What Cyclists Need to Know About Strength Training

Strength training and cycling: Do they mix?

While triathlon training is mostly an aerobic discipline, including work on anaerobic ability (sprints and lactate threshold work) and strength and conditioning (weights, Pilates, yoga, core work, plyometrics) help round out the program. There are many benefits to strength work: reduced injury risk, increased endurance, improved movement efficiency, and delayed time to fatigue are just a few benefits.

Whole-body strength will make you more resilient and will improve bone health you’d also be surprised how much you use some muscles when cycling, and how neglected others become.  

In this blog, we will break down the different benefits of strength training, how it can improve your health and performance, and finally how to effectively incorporate it into your training regime.

Is strength training good for cyclists?

Strength training is just that: you train to become stronger. Being strong is good, not just for performance, but for health and everyday life as well. One of the good things about cycling is that it is very low impact, which means less damage to your muscles and joints, and faster recovery. But this is also its downfall: no impact or stress makes bones weaker.

Your bone builds itself stronger in the area it is put under stress (compression or force). Osteoporosis is a condition where the bone is being broken down at a higher rate than it is being replaced and can have many causes, but lack of stress to the bone is one of them.

You could have amazingly strong thighs, glutes, and calves, but a weak skeleton. Most won’t have, but many cyclists also might lack upper-body strength and thus have poor bone health in both the upper and lower extremities. If that isn’t enough reason to get lifting, I’m not sure what is. We doubt anyone wants a snapped wrist or broken femur when you could maybe do some strength work and walk away with some pain, but your bones are intact.

Next, we should talk about imbalances. This basically means that one area of muscle is stronger than other areas, usually agonist and antagonist (think biceps vs triceps). 

As cyclists, we spend a lot of time in a very specific position on the bike and supporting muscles for this position are usually nice and strong (neck, some parts of the lower back, and triceps to name a few).

The problem is that the muscle on the opposite side or that is supposed to support other movements and positions is often not working and become weaker, leading to an imbalance. 

Pilates is a really good choice to recruit a wide range of often overlooked muscles, and once you can move again – (yes, it will hurt to start with) without aching you will start to appreciate how beneficial it actually is.  

Will strength training help you become faster on the bike?

And now what you really were here for: will strength training make me a faster and better cyclist? 

The answer is a resounding yes.

So what is ‘heavy strength training? This can be defined as training that increases or maintain a muscle or muscle group’s ability to generate maximum force. This means training with a load that allows you to do 1-15 repetitions before you’re too fatigued to continue. Explosive strength training exercises involve using external weights ranging from 0 to 60% of your one-repetition maximum, or the heaviest weight you can lift for one repetition. The exercises also require you to generate as much power as possible during the concentric, or shortening, phase of the lift.

This is the ability of the muscles to produce force after a long period of high-intensity exercise.

This may be the differentiating factor for elite endurance performance as successful athletes at the world level can produce high velocities and power outputs to win a race following a sustained period of high-intensity exercise.

Weak (neuromuscular inefficient; not being able to recruit certain muscles properly) or non-strength trained endurance athletes can benefit from a general maximal-strength orientated program. This can improve maximal force, power, and reactive-strength capabilities, as well as improve the economy, delaying fatigue, and in some studies, power at VO₂ max also increased slightly.

VO₂ max is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption attainable during physical exertion. The name is derived from three abbreviations: “V̇” for volume, “O₂” for oxygen, and “max” for maximum. A similar measure is VO₂ peak, which is the measurable value from a session of physical exercise, be it incremental or otherwise.

If you continue working out, you may slowly start to gain weight from muscle growth, but you will also become more toned. Over years of regularly performing strength training, cyclists have been shown to have more fat-free mass and lower levels of body fat. This in itself is healthier and better for performance.

How does strength training help you become faster on the bike?

Improved performance is likely due to altered muscle fibre recruitment patterns. Strength training can delay the fatigue of type 1 (slow twitch/endurance) muscle fibres so that less economical type 2 fibres (fast twitch/sprint) aren’t recruited until later.

The early recruitment of type 2 muscle fibres has a twofold cost: fatigued type 1 fibres need oxygen to recover, although it no longer contributes to the workload, and type 2 fibres are less economical and thus require more energy for the same work. Ultimately this leads to increased oxygen costs despite no change in work rate.

Other reasons include more type IIA fibres and fewer type IIX fibres being recruited. Type IIA is basically a hybrid that can be trained to use more oxygen despite being essentially fast twitch, whereas IIX is totally fast twitch / anaerobic and will always tire quickly. Another potential reason for performance increases is reduced glycogen usage, as studies have shown that strength training can result in higher phosphocreatine and glycogen content and lower blood lactate at the end of 30 min of high-intensity cycling at 72% of VO₂ MAX.

