Strength training can be a great alternative to cycling outside. If you find yourself constrained to be indoors due to weather or traveling, there are real benefits to supplementing your rides with gym work. In fact, as I will describe, you can even get faster by doing a few weeks of strength training without doing much cycling at all. Just a few weeks’ work in the gym can boost your cycling power.
Let’s look at the effects that strength training has on the body and how this can influence your cycling.
Get Strong to Ride Fast
Strength training will help performance via two adaptations:
- More muscle fibers
- Improved muscular activation
Strength training will do this by overloading the muscles so they break down and reform. It also forces you to activate as many fibers as possible to move heavier loads than you might be able to achieve on the bike alone.
In order to make strength training relevant to cycling, you need to stress the same muscles you use on the bike. This means choosing exercises that will use movement patterns similar to cycling, so that a neurological adaptation can occur. Fortunately, we can do this with some common exercises. The primary exercises I recommend are back squats and lunges.
This is a complex movement, and it is important that you do it properly. If you are new to strength training and spend a lot of time sitting in the car or at a desk, you may find that your hamstrings are too tight to allow you to get very low. It is very important that you drive from the hips and the legs and not the lower back. Choose a moderate weight and work on gradually increasing the depth of your squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor. The moment you find that your hamstrings start to feel tight, stop at that depth. Over time, they will adapt and allow you to go slightly deeper. What you should wish to avoid is a rounded lumbar spine.
I always recommend using a proper squat rack for this exercise. Set up the safety stops or pins to help keep you safe, even if someone is spotting for you. There few things worse than seeing someone in the gym try a weight that is too heavy for them and collapsing to the floor.
This is also complex movement. As a unilateral or one-sided exercise, it has similarities to cycling where you pedal with alternating legs. Lunges start from standing with both feet together. Step forward into the lunge, lowering your body until the thigh is parallel to the floor. Push up and then step back to the start. Repeat with the other leg, and that makes one repetition.
Basic Strength Work for Cyclists
Here is a basic session to repeat three times per week. Perform this routine on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, taking rest days on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Each Sunday is reserved for a cycling ergometer test.
The strength movements are done in a circuit style, using four sets of 6-8 repetitions each.
- Warm up
- Barbell back squats
- Incline dumbbell shoulder press
- Dumbbell weighted alternating lunges
- Lat pull downs
- Cool down and stretch
Your warm up could include 10 minutes on a stationary bike, rower or mountain climber to get your heart rate to rise. These machines have movement patterns that are close to cycling, so the most relevant muscles will be prepared for the heavier work to come.
I have included shoulder exercises, since these support your upper body when you rest on the handlebars. Alternating the upper and lower body will give your lower body time to recover before the next set. The use of two dumbbells in the shoulder press will require you to use more stabilizing muscles than a single barbell, and will assist a more useful adaptation for when you are on the bike and dealing with moving and vibrating handlebars.
I suggest a slightly lower load in the first set than the remaining three sets, in order to allow the body to become familiar with the exercise. This also allows you to check that your planned load is not excessive. For example, if you plan to back squat 185lb, start your first set with 135lb before moving up in weight.
The right load will be when you start to feel failure on the last repetition. Ensure that you are staying in complete control of the movement. When you can complete eight or nine repetitions, increase the load in the last three sets.
Strength Works for Cycling
I usually start my winter training with four to six weeks of strength work, but this strategy is useful in any time of the year, or as circumstances may dictate. Last year, I undertook ten weeks of strength training using this type of program. I performed three sessions per week, and the only cycling I did was a weekly test on a calibrated ergometer for different distances. Here are the results:
Over ten weeks, my 10km average power rose from 267 to 294 watts. Over a 10-mile ergometer test course, my average power also rose from 262 to 287 watts. Considering that I did no additional cycling in this time, these results were very pleasing. This program provides a perfect entry to move onto a different phase of training on the bike, or preparing for competitions.
If you want to mix things up a bit, would like to tone up some muscles, or really cannot stand any more time on the trainer, do not be reluctant to try some strength training. It can really boost your cycling power.
Strong is never wrong: