Strength Training for Cyclists
July 14, 2019
Cycling and strength aren’t terms we normally use in the same sentence.
Prevailing wisdom claims that cycling is purely an endurance sport and if you want to get better at it or prepare for a triathlon, you need to build up your aerobic capacity and technique.
To be sure, there is a lot of truth to that - if you want to be a better cyclist, you need to put the time on the bike. After all, we must adhere to the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demand).
But, if you want to get better at cycling, you also need weight training. This will allow you to use your muscles more efficiently, produce more force with each rotation, and use less energy.
Concurrent Training is the Answer
Most people think in terms of black and white. An endurance athlete is one, and a strength athlete is something completely different.
Well, both are human, and both share lots of similarities from physiology to lifestyle. The main differences are their goals and specific training styles. One trains to be able to produce force for extended periods on a bike and the other only needs to produce force for a short set under a bar.
Fundamentally, both types of athletes need strength - the ability to produce more force from the muscle mass they have. Yes, it means that you don’t necessarily need to add more muscle to get stronger.
But as a cyclist, you’ve probably come across the line of reasoning regarding weight training that states, “I’m an endurance athlete, so I need to use light weights, do lots of repetitions, and rest very little between sets.”
I won’t dwell much on why this is flawed, but understand two things about this style of training:
As long as you overload your muscles, you will grow them. Even if you do 20+ repetitions per set.
High-rep training is good for generating fatigue and bad for improving your strength. You generate fatigue that later interferes with your cycling work while providing no applicable value.
Now, by switching to using lower repetitions with heavier weights and longer rest periods, you’ll build strength without generating excessive fatigue. And strength is critical.
You see, building strength without adding more muscle comes down to neural capacity - you teaching your body to use the muscles it already has more effectively.
Endurance work largely recruits slow twitch muscle fibers. They are smaller and more endurant than fast twitch fibers. But, research has shown that strength training increases the force production of slow twitch fibers which directly improves the athlete’s functional threshold power (FTP).
Strength training also improves the capacity of fast twitch fibers. They do fatigue quicker but play an essential role in force production.
Lastly, stronger muscles produce force at a faster rate. Build yours up, and you’ll be able to accelerate much quicker and then cycle at a lower intensity to maintain your speed.
That is, a cyclist with stronger leg muscles will be faster (which is great for time trials) and have a higher FTP, thus being able to sustain much higher power outputs for long periods.
If cycling and strength don’t spell W-I-N, I don’t know what does.
Three of The Best Exercises You Should Perform
Both bilateral and unilateral strength exercises are beneficial for cyclists. Unilateral strength work allows you to teach each leg to produce force on its own. Bilateral exercises allow you to use heavier weights and strengthen your entire body more effectively.
1. Forward lunges
The lunge is a highly specific movement for cyclists because it gives each leg the opportunity to support the weight and lift it on its own. This movement mainly works your quads but also trains your hamstrings and glutes.
Don’t go too heavy on the lunge. Pick weights that allow for at least 8 to 12 repetitions with good form per leg.
2. Barbell back/front squat
The barbell squat is one of the best movements cyclists can do to strengthen not only the legs but the upper body, too. Focus first on learning good technique by using a lighter weight for 10-15 repetitions and then slowly work up to heavier sets of 4-8.
Both the back and front squat effectively build lower body strength, but the front squat requires greater mobility and strength from your back and also targets your quadricep muscles a bit more.
3. Romanian deadlift
The deadlift trains your entire posterior chain with heavy emphasis on your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. It’s important to incorporate this movement for two reasons:
First, we want to avoid front-to-back muscle imbalances. Too much quad work without hamstring work for balance can lead to injury.
Second, having strong and capable quads won’t be enough if weak and puny glutes and hamstrings consistently limit us.
Perform this movement with weights that allow for 6-10 repetitions with good form and a full range of motion. Make sure to lower as much as you can before your low back starts rounding.
Stretching & Cycling
Stretching is important for cyclists (and, really, any athlete) for two reasons:
You need enough range of motion to perform your activity without pain or risk of injury.
Stretching (particularly after a training session) has been shown to reduce perceived muscle soreness and accelerate recovery.
Thus, as a cyclist, you need to take care of your quad, hamstring, and hip mobility.
A good way to go about it is to dedicate 5 to 10 minutes after each training session to stretch these areas. Do one stretch for each quad, one for each hamstring, one for your adductors, and one for your hip flexors. Hold each stretch for 30 to 45 seconds before releasing.
This might not sound like much work, and it isn’t. But a bit of effort after each training session will help you maintain proper mobility, reduce your risk of injury, and potentially lead to better recovery between workouts.
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