Winter Strength Training for Cyclists

By Chris Carmichael

Winter is a huge opportunity for a cyclist. Instead of looking at these months as a period of indoor drudgery or outdoor misery, look at them as the period where you can focus on shoring up your weaknesses and building on your strengths as a new season approaches. Strength training can be an important part of your winter training, but it’s important to establish appropriate expectations for your off-the-bike workouts.

Here are a few things my coaches and I always review with athletes when we talk about strength training:

  1. Focus on overall performance, not cycling performance: For most cyclists, off-bike strength training isn’t likely to directly improve power output on the bike. The benefits reveal themselves in greater fatigue resistance during long rides, as well as greater function and reduced chance of injury from off-bike activities.
  2. You’re a cyclist, not a weight lifter: When in doubt, spend your limited training time on the bike. If you have the time to commit to 2-3 strength training workouts per week, be efficient by focusing on multi-joint movements (a squat instead of a hamstring curl) and targeting major muscle groups in workouts that last no more than 30 minutes.
  3. Joint mobility and range of motion are crucial for cycling: One of the best uses of off-bike training is increasing the effective range of motion for your muscles. Greater mobility through the hips and lower back, for instance, can allow you to get more power from your pedal stroke by enabling your muscles to generate more power through a greater area of the pedal stroke. Improved mobility and range of motion enables riders to achieve their optimal saddle height, whereas riders with limited mobility may be restricted to riding saddle heights that are lower than optimal.

Like other areas of training, off-bike strength and mobility training is highly individual and needs to address your own strengths and weaknesses. However, there are three movements that I recommend all cyclists incorporate into their winter training:

Dumbell Squat and Overhead Press

This is a great whole-body exercise, and although it’s simple in design it hits all the major muscle groups and is a functional exercise we use every day. Grab two dumbbells of appropriate weight for you, stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, and place the dumbbells at the outsides of your feet. Sit back into a squat, being careful to keep your eyes forward and your chest high; don’t hunch your shoulders forward. Grab the dumbbells at the bottom of the squat movement and drive with your legs to return to a standing position. As you reach a standing position, curl the dumbbells up to your shoulders with palms facing each other (not palms up) and then immediately press them over your head, turning the dumbbells so your palms face out at the top of the movement. Reverse the movement all the way down and touch the dumbbells to the floor next to your feet before repeating. Complete 20 repetitions non-stop per set, maintaining a steady pace but not going so fast that you’re using momentum to curl and/or press the dumbbells.

Pushups

The reason I like good old-fashioned pushups is because there are so many variations of pushups that they can grow and change with you. You can use a wider arm stance to focus more on chest strength, a narrower one to focus on triceps, or you can elevate your feet to increase the difficulty altogether. One variation I especially like is to put one hand on a medicine ball while the other is on the floor because this uneven stance challenges your coordination and balance. Overall, pushups develop strength through the chest, the front of the shoulders, and the triceps. Aim for 20 repetitions per set. They should be accompanied by a pulling exercise that targets the muscles at the back of the shoulders and throughout your upper back – perhaps a bent over dumbbell row.

Lateral Lunge

The lateral lunge addresses two major issues for cyclists: leg/hip strength and adductor mobility. The adductors are the muscles in your inner thighs. Most people think of them as the muscles you use to pull your knees together, but they are also very important for hip extension on the bike. When they are tight, you’ll feel like you’re pedaling with “short legs” and you’ll tend to scoot forward on the saddle to, in effect, lower your saddle height. This also robs you of power because you’re not using your muscles through their full range of motion. To do a lateral lunge, start standing with your feet shoulder width apart. Step wide to your right, keeping your left foot flat on the floor and your left leg straight. Keeping your head up and your chest high, drop your hips as you sit back into a squat. Aim to get your right thigh parallel to the ground; you should feel resistance in your quadriceps, hamstrings, and buttocks on the right side, as well as a stretch in the adductors on both sides. Drive with your right leg to return to the starting position and then immediately repeat on the left leg. A lunge to each side represents one repetition, complete 15-20 repetitions per set. Beginners can start with a 45-degree lateral lunge, stepping diagonally forward into the lunge instead of straight to the side.

Originally published in Bicycling Magazine

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