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.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
Pro Coach/Co-author “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”
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.