Strength training can also lead to an improved rate of force development and increased maximum force can be the result of increased neural activation as well as improved blood flow to working muscles. Basically, you can recruit more of the muscles that you have, and they are better supplied with oxygen and nutrients.  

When should cyclists do strength training?

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but here’s what you need to know from the outset: it will hurt, and it will continue to hurt until you have adapted. There’s no way around it and you can minimize the inflammation and pain but can’t totally escape the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).

DOMS is at its most painful 24-72 hours post-exercise, and you are often tricked into thinking you are fine as the first 12-24 hours might not be so bad; hence ‘delayed’ onset. Because you know this (maybe after you read this, but that doesn’t matter) you should factor this in and start your strength training in a time away from heavy training and competition, as this could otherwise affect your performance. Begin slowly and allow yourself long recovery periods between the initial sessions. More pain does not always equal more gain. Your lower-end cycling should not really be affected by this, it might just be a bit uncomfortable, but high-intensity work will be and should be avoided post-strength training (at least initially).  

Exercise Facts and Training Principles that Cyclists Need to Understand

Bike-Specific Strength Workout

1. Split Squat

Bike-Specific Strength Workout

  • With a split stance, keep 80-90% of your weight on your front foot.
  • Squat with your front leg, so your knee almost touches the floor, and then drive up, keeping control.
  • Maintain a forward trunk lean throughout the exercise.
  • Maintain hip/knee/foot alignment; ensure there is no inward shifting of your knee.
  • Maintain a flat back throughout the movement.
  • Perform 3 sets of 10 reps.

2. Romanian Deadlift

Bike-Specific Strength Workout

  • Stand with legs slightly wider than hip-width.
  • Maintain about 20 degrees of knee bend while driving through your hips as you lift the bar.
  • Maintain a flat back throughout the movement.
  • Lower the bar until your hands are just below your knees.
  • Unload the weight at the bottom of each rep for a “cold start” each time.
  • Do 3 sets as 12 reps, 8 reps, and 6 reps.

3. Sled Push

Bike-Specific Strength Workout

  • Set yourself up to push with your arms out in front of you, in a position similar to being in the time-trial position on your bike.
  • Keep your hips lower than your chest, with your front leg bent and your back leg straight behind you.
  • Bring your foot all the way up toward your chest on each step, and drive it all the way back.
  • Do 2-3 sets of 20-60 seconds.
  • If you don’t have access to a sledge, use a soft plyometric box with weight on top (e.g. a 45-pound plate).

4. Split Jump

  • With a split stance, keep 80-90% of your weight on your front foot.
  • In one movement, jump and land on your other foot.
  • Maintain a forward trunk lean throughout the exercise.
  • Maintain hip/knee/foot alignment; ensure there is no inward shifting of your knee.
  • Maintain a flat back throughout the movement.
  • Do 2-3 sets of 10-20 jumps.

5. Trap Bar

  • Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width.
  • Your thighs should be parallel to the floor when in the start position.
  • Pinch your shoulder blades together before initiating the lift.
  • As you lift, be sure to maintain a flat back.
  • Squeeze your glutes at the top.
  • Unload the weight at the bottom of each rep for a “cold start.”
  • Do 3 sets as 12 reps, 8 reps, and 6 reps.

1. Requirements for Increasing Bone Density

Cyclists have an increased risk of osteopenia (low bone density) because cycling is a weight-supported activity. As a result, many older lifelong cyclists start strength training because it is a weight-bearing activity. But if retaining or increasing bone strength is your goal it pays to understand the factors that lead to the formation of new bone.

Minimum Essential Strain (MES) represents a threshold that must be exceeded to stimulate bone growth. That strain can come from bearing weight, strong muscle contractions, trauma, and other sources. It is also important to realize bone remodels itself based on the angles and locations of the stress. In other words, as you bear weight and use muscles forcefully, you are applying stress to specific areas of your bones. When athletes participate in a variety of activities and movements, they grow stronger bones and retain more bone mineral density compared to athletes who specialize in a narrow range of movements (i.e. riding a bike).

What kinds of exercises achieve high rates of loading and loads that exceed MES? Drop jumps and lunges are good choices because of the rapid deceleration. Throwing and catching medicine balls can be good. Rowing may be particularly useful for cyclists. Cyclists often have a low bone density in the spine, whereas rowers have a high bone density in the spine because of the high muscular loading on the vertebrae.

2. High Force, Low Reps (HFLR) vs. Low Force, High Reps (LFHR)

For athletes whose primary goal for strength training is to produce more force (gain strength), one of the first questions is whether they should lift heavy and complete fewer repetitions or use less resistance and complete more repetitions.

According to a study by Mitchell, you can use either strategy and achieve very similar improvements in strength… as long as you push yourself to failure.

