Why Heavy Lifting Is the Best Winter Activity for Cyclists

Yes, I said that I am going into the gym to lift big this winter. And it is going to benefit my cycling.

As winter approaches, this particular cyclist is looking forward to spending time in the gym doing some heavy lifts. I can almost feel some quizzical looks from my fellow sportsmen with that statement. Yes, I said that I am going into the gym to do some heavy lifting this winter and it is going to benefit my cycling.

Heavy Lifting Improves Oxygen Efficiency

I have found numerous studies that support this statement. The first study, published in 2010 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, took a group of sixteen cyclists and splits them into two groups. The study group performed half-squats for four sets of four rep maximums three times per week in addition to endurance training. The control group continued with their endurance training.

The result was an increase in time to exhaustion at their pre-study aerobic maximum power by 17.2%, as well as improvements in cycling economy and efficiency with no increase in VO2 max or body weight. So, by working on strength rather than muscle volume or hypertrophy, I am unlikely to add significant amounts of power-sapping body weight.

I have written about VO2 maximums before. Since maximal oxygen consumption is limited by your lung volume and how fast you can breathe in and out, there are limited opportunities to make significant improvements. Although having a big pair of lungs to start with (thanks to family genetics) will generally be a benefit to your performance. So, lifting heavy seems a good way of improving your performance and efficiency of using the oxygen that you can get into your system.

Heavy Lifting Improves Peak Power Output

The second study, published in 2005 in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, took seven untrained males and had them perform four sets of five repetitions of hack squats at 85% of their 1RM. A barbell hack squat is performed holding the barbell behind the legs. As alternative you could use two kettlebells. As you might expect, the subjects’ lifting performances improved as did their cycling peak power output.

Heavy Lifting Improves Cycling Performance

The third study, published in 2010 in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, has been mentioned in a previous article concerning in-season strength training. The regimen tested was composed of a twelve-week preparatory period of heavy strength training twice per week. The study reported improved cycling performance more than a control group performing only endurance training.

High-Resistance Work Improves Performance

The fourth study, again published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, but this time in 2009, was slightly different in that it studied the effect of lower cadence interval training on cycling performance. This sounds like high-resistance work using the cycle on a turbo or ergometer, or even outside with hill climbs.

In the study, eighteen cyclists performed explosive single-leg jumps combined with either low or high speed intervals. The lower cadence interval group improved performance more than the higher cadence group.

A Break From the Norm

The evidence from research articles indicates that some heavy lifting is beneficial. In the coming months it will be a welcome break for me from cycling in poor weather or becoming bored with turbo training. Working in the gym will also allow me to work on other aspects of my fitness.

As all these studies used heavy loads, you do need to take care. Make sure you warm up properly. If lifting in the gym is new to you, then start off gently and obtain the help of a coach or trainer who can instruct you on the right way to lift without injuring yourself.

cycling, squats, winter, offseason, heavy lifting

How to Incorporate Heavy Lifting Into Your Cycling Routine

One way would be to start with a preparatory period of three to four weeks of lighter weights and basic movements. Include squats, upper body presses and pulls, and core work, followed by a regeneration week.

This could be followed by a second period of three to four weeks of building up the weights for a heavier lifting period. Concentrate more on movements that mimic cycling activities like lunges, steps, and squats. Reduce the number of repetitions and increase the effort while maintaining the same effort on the upper body. Have someone spotting you when you’re lifting heavy weights, for your own safety.

The third period could bring cycling activities back into program by combining resistance sessions with endurance. Work on the bike with a lower cadence and more resistance, such as hill climbs or harder resistance intervals, combined with explosive efforts like the single-leg jumps mentioned in the fourth study. Follow this again with a regeneration week.

That’s three periods of four to five weeks training each outlined over twelve to fifteen weeks, working on combining lifts with cycle training. If this is how you spend your winter, you’ll be in a great position to start 2015.


1. Sunde, A. et. al., “Maximal strength training improves cycling economy in competitive cyclists.” J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Aug;24(8):2157-65.

2. Loveless, DJ., et al., “Maximal Leg-Strength Training Improves Cycling Economy in Previously Untrained Men.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005 Jul;37(7):1231-6.

3. Rønnestad, B., et. al. “In-season strength maintenance training increases well-trained cyclists performance.” Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Dec;110(6):1269-82.

4. Paton, CD., et.al., “Effects of low- vs. high-cadence interval training on cycling performance.J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep;23(6):1758-63

Photos 1 & 2 courtesy ofCrossFit Empirical.

Photo 3 courtesy ofShutterstock.