Everything you need to know about Strength Training for Cyclists
Fears and myths
There is a commonly perceived myth that any form of weights or gym training is bad for cyclists. Often the fear is that you will become slower, get big legs, and gain weight. Or, you don’t have time for it and it will ruin your cardiovascular fitness. So, is there any truth in this?
Will it make you slow?
In the short term, for sure your legs will not feel as sharp during the early phases of weight training. But, as with all training, proper recovery leads to super compensation and improvement. Phase your training correctly and this will not be a problem.
How about getting muscly legs?
Muscle size does not correlate to strength and power at the levels which are beneficial to cyclists. This is because strength training methods differ in rep ranges to those used by those wanting muscle increase. If you want to get big legs, you will have to train slightly differently.
Will you gain weight?
This is a tricky one. There is likely to be at least a slight increase in muscle mass, but you are also likely to lose body fat and increase your power to weight ratio. However, there is reason to be cautious. It is quite common for strength training to increase your appetite. You do need to eat more for the extra energy and recovery requirement, but it can be easy to overeat too.
Why should cyclists do strength training?
Weight training is widely acknowledged to have many benefits for anyone. From improving bone density to maintaining muscle mass and metabolism as we age. As you would expect, leg strength and peak power can be increased. But, interestingly, using strength and power phases has been shown in numerous studies to be more beneficial than endurance training alone. Improvements were seen in exercise efficiency, lactate threshold and mean power for time trials, reduced heart rate and oxygen consumption in longer endurance events and sprint power outputs at the end of endurance events.
If that were not enough to convince you, there are further benefits aside of performance:
Reduced body fat
Address weaknesses and muscle imbalances
Improved balance and co-ordination
Greater core strength
Who is it suitable for?
A well-executed program of strength training can be very beneficial to most cyclists. The exception here being that if the cyclist is not particularly fit or has an issue that seriously impedes their cycling (very overweight, poor core strength or mobility). In this case, that issue should be addressed first, and resistance training may be helpful in the management of the issue. Recovery is a crucial factor with all training, so cyclists who already do a high volume of training may struggle to fit it into their routine. However, it is still advisable to make sure that core strength and mobility work is done.
Is it just for winter training?
Typically, if you are planning a season of competing, it is best to get the bulk of your strength training done pre-season. Winter is a great time to incorporate some strength training as you will be able to get some training done without venturing out into the cold. You should expect to do weights twice weekly in the pre-season, and then weekly maintenance sessions throughout the year. I would suggest tapering the weight, as with all training, in the week preceding any big event.
What exercises should you be doing?
This will be different for everyone, and should take into consideration your ability, mobility and injuries or weaknesses.
Your cycling workout program should incorporate Conditioning, Core Strength, Strength (Maximal), Power and Unilateral training.
Cycling muscles work around 3 main joints at any one time. To have a similar effect, exercise choice should be compound movements (working muscles around multiple joints).
Free weights provide the best stimulus as they require stabilisation and work with your body’s movement patterns.
Conditioning is focused on learning correct movement patterns and should focus on the big compound exercises such as Squats, Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts and Bent over rows.
Core strength exercises need to include rotation and anti-rotation exercises such as Superman (TVA and pelvic floor engagement), Woodchops, Dorsal raises, Side planks, Floor drags, Bear crawls. The focus is to maintain good posture and engage the ‘deep core’ muscles, rather than just the superficial ones. This is also a session where stretching and release work can be useful.
Strength (Maximal) builds on the foundation work and will focus on the main lifts, Squats and Deadlifts. There is sometimes a case to use Front squats, but it can be a difficult movement for many people.
Power development can utilise exercises such as Squat jumps, Jumping lunges, Box jumps, Power cleans and Hang cleans. Lighter weights are used but the emphasis is now on speed of movement.
Unilateral (working one side of the body) is important too, after all, cycling is about developing power through one leg at a time. Effective exercises are Lunges (reverse, off step, static, walking), Bulgarian split squat, Step up, Single leg box squat, Side step up, Single leg Romanian deadlift.
Do you want to improve your cycling?
From a performance perspective, strength training can improve your cycling. It is likely that you will also enjoy cycling more because you will be more comfortable and more efficient. Not only that, you will be stronger and more mobile off the bike too.
A basic program of strength training takes at least 12 weeks, from there you should be able to notice the benefits and decide whether to advance your training or continue with maintenance work.