Strength training for cyclists: myths about strength training and the effects on endurance athletes abound. It seems every online “expert” has their own theory on why strength training will or will not make you a better cyclist (and feels the need to post it on a forum for all to see). Team Sixcycle-RK&O is a strong proponent of the benefits of a well designed gym routine followed during the offseason and early season base building months.
Strength Training for Cyclists: the key words are “well designed”
Going to the gym and hitting every body part by doing several circuits of the gym’s snazzy new weight machines won’t have you looking great on the podium. Let’s take a look at the foundation of successful gym routine as we define it:
Your routine should be made up nearly entirely of body weight exercises and free weight barbell movements – these are the exercises that will build your basic strength
The weights you are lifting should be linearly increased to continually overload your muscles, force adaption and allow for ease of measurement so you know you are getting stronger
Once basic strength is established, move on to sport specificity – for cycling this means single leg strength, power production and core stability
In the first part of our series we focused on points 1 and 2 and how to set up an effective routine to get strong. Now we’ll focus on point 3, how to take that new found strength in the weight room and translate it into sport specificity - for cycling think repeated criterium accelerations, sprints and responding to attacks on climbs.
Once basic strength is established, training in the weight room must become sport specific if it is to have any carryover. In and of itself, basic strength built in the weight room probably will not make you a faster cyclist (although as we discussed in Part 1, stronger bones and ligaments will probably lead to fewer injuries, which indirectly impacts fitness by facilitating more and better training). What does it mean to be sport, in this case cycling, specific?
In cycling both legs are never used in tandem like they are in a squat or deadlift - each leg operates independently. It is also a concentric only movement, meaning their is no negative or downward portion of the movement - you extend your leg then deload it to allow the other leg to produce its power stroke. Finally, the pedal stroke is a very rapid movement, with cadences between 90 - 140+rpm during sprints, attacks and other defining moments of races.
The next phase of the strength training routine will incorporate three key elements which differ from part one of this series:
- Most lifts will be done single legged, working each leg individually before switching, compared to doing exercises with both legs during the strength phase
- Pick concentric only movements when possible, compared to movements that all have concentric and eccentric phases
- Lifts should be done with appropriate weight and speed to maximize speed and power production, compared to building up to heavier weights regardless of speed in the strength phase
The first two points are relatively straightforward - pick single leg box jumps and squats over the two legged variety, for example. Picking concentric only movements can be difficult, but some exercises I like are doing box jumps from a static start (without rebounding between reps) and olympic lifts (such as the clean and snatch, which will be familiar to any Crossfitter). Certain movements can also be modified to put more emphasis on the concentric portion of the movement. For example, doing box squats with a pause on a low box at the bottom of the movement will break the concentric/eccentric phase of the lift and put more emphasis on the concentric drive required to squat up off of the box.
Point 3 requires the most discussion.With the proliferation of powermeters, power is a buzzword with many cyclists who have become intimately familiar with one of the most common units of power measurement, the watt. Thinking back to high school physics:
- Power = Force x Velocity
In the weight room, this means that to maximize power production weights need to be lifted quickly. Performing a max deadlift with 400lbs that takes you 5 seconds to lock out will generate less power than a 200lb deadlift performed in 2 seconds. How should one train in the weight room then if the goal is to maximize power production, rather than simply force production (which is being maximized any time an athlete attempts to set a one rep max, or 1RM)?
The important takeaway from this graph is that maximal power occurs at approximately ½ of maximal force. The maximal force for weight lifting is an athlete’s 1RM. When training for power, weights should be in a range close to ½ of the 1RM, or 40-60%. If your max squat is 300lbs, you will likely be able to generate maximum power production with somewhere between 120 - 180lbs. The key is that despite using a lighter weight the athlete is still applying maximal force to the bar, moving it as quickly as possible. This will provide the best stimulus to make an athlete faster and more powerful.
Training to be powerful requires intense focus, since you have to exert the maximum force possible on the bar instead of simply performing a certain number of reps with a weight. Training for maximal strength is easier to quantify, you can either lift 300lbs or you can’t. But when training for force production you need to focus on putting forth maximal effort to a weight which is submaximal. Said another way, each rep needs to be approached as if you were trying to lift 300lbs, with that same force exerted. The result will be much faster reps.
Many of the tenets of part one of our strength training series will continue to play a key role. Power workouts should be still be done with progressive overload and linear periodization in mind. The goal of each workout is to apply more stimulus and stress to the body than the previous one. However, power workouts are harder to quantify and become more subjective. Doing three squat reps with 200lbs in 4 seconds vs 5 seconds is harder and shows an increase in power, but this can be hard to measure unless you have a partner standing next to you with a stop watch. We’d recommend repeating a weight if you feel you can move it faster the next workout. After a few workouts you will get the hang of how fast you can realistically perform a certain movement, you then add weight and continue with that weight until you are moving it as quickly as possible. Another option is to do a progression with weights between 40-60% of your 1RM – for example, 10x2 squats @50% of 1RM for one workout, 10x2 Squats @55% the next, followed by 10x2 Squats @60%. At this point it is likely that bar speed has suffered somewhat, so the progression could be reset to 52%, 57%, 62%.
In the above example doing 10 sets of 2 reps might sound strange - it is a big departure from doing 3 sets of 5 reps which we recommended in part one and there are several reasons for it. Lower reps are needed to maintain intensity, form and focus, which allow the athlete generate maximum power. It is also easier to recovery from these sets due to the lighter weights being used, so we can use lower rest between sets as well. I typically rest 45 - 60s between these sets.
In summary, a general template for a power workout might be:
- Single Leg Box Jumps: 3-4 sets x 5 reps, work to progressively higher box
- Box Squats: 10 sets x 2 reps, 50-60% 1RM, start new set every minute (10 minutes total)
- Single Leg - Leg Press: 5 - 6 sets x 5 reps, peforming each rep as quickly as possible
- 2-4 upper body and core exercises
This could be done once or twice per week depending on the intensity of on the bike work being done, or could be done once per week in conjunction with a once per week basic strength workout.
There are a host of ways to increase the specificity of your workouts beyond what is outlined here. For workout variation, try matching your lifts to the speed and frequency of your pedal stroke (single leg – leg press at 60+ reps / minute) or matching your exercise and recovery periods to a big crit you will peak for (if a criterium has one hill that everyone sprints up every lap that takes 10 seconds, and the lap is 90 seconds, try a squat workout with a weight you can move fast and do as many reps as possible for 10s, then rest 80s and repeat).
Going too Specific
A caution against getting too specific: why not do all your strength training on the bike, isn’t that the most specific? Attacks, sprints, etc are typically done very explosively and at a high cadence, vs. on the bike strength training which is typically done at a low cadence. This can cause the body to develop different motor patterns for the same skill when only one actually corresponds to the demands of cycling.
Should my exercises replicate the range of motion of my cycling pedal stroke? Some will argue that to be truly cycling specific, exercises should be done with the same range of motion (ROM) as the cycling pedal stroke. Squats in this example would be done above parallel. However, partial squats do not develop the hamstring contraction and hip flexion that are used in a full pedal stroke, so the full squat is actually more applicable to the demands of cycling despite a different ROM.
Strength Training for Cyclists: More to Come
That’s it for now - lift fast, have fun and maybe you’ll even win the quad-off this year. Let us know what questions you have or what else you’d like to see in this series on strength training for cyclists. Videos of our favorite exercises? Comments on pre and post workout nutrition?