Some say that cyclists have no business at all lifting weights.
Cycling relies mainly on cardiovascular fitness, they say, and there’s absolutely no need to be strong.
Strength training represents wasted time that could be much better spent on the bike, and is therefore completely pointless.
Others claim that strength training will transform you into cycling’s equivalent of the Six Million Dollar Man – better, stronger, and faster than you were before.
All can bring evidence to the table, from research data to the performance of individual cyclists, to support their point of view.
On the one hand, you have research out there to show that strength training has little or no effect on cycling performance [5, 6]. In one study, a group of cyclists lifting weights for six weeks actually got worse rather than better .
But there’s also plenty of research showing the exact opposite.
In a study of elite cyclists from the Danish U-23 National Team, strength training plus cycling improved performance during a 45-minute time trial to a greater extent than cycling alone .
In another, strength training increased time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic power by almost 20%, as well as improving cycling economy by 5% . Eight weeks of strength training has even been shown to improve cycling performance in subjects (albeit untrained beginners) doing no cycling at all .
I’m not going to tell you that strength training holds the key to cycling greatness.
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Depending on the type of cycling you do and what aspect of your performance you’re trying to improve, it might help a little. It might help a lot. But there’s also the very real possibility that it might not help at all.
Like most things, it depends. There is no single “right way” to train that will apply to all people all of the time.
I’m going to assume that you already do a bit of cycling, and that you’re thinking about incorporating some resistance training in your program.
But you don’t understand how strength training is going to help you cycle faster for longer, and you’re not entirely sure what type of training you should be doing.
The first point I want to make is that while the terms “strength training” and “resistance training” are often used interchangeably, they’re not the same thing.
Resistance training is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of training protocols, from light weights and high repetitions to heavy weights and low repetitions. Strength training can only really be called strength training if it’s making you strong.
But if you walk into your local gym and tell them you’re a cyclist, the chances are very high that you’ll be given a program based on light weights and lots of repetitions. The thinking behind this approach is that what you do in the gym should match what you do on the bike.
The problem here is that cycling involves literally thousands of repetitions. There’s no way you can replicate that in the gym.
The best way to build endurance for cycling is to go cycling. Then you use the gym to improve the physical qualities that aren’t built as part of your normal training.
So rather than using light weights and high repetitions, I’m going to suggest that you do the exact opposite.
For each of your work sets, select a weight that’s heavy enough to limit you to somewhere between 5 and 8 repetitions.
This type of strength training has been shown to reduce oxygen uptake at a given submaximal work rate, allowing you to sustain a faster pace for a longer period of time .
Think of it like this. When you’re on your bike, each pedal stroke uses a certain percentage of your maximum strength. When your leg muscles get stronger, the percentage of that maximum strength used during each movement cycle goes down.
Magnetic resonance imaging data show that an increase in maximum strength reduces the amount of muscle mass required to lift the same amount of weight . And stronger cyclists are able to cycle at the same speed as weaker cyclists while using fewer muscle fibers .
To put it another way, strength contributes to your endurance by making you more economical . It means you’re able to do the same amount of work with less effort, or more work with the same amount of effort.
To paraphrase Mark Rippetoe: Strength improvement for people who are not already strong is the rising tide that floats all the other ships in the physical performance harbor.
The programs used in many of the studies showing that strength training improves cycling performance were relatively simple.
The one used in the Danish U-23 National Team study, for example, comprised four sets of four exercises (leg extension, leg press, leg curl, calf raise) 2-3 times per week . So you don’t need anything complicated or fancy.
Nor is there any need to worry that lifting heavy weights will make your muscles bigger and slow you down.
It was once believed that strength training would hinder your performance by adding too much bulk. All other things being equal, more muscle means extra weight, which then has to be carried around with you on the bike.
This ignores the fact that building muscle is hard enough as it is, even when your entire lifestyle is centred around gaining mass. The chances of adding large amounts of muscle while simultaneously doing a lot of endurance training are very small.
Here’s what Professor Per Aagaard and Jesper Andersen have to say on the subject in a review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports :
“Recent studies have shown that distinct cell signaling events involving the Akt/mTOR or AMPK pathways appear to become activated by resistance or endurance training, respectively and that inhibitory cross-talk exists from one pathway to the other. Consequently, the endurance training stimuli delivered to the muscle cells during concurrent strength and endurance training may effectively blunt the muscle hypertrophy response that is normally observed in response to heavy-resistance strength training alone.”
Although I’m not a competitive cyclist, I do love cycling holidays. Last year I cycled the pilgrimage route across northern Spain. This year I was in Italy cycling from the Dolomite Mountains to Venice via Lake Garda.
Because I’m a long way from being a “hardcore” cyclist, I don’t like to go out on the bike when it’s cold, dark and wet. Nor do I enjoy spending what seems like an infinite number of butt-numbing hours on a bike in a gym.
Strength training by itself keeps me fit enough to cycle 30-50 miles every day for a week or two, despite the fact that I’ll sometimes go for months without so much as even sitting on a bike.
1. Aagaard P, Andersen JL. (2010). Effects of strength training on endurance capacity in top-level endurance athletes. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 20, 39-47
2. Aagaard P, Andersen JL, Bennekou M, Larsson B, Olesen JL, Crameri R, Magnusson SP, Kjaer M. (2011). Effects of resistance training on endurance capacity and muscle fiber composition in young top-level cyclists. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 21, e298-307
3. Barrett-O’Keefe Z, Helgerud J, Wagner PD, Richardson RS. (2012) Maximal strength training and increased work efficiency: contribution from the trained muscle bed. Journal of Applied Physiology, 113, 1846-1851
4. Bieuzen F, Lepers R, Vercruyssen F, Hausswirth C, Brisswalter J. (2007). Muscle activation during cycling at different cadences: effect of maximal strength capacity. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 17, 731-738
5. Bishop D, Jenkins DG, Mackinnon LT, McEniery M, Carey MF. (1999). The effects of strength training on endurance performance and muscle characteristics. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 31, 886-891
6. Jackson NP, Hickey MS, Reiser RF 2nd. (2007). High resistance/low repetition vs. low resistance/high repetition training: effects on performance of trained cyclists. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21, 289-295
7. Levin GT, Mcguigan MR, Laursen PB. (2009). Effect of concurrent resistance and endurance training on physiologic and performance parameters of well-trained endurance cyclists. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23, 2280-2286
8. Minahan C, Wood C. (2008). Strength training improves supramaximal cycling but not anaerobic capacity. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 102, 659-666
9. Ploutz LL, Tesch PA, Biro RL, Dudley GA. (1994). Effect of resistance training on muscle use during exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 76, 1675-1681
10. Rønnestad BR, Mujika I. (2013). Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports
11. Sunde A, Støren O, Bjerkaas M, Larsen MH, Hoff J, Helgerud J. (2010). Maximal strength training improves cycling economy in competitive cyclists. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24, 2157-2165
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