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Why Strength Training Is Important For Cyclists

Two strength coaches share the best ways for cyclists to build their upper bodies.

Learning to ride a bike is a rite of passage for a lot of kids. From a tricycle, to a two-wheeler with training wheels to build confidence, to removing those training wheels. Those few wobbly pedal strokes can turn into a passion for some and a profession for others.

Watching the Tour De France and Olympic cycling as a young adult, a lot of cyclists I saw had muscular legs but underdeveloped upper bodies. It didn’t seem to affect their level of performance, but it looked unbalanced.

When cyclists look for an edge over their competition they turn to strength training. Strength and power in the legs is obviously important for a cyclist, but matching the upper body can improve performance also. Since the early 2000s, cyclists have warmed to the idea that strength training is not an optional practice, but is a must if one wants to ride stronger, longer, and without pain

Cyclist
Image via Shutterstock/TORWAISTUDIO

[Related: Thoughts a world champion powerlifter has during a high intensity cycling class]

Why is strength training so important for the professional cyclist and the weekend warrior cyclist?  To answer this question and more, I bought in experienced strength coach and cyclist Tom McDonald and the owner and coach of Human Vortex Training, Menachem Brodie.

Why Strength Training Is Important For Cyclists

McDonald:

Assuming that our muscle will constantly increase as we keep riding is not a reality. The muscle required to be a good rider is required — not just legs, but upper body too. This needs to be worked off our bikes. Ever watch dudes come off their bikes and walk into the coffee shop? Quasimodo posture indeed.

Brodie:

Cycling is touted for its low-impact, endurance, and also high intensity aspects. However, as with any sport that has highly repetitive movements and little variation, these strengths are also its weaknesses: 

  • We don’t overload the muscles or other tissues in the body.
  • We spend hours in the same position which leads to postural changes.
  • We need variation in our training approaches to help keep the human body (and mind) in balance so that we can perform at our best.
  • There are little to no forces that encourage our bones to stay strong and dense.

The weight room will not only improve performance, but strengthen these weaknesses to keep the cyclist riding longer without pain and injury.”

How Strength Training Improves Cycling Performance

McDonald:

Strength training will make your overall body strong, which leads to more power to the pedals and a stronger core. Improved endurance — possibly due to greater strength — of slow twitch muscle fibers can spare their fast twitch counterparts, which fatigue quickly. This can enable more force application to every pedal stroke.

Riders with weak upper bodies have a hard time controlling the bike. Weak pulling power will make it more difficult to lift the front wheel when mountain biking or maintain stability when roads become bumpy or are covered with loose stone.

Muscles usually tear at the tendon attachment. Increasing the load capacity of these connections through strength training will lessen the chance of a pulled muscle when changing power suddenly, like a sprint. A huge benefit I experienced after a hip replacement is the potential to improve muscle imbalances. The joint muscles need to be balanced on both sides, as well as the lower body with upper body. Unless you are pro, legs and lungs don’t cut it.

One thing that long-time cyclists forget is the muscle loss from aging causes chaos on a bike. Weight training becomes super important if you want to be an older, stronger rider.

Brodie:

To put it bluntly, simply doing “strength training”, which we must clarify is resistance training (TRX, pilates, and yoga do not count here), by itself doesn’t improve performance. 

Let me say that again, strength training by itself does not improve cycling performance. Nor does strength training by itself improve basketball performance — or baseball, or football, or any other sport for that matter.

Rather, strength training, when done properly for cycling, or any other sport, helps the individual better:

  1. Prepare for the stresses from their sport.
  2. Improve coordination and firing of muscles (for closer to maximum capacity work).
  3. Help better balance out common repetitive movements or postures that sport requires.
  4. Keep the tissues of the body in better working order by providing small or large variations in stresses (i.e. stresses on bones during resistance training to improve bone density).
  5. Aid in speeding up the recovery process between in-sport trainings.

These are just the big ones, but there are many more.

