Strength training is one heck of a divisive subject in the cycling community.
So, should you do it?
In this post:
- How strength training can improve your performance
- How to execute a structured cycling strength training program
- Some important considerations and best practices towards the end.
Let’s start out with what the evidence tells us about strength training for cyclists.
At first glance, the science shows mixed results…
Even though many of the papers published in the last decade show an improvement in measures of cycling fitness as a result of strength training, there’s still a significant number that show little to no improvement as well.
So why the variation in the results?
Well, looking closer, it’s interesting to note that almost all of the studies where strength training for cycling didn’t have a significant positive impact on fitness and performance, the intervention periods were:
A) short e.g. 3-4 weeks
B) low in overall volume.
Similarly, studies showing the lowest levels of improvement typically used lighter weights and more explosive-type strength training, indicating that a mix of heavy weights and sufficient volume are necessary pre-requisites for improvement.
What’s clear from reviewing the science though is that none of the major studies found a negative relationship or ‘downside’ to concurrent strength and cycling training.
This seems to indicate that there appears to be little to lose and everything to gain when incorporating strength training into a cycling training program.
See the bibliography at the end of this article if you’d like to review some of these papers yourself.
OK, so now that there’s a bulk of evidence pointing to the fact that there are performance advantages to strength training for cyclists, how does it actually improve endurance performance?
Here are some of the key benefits:
1. INCREASES OVERALL STRENGTH
The first is that heavy load strength training increases the overall strength of your more efficient Type 1 muscle fibres, also known as the slow twitch muscles.
By increasing the maximum strength of these fibres and postponing high levels of fatigue, you’re able to resist fatigue longer at sub-threshold intensities and delay the activation of less efficient Type 2 or fast twitch muscle fibres.
By improving exercise economy via this altered muscle fibre recruitment, there’s a knock-on effect on endurance performance due to slower depletion of glycogen stores and reduced muscular fatigue.
Likewise, when maximal strength INCREASES, there’s a decrease in the amount of overall muscle mass that needs to be activated in order to generate a given amount of power, lowering the metabolic strain.
2. IMPROVES RATE OF FORCE PRODUCTION
Next, strength training helps increase maximum force production, rate of force production and muscle fibre tension, meaning that during each pedal stroke, your muscles can operate at a lower overall percentage of their maximum force capacity.
With an increased rate of force production due to enhanced neural activation, blood flow to the exercising muscles can increase because the muscle’s contraction time is shortened.
When the muscle contracts, blood flow is restricted, so shortening this contraction time is of real benefit to cyclists.
3. INJURY PREVENTION
Although more of an indirect benefit, reducing the risk of injury is perhaps one of the biggest advantages of strength training. Fewer injuries means greater training consistency and less time spent off the bike, which has a huge impact over an entire season or string of seasons.
Strengthening of the muscles and tendons will help protect against muscle pulls and tears, both from high velocity movements and from crashes.
MORE MUSCLE, MORE WEIGHT?
Many cyclists have concerns about increasing overall body mass via muscle hypertrophy and it’s a very understandable fear.
However, what the studies again appear to show is that even though there’s often a slight increase in localised muscle mass on the key movers for cyclists, this gain is outweighed by the performance benefits the improved strength brings.
Furthermore, it’s also important to understand that muscle hypertrophy levels will be far lower with concurrent endurance training on the bike and strength training, as compared to strength training alone, which largely negates the need for concern around increased weight.
So, we understand a bit more about why strength training is advantageous to cyclists and the mechanics of how strength training translates into improved performance.
Now, let’s dive into the practical means of actually executing a strength training program…
Before beginning an effective heavy load strength training program, it’s really important to lay a foundation of both bodily capability and sound technique.
What that means is taking some time to gradually accustom your muscles and tendons to the movements and loading of these strength workouts.
This can be done by starting with bodyweight movements like squats or using lighter weights for the exercises you’ll be using when the weight increases.
It’s vital that good habits are put in place right away, so getting an experienced strength and conditioning coach to advise you on your technique initially is a smart move.
After you have got this technique dialled in, you can then begin to train in confidence and of your own accord.
Start out with 2-3 preparatory strength sessions per week, and expect that after the first few sessions that you’ll likely have sore legs, which will need ample time to recover.
It’s generally best to wait for this soreness to subside before executing another strength session in the early stages, and best started after the cycling season is over so that this adaption to strength training does not impact on competitive performance.
You should find that about 3 weeks of this preparatory strength training phase will be sufficient to condition your muscles and tendons to handle the heavy loads in the next phase.
