strength training

5 Things Cyclists Don’t Understand About Strength Training

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In previous blog posts I have made the case for why endurance athletes, particularly cyclists, should incorporate strength training into an active lifestyle. I got a lot of great feedback from readers, and a common theme I took from those comments and emails was that endurance athletes have very disparate ideas about what is required to make strength training beneficial, effective, and safe.

So, to clear up some misconceptions, here are some strength training concepts endurance athletes need to understand.

Requirements for Increasing Bone Density

Cyclists have increased risk of osteopenia (low bone density) because cycling is a weight-supported activity. As a result, many older lifelong cyclists start strength training because it is a weight-bearing activity. But if retaining or increasing bone strength is your goal it pays to understand the factors that lead to the formation of new bone.

Minimum Essential Strain (MES) represents a threshold that must be exceeded in order to stimulate bone growth. That strain can come from bearing weight, strong muscle contractions, trauma, and other sources. It is also important to realize bone remodels itself based on the angles and locations of the stress. In other words, as you bear weight and use muscles forcefully, you are applying stress to specific areas of your bones. When athletes participate in a variety of activities and movements, they grow stronger bones and retain more bone mineral density compared to athletes who specialize in a narrow range of movements (i.e. riding a bike).

The rate at which you apply load to a bone matters, too. If you jump off an 18-inch platform and land on a solid surface, the load on your bones increases at a high rate. If I gently place a vest on you that is weighted to apply a load equal to the maximum load from the jump, the load is equal but the rate of loading is slow. The jump will stimulate bone growth more effectively because of the high rate of loading. When you put these two factors together, both the rate of loading and the load itself have to be high in order to retain or increase bone mineral density.

What kinds of exercises achieve high rates of loading and loads that exceed MES? Drop jumps and lunges are good choices because the rapid deceleration. Throwing and catching medicine balls can be good. Rowing may be particularly useful for cyclists. Cyclists often have low bone density in the spine, whereas rowers have high bone density in the spine because of the high muscular loading on the vertebrae (Lariviere, 2003; Cohen, 1995).

High Force, Low Reps (HFLR) vs. Low Force, High Reps (LFHR)

For athletes whose primary goal for strength training is to produce more force (gain strength), one of the first questions is whether they should lift heavy and complete fewer repetitions (90% of 1RM x 5-6 reps) or use less resistance and complete more repetitions (30% of 1RM x 20-25 reps). According to a study by Mitchell you can use either strategy and achieve very similar improvements in strength… as long as you push yourself to failure (the inability to complete another rep)(Mitchel, 2012).

I interpret the Mitchell study to indicate that in the pursuit of making athletes stronger we can take into account factors besides just the amount of weight and the number of times it can be moved. The strength gains are similar either way, and hypertrophy is similar as well (as long as you have sufficient nutrition support). HFLR training increases load on bones more than LFHR training, and heavy lifting results in more forceful contractions, so lifting heavy may be better for increasing bone mineral density.

On the other hand, LFHR resistance training carries lower injury risks, which is a big consideration for endurance athletes who are using resistance training to be a well-rounded athlete and supplement their primary sport. With lower resistance, athletes are able to maintain proper technique longer as they fatigue. When you are lifting heavy and doing it wrong, you can get hurt pretty easily, whereas the consequences of mistakes are typically less serious with lighter weights.

There Is No Easy Strength Training

You can go for an easy ride or a very intense interval workout, but when it comes to resistance training there is only one effective intensity: hard. Whether you are using high or low resistance (after a good warmup), the goal is to use the resistance necessary to reach failure within the rep range you’re aiming for. So, if you’re lifting heavy, use enough resistance that you can barely complete 5-6 reps. If you are lifting light, you want to aim to barely complete 20 reps. If the resistance is so light you can complete 50+ reps, you’re applying more of an aerobic stress. Your strength program can and should incorporate both HFLR and LFHR work, just try not to end up in the middle, 12-15 reps with a weight that doesn’t lead to failure.

Bodyweight or External Resistance?

If you have been paying attention, you can probably deduce the pros and cons of bodyweight vs. external resistance training (free weights, bands, machines). There’s a limit to the resistance your bodyweight can provide, so you have to use different movements to stress muscles in new ways. As you make progress, you have to add reps and/or increase the speed in order to increase workload. With external resistance you can increase the resistance by using heavier weights. Many athletes who are getting started with resistance training are well served by starting with bodyweight exercises and progressing to external resistance once they need to achieve greater workload.

Of course, there are other considerations to think about between using bodyweight and external resistance. Do you have the equipment? Do you have time to go to a gym? Do you want to pay for a gym membership? Will lifting weights fit well into your business travel schedule, or would bodyweight exercises be easier to complete consistently? These are important considerations because frequency and consistency are crucial to making progress. You need to be able to complete a strength training workout twice per week. According to a study by Westcott one workout per week is not enough, but there isn’t much additional benefit (at least in terms of strength gains) from adding a third workout (Westcott, 2009).

Unilateral or Bilateral Movements?

When choosing strength training exercises it is important to have a clear understanding of what you want to get out of them. Let’s consider lunges and squats. Both exercises can be used to increase lower body strength, but lunges present a significantly higher balance challenge compared with traditional squats. If stabilization and balance are what you are working on, the lunge is a more effective exercise, and you can further increase the balance challenge by using a Bosu ball or similarly unstable surface. If your goal is to produce maximum force, traditional squats are a more effective exercise.

Some athletes make the mistake of trying to combine the balance/stability goal with the maximum force production goal. They try to do lunges with too much weight instead of increasing the balance challenge. Or they try to do lighter squats on an unstable surface instead of increasing the force production challenge. Generally speaking a unilateral movement (single leg or single arm at a time) is more effective with less weight and more stability/balance challenge. It is also important to not that when balance/stability/proprioception are your goals, the precision of the movement is crucial and lifting failure does not apply. A bilateral movement (both legs or both arms at once, like a squat or overhead barbell press) is more effective with more weight for maximizing force production.

Athletes typically have specific reasons for adding strength training to their lifestyle, but many create workouts or programs that are a mishmash of the concepts discussed above. If you are going to incorporate strength training, it is best to have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish and how the movements you’re including address that goal.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

Jim Rutberg
Pro Coach/Co-author “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

References
Cohen, B., P. J. Millett, B. Mist, M. A. Laskey, and N. Rushton. “Effect of Exercise Training Programme on Bone Mineral Density in Novice College Rowers.” British Journal of Sports Medicine 29.2 (1995): 85-88.
Lariviere, Jane A., Tracey L. Robinson, and Christine M. Snow. “Spine Bone Mineral Density Increases in Experienced but Not Novice Collegiate Female Rowers.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 35.10 (2003): 1740-744.
Mitchell, C. J., T. A. Churchward-Venne, D. W. D. West, N. A. Burd, L. Breen, S. K. Baker, and S. M. Phillips. “Resistance Exercise Load Does Not Determine Training-mediated Hypertrophic Gains in Young Men.” Journal of Applied Physiology 113.1 (2012): 71-77.
Westcott, Wayne L., Richard A. Winett, James J. Annesi, Janet R. Wojcik, Eileen S. Anderson, and Patrick J. Madden. “Prescribing Physical Activity: Applying the ACSM Protocols for Exercise Type, Intensity, and Duration Across 3 Training Frequencies.” The Physician and Sportsmedicine 37.2 (2009): 51-58.


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Comments 27

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  5. Now that I know how to approach strength training, how do I incorporate it in my weekly training plan. If I am doing interval workouts on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, with a longer endurance or group ride on Sunday, how do I add strength training without impacting recovery for the next interval workout?

  6. Thank you for the follow up article. It’s perfect for me to fine tune what I do. Today was my weight training day and I added lungs with weights and adjusted my weight to max out at 19-20 reps and decided to always take one exercise and adjust weight to max out at 5-7 reps. I feel like it helped stress the muscles more than what I was doing before. I optimistically look forward to more PR’s in the near future!

  7. I suspect I have something in common with at least a fair number of cyclists – I really don’t enjoy the gym and reps (can’t count the number of gym memberships I’ve paid for and not used, because the outside just looks better any day!). That is why I choose to be out on the roads or trails. However my second favorite (maybe favorite) activity is trail running. Any suggestions as to how to make the best of hills, drops, and rocks to gain the benefits of those lovely reps. (Pull ups on trees seems like an idea). 🙂

  8. Chris excellent article, well done. One of best explanations of strength training. I would add for masters, aging cyclists the benefits of functional strength and core work. Cycling is tremendously bad for the bones and it takes a very focused functional strength program and time off of the bike to counter the negative effects on the bones. Exercises such as strongman carry,jump squats, dead lifts, etc, replicate real life movements while stimulating bone modeling and growth. Most cyclists I know never do any strength work even as they age. This winter I am doing strength and core work 4-5 days per week. I lift max strength for about 2 months before bike season starts. I have been following this program for a decade ever since I was diagnosed with osteoporosis. Last year I had my annual scan and I am now mild osteopenia to normal bone density. So it works for me. Once again, excellent article.

  9. Thank you for the great article. I strength train weekly and it seems I have fallen into that middle ground of 12-15 reps not to failure. I will definitely utilize some of the points here to adjust my routines.

    I also recently started mountain biking again after 20 years of just riding on the road. It seems that mountain biking can apply significantly more impact forces with more rapid acceleration and deceleration on the muscles than road cycling. At least the trails in my area are very rocky with lots of drops, jumps, and quick, steep climbs (not to mention the impact of falls 😀).

    Are there any comparison studies of bone density between mountain bikers and road cyclists?

    1. I agree with David — MTB riding on steep, rocky trails does seem to provide more well-rounded exercise, up and down. There is no question it requires upper body strength to horse the bike around in rough terrain, indicated to me by my crash rate going way up when I’ve been neglecting my upper body, and by upper body fatigue after completing a ride in any condition. The point about impacts benefitting bone density make me think I should use my old full rigid 26er a bit more. That thing’ll beat you up pretty good ;).

  10. My suggestion is to step away from the title of this article to one that’s more inclusive like “5 strength training tips for everyone, including cyclists”. As is the title sets out by faulting a group of people. Society as a whole needs to embrace the sharing of information without using click bait-y titles that unnecessarily suggest fault with a specific group of people. My suggestion, at any rate.

    1. I completely agree with Sue’s point about click-bait titles. They have become so pervasive, and so few of the articles that they represent are worth reading that I nearly didn’t read this article. All of these “5 things that so and so doesn’t want you to know about such and such”, or “7 things you are doing wrong with your whatever”. I very much prefer “7 tips to help you with whatever”.

    2. Post
      Author

      Sue,
      We absolutely respect your views on title language. We have experimented by A/B testing articles with different titles, as well as various article formats, and we use the data and reader feedback as guides. One thing we can absolutely promise is we will always provide accurate, substantive, supportive, and actionable information in our content, even if we sometimes use creative titles in an effort to get more people to our pages. – CTS Media Director

    3. Good Grief, Carlie Brown, SJW’ are everywhere…maybe a preventative vaccine is in testing? On the other hand totalitarianism might be fun!

  11. I’ve been lifting in gyms since 1978, plus I lifted while in the Army as a young man. Since 1995 I’ve been doing cycling specific lifting. I use periodized weight training, just like I periodize my aerobic training. I also recommend periodizing weight training over a period of several years, starting with circuit sets of 30, working up to 3 circuits of 30. As Chris says, even at 30 reps you use enough weight so that you cannot complete the last rep *with good form*. With 3 sets you can use the same weight for all three because you won’t fail until the 3rd. The 2nd or 3rd year, start with 3 X 12 in fall and head for 3 X 5 next summer. I think it’s important to do multiple sets, increasing weight from warmup to failure. These progressions will ensure you won’t get injured as long as your form is good. And also do upper body in winter because broken upper body bones are very common in crashes, especially in older athletes, then ease off the upper body work as you lose weight in spring.

  12. Chris,
    I greatly appreciate you breaking down the most current strength training information as it relates to cycling. Knowing how important strength training is to developing athletes in other sports I don’t think it can be overlooked by cyclists. I would like to know about incorporating ST into a cycling plan that involves interval training. I see similar between structured ST and Cycling Plans in that you need overload and stress to generate gains. In other words, riding at tempo isn’t bad but you won’t see gains if that is all that you do. Maximum gains occur with a balance of structured overload and rest. I’d like to know what the current thinking in relation to applying a ST plan like that of the current Cycling Plans and then putting them together in one structured Cycling Structured and Periodized plan? I ask this because there is a variety of High Intensity ST workouts designed to burn fat and build strength in athletes which are other benefits that ST can bring to a cycling plan.

  13. You didn’t mention sets, but I guess you implied only 1 set. I agree as I have found multiple sets to be too time consuming not to mention boring, with questionable benefit. I have had success and good strength gains using 1 set of enough weight to fail in 6-12 reps – once you can do 12 reps you go up in weight.Keeping a log so that you know how many reps/how much weight you need to do to progress is absolutely crucial. I have added for my 2nd weekly workout a super slow session – 10 count lift 5 count negative – it forces good technique, removes momentum, is unlikely to cause injury, and the the muscle ends up working for a much longer duration even though I am doing 4-7 reps to failure x 1set. I credit 25 years of consistent strength training (as a triathlete) with helping me stay injury-free (knock on wood).

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