a bike are best. You will gain the most benefit from using free weights because they also train control and stability. Newcomers to weights should start with machines.  Only remedial exercises addressing personal weaknesses such as medial quads, hamstrings or calves should be performed as isolation exercises. You are not bodybuilding.

What other cycling strength training exercises should I do?

Abs with twist to work the core, an upper body choice (pushups, chest press, lats), and one remedial or personal weakness exercise (hamstrings, knee extension, or heel raise) should also be included. You should continue to follow the Anatomical Adaptation period guidelines for these exercises.

Keep number of exercises to the least possible

If a little is good, more is better, right? Wrong. Quality is more important than quantity. Adding more exercises may broaden your strength abilities but fail to give you enough depth. A lot of programs give you a lot of exercises, intent on giving you everything you need to ensure you are well-rounded.

Most of us struggle to get enough time on the bike during the week as it is. Life gets in the way, so focus your gym time on those exercises which will have the greatest positive impact. The above regime is stripped down to the basics and is the one I use myself. If it takes longer than an hour you are probably trying to do too much.

What’s your opinion?

Do you think weights help or hinder? Has weight training helped you, and how has it done so? If not, why do you think this happened? Could you have done things differently? Share your experience and ask questions in the comments below.

Sources:
The Mountain Biker’s Training Bible – Joe Friel – VeloPress
Rønnestad BR, Mujika I. Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2013 Aug 5

Trackbacks

  1. Strength Training for Cyclists: Help or Hindrance? - Simply Cycling Training says:

    […] The philosophy is based on organising training into cycles that allow the body to recover from training stress, keeping it in t… […]

  2. Base Training: Simple Steps for a Solid Season - Simply Cycling Training says:

    […] Base 1 Muscular Force workouts are the Maximum Strength weights […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *