Strength Training for the Cyclist
by Richard Albrow
I have seen quite a few articles over the years concluding that strength training would not make you a faster cyclist. This is odd as cycling includes a lot of strength, whether it is climbing, time trialing, or sprinting.
Benefits of strength training can potentially be improved posture, improved body compositions, and overall body strength that will reduce injury, especially in the low back.
Masters athletes can especially benefit from strength training, as they naturally lose muscle mass if they don’t lift.
Types of Exercises
Obviously, most exercises a cyclist would consider would have to do with the lower body, as these are the muscles that power the bike. I recommend focusing on these, but also adding others that will help strengthen the core, maintain and correct posture, and prevent injury.
Keep reps high, greater than 12 for two months, making sure that the weight you pick is light enough to complete required reps plus a few extra. If you can do 5 or more extra, then go up in weight, even at the beginning of the program. If you do not have any extra or can not complete the reps, go down in weight.
Start with 2-3 sets of each movement. Progress to 3-4 sets.
Do a warm-up set at 60% of the weight you intend to lift for 8-10 reps.
Lift at least twice per week. If you want to progress quicker, do three times per week with a day in between for recovery.
After a couple of months, you can go down in reps (8-12) and up in weights. With the heavier weight, you should only be able to perform 1-2 extra reps after you stop.
Change things up every 3-4 weeks. The body will get more out of the sessions if it is being challenged regularly. If lifting 3 times per week, make sure you use two different programs, alternating between them each time. You can alter the exercise completely or just change other variables like amount of rest, number of reps or sets.
The order of exercises does matter. The more difficult, more potential for injury, more joints being used, more stability required - do early in the session. This usually translates for the cyclist to lifting the lower body first and the upper/core second.
During important races, cut back to one session per week. This is called maintenance training. Here we are trying to hold on to the majority of strength and power gains while allowing our body to focus on the peaking and tapering needed to succeed in our racing. Also cut back sets to 2-3 in that session, keeping rep range in 8-10.
Exercises to include
Squat – This exercise primarily works the glutes and quads. If you’re a beginner, start with front loaded squat with dumbbells, kettlebells or bar held high on the chest. Eventually you will want to progress to back squat with heavy weight to gain the desired strength gains. Remember to focus on perfect form EVERY lift. Hold your breath at top and do not release until past half way coming back up. The bottom of the lift (ie. Range of motion) should be judged if you can maintain the lumbar lordosis/arch in the low back. Too low and the butt will start to tuck under and you will round the low back. Stop one inch higher than that. After a while it will be second nature where “bottom” is. When lifting heavy, most will shorten the range to protect the low back. Also watch the knees to make sure they stay over the toes, not drifting in or out during the lift.
Deadlift/bend – This exercise primarily works hamstrings and the low back. Some have a problem separating this movement from a squat. Here, the movement is more of a bend at the waist as opposed to a squat with the knees. This is not to say the knees don’t bend; They bend less. Start with a hanging, or Romanian, deadlift where you start standing up straight and the bar/weight is in the hand, ie. not from the floor. This is safer and allows you to perfect the technique more easily and establish your range of motion. Again here the lordosis/arch in the low back must be maintained at all times. When deadlifting from the floor, make sure that the back does not round when picking up the bar. If you have tight hamstrings/glutes you might have to raise the bar higher off the floor to allow you to perform the lift safely.
Step up/split squat/lunge – This exercise primarily works the glutes and quads. Here, start with stepups; very functional and easy to do safely with weight added in the hand if needed. Pick a box so the knee gets close to 90 degrees of flexion. Drive through the heel of the foot on box and try not to push off the ground with the other foot. With lunges try not to throw body forward so that the front knee gets in front of the toes. I have people do either a split squat or static lunge first to teach them the distance and biomechanics, and then progress to a back step lunge before a front, multidirectional or walking lunge
Twist pattern – This exercise works the core, specifically the obliques and transverse abdominus. Here, the hips stay fairly quiet and the shoulders twist from side to side.
Pull pattern/row – This exercise works the muscles of the upper back and arms. These muscles help support a strong back, so cyclists need to work these. Classic example of this is the pull-up with full body weight or assisted. Others include any row pattern with either one or two arms
Pushups/chest press - Works muscles of chest and upper arm. Now we don’t need to go crazy on these as we really don’t use these much. Either bench press, dumbbell chest press on ball (better), or standing chest press with cable machine (best) work well.
Side bends - These work the back and obliques in the frontal plane. Do this with either one dumbbell in the hand and bend over each side as far as you can go, or side bend over an exercise ball. Single dumbbell in hand, go as far each side as possible keeping in frontal plane.
Back extensions - Either on a Roman chair or belly on a ball, this exercise works the muscles of the low back - a must for the cyclist.
Crunches – Yes. The classic sit up. But do them either with your back on a ball so you get some range of motion behind you (spine into extension), or do reverse crunches where you use your lower abs to raise your legs/hips off the floor. When you lower the leg, keep the back pressed in to the floor. Arch back around ball, tongue in roof of mouth to activate deep cervical flexors, do not pull head with hands
Planks - These will work on the postural muscles of the trunk and can be done in the prone or side position. Holds can vary from 15 to 60 seconds with a short rest in between.