However, if you’re new to strength training or it’s been a long time since you last trained in this way, it may be wise to extend this phase by 1-2 weeks to establish good technique and necessary muscle and tendon strength.
After you’ve completed a sufficient period of preparation, the next action to take is to calculate your 1RM or “One rep max”.
Just like testing your Functional Threshold Power when training on the bike, a similar ‘baseline value’ needs to be set for strength training to facilitate correct structure.
This baseline will help you both to track your strength progression, but also calculate the different weight ranges you’ll want to be lifting in the different phases (in a very similar way to cycling training intensity zones).
To calculate your 1RM, you have a few options:
- Ramp up the weight your lifting slowly with a spotter (helper who can aid in taking the weight for you if your require assistance) until you can only execute one lift with good form
- Enter the maximum weight you can lift for a higher amount of reps (e.g. 10) and use a calculator to estimate your 1RM
For further clarity, here’s an excerpt from a paper entitled “Strength training improves cycling performance, fractional utilization of VO2max and cycling economy in female cyclists” that’s linked below this post, which explains their 1RM testing protocol:
“The 1RM test started with a specific warm-up, consisting of three sets with gradually increasing load (40%, 75%, and 85% of expected 1RM) and decreasing number of repetitions (10→6→3). The first attempt was performed with a load approximately 5% below the expected 1RM. If a lift was successful, the load was increased by approximately 5%. The test was terminated when the cyclists failed to lift the load in 2–3 attempts and the highest successful load lifted was noted as 1RM”
Whichever method you choose, your 1RM number will be really helpful when progressing through the different phases of the strength training cycle.
Once you’ve completed your preparatory strength training phase and found your 1RM using one of the means above, you can then move on to working with heavier weights that will start to improve your strength.
STRENGTH DEVELOPMENT PHASE
The first phase after the Preparation Phase (which we’ll call here the Strength Development Phase) will focus on higher repetitions and slightly lower weight.
This will typically be in the region of 8-12RM, where the number of repetitions can be slightly lower or equal to the RM number, e.g. 8RM weight might result in 6-8 repetitions.
If you can recruit a spotter for assistance, you can try to match the number of repetitions with the RM figure, but if not, perform slightly less repetitions than the RM figure you’re lifting.
This period might last for 2-4 weeks and comprise of 2-3x strength sessions per week, with 2x being optimal to allow for strength improvement whilst not impacting your ability to perform endurance training on the bike.
A good way to structure a week with 2x strength training sessions is to use higher RMs (or lower weight) for the first session of the week, and lower RMs in the second session of the week (higher weight, less reps), where an example could be using 8-12RM in the week’s first session and 6-10RM in the second session.
After this 2-4 week phase, retest your 1RM and progress to the next phase, which will focus on maximising strength.
STRENGTH MAXIMISATION PHASE
The aim of this phase of the training program is to develop a high level of strength that can be maintained throughout the competitive season.
Following the trend from the preceding phases, this phase further reduces the number of repetitions per set and subsequently increases the amount of weight being lifted.
This phase will also be longer than the Strength Development Phase and cover a great range of progression, spanning around 8 weeks.
Depending on your rate of your strength progression, weights and repetitions will be increased and decreased respectively to between 5-8RM lifts for the first 3-4 weeks of the phase and then to 4-6RM lifts in the next 3-4 weeks, leading up to the conclusion of this phase.
Again, structuring a week with 2x strength sessions so that the second session of the week uses slightly greater weight appears to be a beneficial strategy for many cyclists.
During this phase and the others before it, you’ll be executing the strength training concurrently with your primary on-bike training.
From personal experience, it’s advised during this phase to include some high power sprints and accelerations on the bike, since this helps to translate your increased strength into cycling-applicable force production.
Once this phase is complete, you’ll likely be at the start of the competitive season and the primary goal will be to maintain the strength increases you’ve built up over the previous months.
STRENGTH MAINTENANCE PROGRAM
The Strength Maintenance Phase is not really a phase in the traditional sense, but more of an ongoing program that will likely be more flexible and loosely defined than the previous phases.
By this stage in your overall training plan, training on the bike will be your key priority by far and excessive strength training can greatly impact on your ability to perform high quality training and racing on the bike.
Luckily, both the science and anecdotal evidence points to the fact that the vast majority of strength gains can be maintained throughout the competitive season with 1x strength session per week, which is manageable for most cyclists.