Strength Training Considerations For Cyclists

Brodie:

Fundamental Human Movements

Don’t even think about the weight or resistance you’re using. Focus on learning how to perform the fundamentals human movements (5+1) which include: 

  1. Push
  2. Pull
  3. Squat
  4. Hinge
  5. Press
  6. Rotary Stability

Include strength training year-round with a periodized approach.

Strength, just like riding, needs to be done consistently, without big breaks, in order to see progress. Do strength training year-round and be smart about how you do it!

Train your upper body nearly as much as you train legs.

Your legs get lots of linear movements in cycling, but not too much lateral movement. Yet, we use our upper body a lot in sports — climbing, sprinting, going through rock gardens, riding washboard gravel roads, guiding the TT bike, etc. The upper body is not to be treated as an afterthought. It’s a huge part of what you need for great posture, breathing, and strength on the bike.

How To Arrange A Strength Training Week

Brodie:

Many cyclists overkill when they hit the gym. This leaves them sore for days after, opening up the potential for injuries that are easily preventable. 

Here are 5 guidelines to follow:

  1. Never try to hit all of the fundamental 5+1 movements in 1 training session.
  2. Build and use a dynamic warmup to help you address your tight spots and weaknesses. No more than 4-6 exercises for 1-2 sets each. This should take you approximately 8-12 minutes.
  3. Space your strength training days 1 to 2 days apart as this allows the tissues time to adapt and help build strength.
  4. Don’t waste your time on single-muscle exercise. Focus on compound movements — squat, deadlift, kettlebell swing, dumbbell bench press, shoulder press, and seated row.
  5. Increase your protein intake to at least 1.6g per pound of bodyweight per day. No, you won’t automatically puff up like Arnold.

For women in the second half of your menstrual cycle, i.e. days 15-28 of a 28-day cycle — aim to be closer to 2.0g/kg of protein per day, as your body is hormonally in a catabolic (breakdown) state. 

Sample Strength Training Program For The Beginner Gym Goer

Let’s take a look at what a 2 day a week strength training workout would look like for a road cyclist.

  • Each session should take no more than 60 minutes maximum.
  • Rest between working sets is 3 minutes (once you finish exercise #1 in the pairing, start the “rest period timer”).
  • Move swiftly between exercises that are paired together.

Try not to dilly-dally between exercises.

Dynamic warmup

Crocodile breathing — 5 breaths.

Prone glute activation — 5 reps each side squeeze for 5 seconds each.

Side lying straight leg lifts — 8 reps each side.

Shielded — 3 repetitions.

X band walks, band to chest — 10 reps each side.

Workout 1

A1. 3-1-3-1 tempo goblet squats — 3 sets of 10 repetitions with a weight that feels like a RPE of 5 (light to moderate) for the first 3 reps.

A2. Modified Spiderman — 3 sets of 4-6 repetitions each side, alternating sides.

B1. Seated row — 3 sets of 8 repetitions.

B2. Side lying windmills — 3 sets of 5 repetitions each side.

C1. Suitcase carry — 3 sets of 20 seconds each hand (alternate hands).

C2. Reverse planks — 3 sets of 30-45 seconds.

Workout 2

A1. Towel kettlebell swings — 5 sets of 10-15 repetitions with a light kettlebell.

A2. Foam roll — 4 sets of 20 seconds each leg.

B1. Landmine press — 3 sets of 8 repetitions each side.

B2. Side lying windmill — 3 sets of 4 repetitions each side.

C1. Incline dumbbell bench press — 4 sets of 8 repetitions each side.

C2. Side planks, left leg back  — 4 sets of 15-20 seconds each side with great technique.

Wrapping Up

A small-time investment in strength training for the cyclist can improve performance, reduce injury risk, and will keep them riding longer and stronger. Add these strength training routines into your training program gradually and you will hopefully feel stronger, more stable, and in better control on your bike.

Feature image via Shutterstock/TORWAISTUDIO.

Shane McLean

Shane McLean

Shane McLean is a Certified Personal Trainer who’s worked with a wide variety of clients, from the general population client all the way to ex-Navy seals and college athletes.

Shane is a big believer in seeing exercise as a gift for the body and never a punishment — exercise should be as enjoyable as possible and never just a “work” out.

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