Everyone can benefit from strength training, particularly cyclists, however, as a group, we tend to avoid it at all costs. Perhaps because it’s hard to know where to start or you can’t see the purpose.
Why should you strength train?
To put it simply, a strong cyclist is a fast cyclist. If you look at any of the pro cyclists you will see that strength training is part of their routine. The good news is that strength training can be part of your routine too. Understanding the what (to do), how (to do it) and when (to do it) is important to get the most out of your training.
Perhaps you are a newcomer to cycling or you’re a bordering athlete, strength training will improve your game. By making our bodies stronger, we make them less prone to breaking with an injury. We also teach our muscles how to deal with the stress they undergo during a ride or that beautiful burning sensation you get when you hit the hills. That’s lactic acid by the way and when you learn to handle it, can be a great way to fuel your efforts.
Equipment you will need
You don’t really need a lot of equipment to strength train. Bodyweight training can be a very effective way of building functional strength and muscular endurance. You may also wish to invest in a pair of adjustable dumbbells such as those available at DN Fitness Supplies who have a range of different weights and options. These types of weights are great because you can quickly adjust the weight setting to increase weight, as and when you are ready.
Why would you want to increase the weight?
As with your regular sessions on the bike, you will want to incrementally increase the amount of work you do.
With cycling, your aim may be to slowly increase the distance you ride each week or month, or you may be gradually trying to increase the amount of climbing you do. It’s human nature to strive for more. It gives us focus and purpose.
You may be familiar with the functional threshold power (FTP) test. This can be done in a number of ways but the outcome is the same. You perform a test where you push yourself to your limit. Once this limit is established you can work backwards creating training zones that helps to improve your performance without overtraining. If you train at your maximum every time you sit on a bike, it’s likely going to have a detrimental effect on you physically and mentally. However, you can train below your threshold zone to see ongoing improvements in your performance over time. You are gradually increasing the resistance.
The same is true for strength training. As the weights you are using (or your body weight) become noticeably easier, that’s the time to increase the weight slightly. The same exercises will now become slightly more difficult. You can train at this level for a while until it becomes easy again. Then you repeat the process.
Take small steps, to begin with
The best way to start something new is to start small and gradually increase the training you do. If you struggle to do an exercise just using bodyweight, don’t think about adding any extra weight yet. It’s important to take things at the right pace for your own body.
Also, you don’t need to do long tedious training sessions. Focusing on quality exercises with good form is the way to go.
Timing your strength training
Many cyclists who know of strength training think that you should only strength train in the off-season. This isn’t correct. You should strength train throughout the year but taper down the amount of off-bike training you do during cycling season. Think of it as winter gains and summer maintenance. During the summer months, you should be aiming for 2 to 3 strength workouts each week taking a rest day in-between workouts.
What type of exercises should you be doing?
There’s no definitive list of exercises you should be doing but you should focus on exercises that complement your regular on-bike training.
Focus on keeping exercises aerobic. As a cyclist, you don’t want to be lifting big weights for a low number of times (reps). You should be aiming to complete 15 to 20 reps each time you do an exercise (sets). This is the same energy system you will be using when you cycle – spinning the pedals 80 to 90 times a minute for hours on end.
Here’s a list of exercises and why they can help you but feel free to do more research yourself and add or change this list. Also, there is a wealth of information available online on how to do these exercises, if you are not familiar with any of them.
These are an important exercise to strengthening your core. When you cycle you need to engage your core frequently for balance, however, cycling itself doesn’t really do anything for core strength. Begin holding the plank pose for 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off for 5 minutes. As you feel this get easier you can increase the time under tension and reduce the rest period.
Riding a bike is very quad (front of the leg) dominant. This can result in a muscle imbalance and injury. Performing deadlifts regularly will help to strengthen your posterior chain including lower back, core and hamstrings (back of the leg). For cyclists, I’d recommend single-leg deadlifts. Perform 15 to 20 reps on one side then change to the other side. Rest for 60 to 90 seconds then repeat. Do this 3 or 4 times.
Squats are a great off-season exercise to do and also good for maintenance when performed with lighter weights. Speaking from experience, you don’t want to be lifting heavy with squats during your on-season as this will result in sore legs with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and will be detrimental to your cycling. Squats work your core and legs with an emphasis on your quads.
Lunges are another great leg exercise. What’s good about them is that they focus efforts on one leg at a time – as is the case with cycling. Perform 15 to 20 reps per side per set and work toward 3 to 4 sets in your workout with a 60 to 90-second rest between sets. Lunges are a good bodyweight exercise. Once you’ve mastered them, you can start to introduce weights but bodyweight training should keep you going for a while as you are putting your body weight on one leg at a time so the intensity will be quite high as it is.
What about upper body exercises?
This one is really up to you. There’s no particular benefit to cycling by doing bench presses or pull-ups but it’s something I personally do anyway. It depends on what you want to get from your training – whether that be purely supplemental to your cycling or if you're looking to improve your physical appearance and whole-body strength.
Whatever your level, strength training can help you improve. Remember, start slowly and with light weights and add a little more each week as you feel yourself.