The Mitchell study seems to indicate that in the pursuit of making athletes stronger, we can take into account factors besides just the amount of weight and the number of times it can be moved. The strength gains and hypertrophy are similar (as long as you have sufficient nutrition support). HFLR training increases the load on bones more than LFHR training, and heavy lifting results in more forceful contractions, so lifting heavy may be better for increasing bone mineral density.

On the other hand, LFHR resistance training carries lower injury risks, which is a big consideration for endurance athletes who are using resistance training to be well-rounded athletes and supplement their primary sport. With lower resistance, athletes can maintain proper technique longer as they fatigue. When you are lifting heavy and doing it wrong, you can get hurt pretty easily, whereas the consequences of mistakes are typically less serious with lighter weights.

The rate at which you apply load to bone matters, too. If you jump off an 18-inch platform and land on a solid surface, the load on your bones increases at a high rate. If I gently place a vest on you that is weighted to apply a load equal to the maximum load from the jump, the load is equal but the rate of loading is slow. The jump will stimulate bone growth more effectively because of the high rate of loading. When you put these two factors together, both the rate of loading and the load itself have to be high to retain or increase bone mineral density.

High Force, Low Reps (HFLR) vs. Low Force, High Reps (LFHR)

For athletes whose primary goal for strength training is to produce more force (gain strength), one of the first questions is whether they should lift heavy and complete fewer repetitions (90% of 1RM x 5-6 reps) or use less resistance and complete more repetitions (30% of 1RM x 20-25 reps). According to a study by Mitchell you can use either strategy and achieve very similar improvements in strength… as long as you push yourself to failure (the inability to complete another rep)(Mitchel, 2012).

I interpret the Mitchell study to indicate that in the pursuit of making athletes stronger, we can take into account factors besides just the amount of weight and the number of times it can be moved. The strength gains are similar either way, and hypertrophy is similar as well (as long as you have sufficient nutrition support). HFLR training increases the load on bones more than LFHR training, and heavy lifting results in more forceful contractions, so lifting heavy may be better for increasing bone mineral density.

On the other hand, LFHR resistance training carries lower injury risks, which is a big consideration for endurance athletes who are using resistance training to be well-rounded athletes and supplement their primary sport. With lower resistance, athletes can maintain proper technique longer as they fatigue. When you are lifting heavy and doing it wrong, you can get hurt pretty easily, whereas the consequences of mistakes are typically less serious with lighter weights.

3. There Is No Easy Strength Training

You can go for an easy ride or a very intense interval workout, but when it comes to resistance training there is only one effective intensity: hard. Whether you are using high or low resistance (after a good warmup), the goal is to use the resistance necessary to reach failure within the rep range you’re aiming for. So, if you’re lifting heavy, use enough resistance that you can barely complete 5-6 reps. If you are lifting light, you want to aim to barely complete 20 reps. If the resistance is so light you can complete 50+ reps, you’re applying more aerobic stress. Your strength program can and should incorporate both HFLR and LFHR work, just try not to end up in the middle, 12-15 reps with a weight that doesn’t lead to failure.

4. Bodyweight or External Resistance?

If you have been paying attention, you can probably deduce the pros and cons of bodyweight vs. external resistance training (free weights, bands, machines). There’s a limit to the resistance your body weight can provide, so you have to use different movements to stress muscles in new ways. As you make progress, you have to add reps and/or increase the speed to increase workload. With external resistance, you can increase the resistance by using heavier weights. Many athletes who are getting started with resistance training are well served by starting with bodyweight exercises and progressing to external resistance once they need to achieve a greater workload.

Of course, there are other considerations to think about between using body weight and external resistance. Do you have the equipment? Do you have time to go to a gym? Would bodyweight exercises be easier to complete consistently? These are important considerations because frequency and consistency are crucial to making progress. You need to be able to complete a strength training workout twice per week. According to a study by Westcott one workout per week is not enough, but there isn’t much additional benefit (at least in terms of strength gains) from adding a third workout).

5. Unilateral or Bilateral Movements?

When choosing strength training exercises it is important to have a clear understanding of what you want to get out of them. 

Some athletes make the mistake of trying to combine the balance/stability goal with the maximum force production goal. They try to do lunges with too much weight instead of increasing the balance challenge. Or they try to do lighter squats on an unstable surface instead of increasing the force production challenge. 

Generally speaking a unilateral movement (single leg or single arm at a time) is more effective with less weight and more stability/balance challenge. It is also important to note that when balance/stability/proprioception are your goals, the precision of the movement is crucial and the lifting failure does not apply. A bilateral movement (both legs or both arms at once, like a squat or overhead barbell press) is more effective with more weight for maximizing force production.

Final Thoughts

Athletes typically have specific reasons for adding strength training to their lifestyle, but many create workouts or programs that are a mishmash of the concepts discussed above. If you are going to incorporate strength training, it is best to have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish and how the movements you’re including address that goal.

 

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