Where possible, such as during a period where there isn’t any prioritised racing, it makes sense to squeeze in 2x strength sessions per week to give that added boost to your strength maintenance program, but this should only be done where feasible.
In terms of what the strength sessions should look like in a Strength Maintenance program, try using the same repetition and weight figures from the first 4 weeks of the Strength Maximisation Phase, but not taking any of the sets to failure (e.g. 6 repetitions using 8RM weight).
Where 2x sessions per week is possible, try using the weight from the latter part of the Strength Maximisation Phase in the second weekly session.
Since you’ve now got a structure in place for cycling-specific strength training and all the metrics are clear, what are the exercises that will be used to develop this strength and make up the individual workouts?
We want to choose exercises that are specific in cycling in some way and mimic the movement patterns and muscular loading that are initiated when riding a bike (pedalling the bike, holding the body up when descending etc).
Although many complex exercise variations can be created when it comes to cycling strength training, keeping it fairly simple is generally the best approach and targeting the main movers will give you the greatest benefit and also be the most time-efficient way to train too.
Good exercises to use:
- Regular squats and one-legged squats
- Regular leg press and one-legged leg press
- Regular deadlifts and single-leg deadlifts
- Weighted step-ups
- Calf raises
As a MTBer, where a lot of stress in placed on the arms and chest, adding in some additional upper body exercises can be beneficial for those with sufficient training and recovery time, and/or a particular weakness in this area.
Some such exercises:
- Bent-over row
When choosing the exercises to include in your strength training plan, it’s important to bear in mind your own unique physiology and goals for the season.
For instance, if you struggle with weakness and cramping in the calfs, it might be that you prioritise the calf raises exercises in the Strength Development Phase to redress such an imbalance.
It’s worth nothing that the 1RM and weight calculations we made initially won’t apply to all of these exercises (e.g. press-ups, lunges etc) and with these, it’s best to use either bodyweight or a low free weights that will allow good form with 8-10 repetitions.
You can gradually increase the weight as you progress and establish strong technique.
When it comes to performing your strength training for cycling correctly and getting the greatest positive benefit from your training sessions, there are some simple best practices you can follow.
Even though this isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, here are some key ones:
- Focus on concentric phase – Especially with squats and other such exercises, cyclists want to emphasise the concentric muscle action since this is primarily how power is generated when pedalling the bike. This means, in the squat example, that you could focus on the lift, rather than the descent.
- Always engage in good technique – This includes keeping the core muscles engaged when performing movements, keeping the knees behind the toes, keeping a straight back and being careful not to twist or bend in potentially harmful ways. Good technique in a cycling context also means adding specificity to your strength training, such as placing feet the same distance apart as if you were pedalling the bike and using a bar grip that mimics holding the handlebars.
- Iterate exercises as you go – Every rider is unique in their physiology, and thus will need to tweak their strength training program to suit their personal strength and weaknesses. Learn what exercises seem to produce the best results and place more emphasis on these. On the other hand, de-prioritise those exercises that don’t make significant positive changes to your strength, especially if short on strength training time. Choosing 3-4 exercises to use is a good approach.
- Warm up and cool down from your strength training using a stationary bike where possible – This will help prepare the muscles and also keep them loose after a strength workout. You might also want to perform some high speed sprints after some of the workouts in the more developed phases to begin transferring some of the strength you’ve built into higher rates of force production on the bike.
Although there are many finer details to cover, the information above should give you plenty of pointers and tips to take into a strength training program designed specifically for cycling.
As with any successful program, individuality must be taken into account, and will dictate everything from the overall volume of your strength training, the choice of exercises that make up the program and the level of importance you’ll give to strength training in comparison to on-the-bike training.
What’s clear from the scientific literature though is that a properly structured and executed strength training program for cycling can make significant improvements to your fitness and performance.
If a cyclist has the time and energy needed to implement strength program, doing so should be strongly considered, especially for those either new to the sport, or for those wanting to squeeze the greatest amount of performance out of themselves.
Hickson, R.C., Rosenkoetter, M.A. and Brown, M.M., 1979. Strength training effects on aerobic power and short-term endurance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 12(5), pp.336-339.
Marcinik, E.J., Potts, J., Schlabach, G., Will, S., Dawson, P. and Hurley, B.F., 1991. Effects of strength training on lactate threshold and endurance performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 23(6), pp.739-743.
Sunde, A., Støren, Ø., Bjerkaas, M., Larsen, M.H., Hoff, J. and Helgerud, J., 2010. Maximal strength training improves cycling economy in competitive cyclists. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(8), pp.2157-2165.