cyclists climbing uphill at low cadence and high torque

To Climb Faster, Start With This Low-Cadence High-Torque Cycling Workout



By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach,
co-author of “Ride Inside
and “The Time-Crunched Cyclist

Just about every cyclist would like to climb faster, or at least make climbs less taxing at the same speed. Many cyclists focus on improving aerobic conditioning with Zone 2 endurance rides, and layer in lactate threshold and functional threshold power (FTP) work to increase sustainable power output for climbing as well as how long they can sustain that output. There’s another component of climbing that sometimes gets overlooked, and that’s torque. Call them ‘tractor pulls’ or ‘muscle tensions’ or ‘strength endurance’ or something else, but low-cadence, high-torque climbing intervals create a great foundation for improved climbing speed. Better yet, they can be done indoors if you don’t have outdoor terrain or weather that’s conducive to this type of work. If you want to ride uphill faster this year, the workout here is where you should start.

MuscleTension Intervals: The First Step to High-Speed Climbing

Over-geared climbing is an often-overlooked component of building climbing speed. During MuscleTension intervals you are pedaling slowly (about 50-55 rpm cadence) against a heavy resistance. The point is to recruit and engage more muscle fibers to generate the necessary force to continue climbing.

Remember, power is the product of force and angular velocity (cadence), meaning there’s an inverse relationship between force and cadence; it requires more force to produce a significant amount of power at a lower cadence.

What MuscleTension Intervals Do for You

The benefit of producing more force and recruiting more muscle fiber first is that you are teaching your body to continue recruiting more muscle fiber even as you change the focus of your training to higher-cadence, lower-force workouts like SteadyState and ClimbingRepeats (lactate threshold intervals), or general endurance riding. Prolonged high-force intervals at an aerobic cardiovascular intensity may also lead a subset of fast-twitch (Type II) muscle fibers to change their characteristics and behave more like endurance-friendly slow-twitch (Type I) fibers.

Together, these adaptations prepare muscles to produce more power and resist fatigue when you transition to lactate threshold climbing efforts at 80-90 rpm. Even as you increase cadence you will retain some of the increased ability to produce greater force, which means you’ll likely see an increase in climbing power when you bring your climbing cadence back up to 80+ rpm.

Fatigue resistance, which can also be observed as an ability to maintain a given intensity longer, mostly comes from improving cardiovascular fitness. But when you increase muscle fiber recruitment you also spread the workload of producing power over more muscle fibers, which increases the time it takes for the whole muscle to fatigue. And with the added adaptation of some fast-twitch fibers behaving more like slow-twitch fibers, MuscleTension intervals effectively give an endurance cyclist more muscle fibers to work with that are adapted to your particular sporting goal.

How To Do MuscleTension Intervals

MuscleTension intervals are deceptively simple. To perform them well, you need a climb that lasts 5-10 minutes. The grade doesn’t have to be steep (although it can be); a steady 1-2% false flat will work if that’s all you have.

If you don’t have any hills to work with, riding over geared into a strong headwind will work. The key is to balance your gearing and the grade so you are grinding along at about 50-55 rpm and maintaining a power output higher than your aerobic “cruising” power and lower than your lactate threshold power.

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Aim for Aerobic Tempo or Sweetspot Tempo intensities:

  • Aerobic Tempo: Heart rate range of 84-94% of Threshold HR. Power output range of 76-85% of Threshold Power
  • Sweetspot Tempo: Heart rate range of 93-96% of Threshold HR. Power output range of 88-94% of Threshold Power

Although it is good to ride MuscleTension intervals using a variety of hand positions (this is a workout we use to help athletes adapt to aero positions and riding in the drops, too), most people find them to be most comfortable and productive with their hands on the tops of the bars. Aim to keep your upper body quiet during these intervals; focus the effort through your hips and legs rather than throwing your shoulders and head into it.

MuscleTension Intervals Indoors

If you are performing these intervals indoors, it’s better to do these with a trainer set to “level” or “resistance” mode rather than “ergometer mode”. In ergometer mode, a smart trainer will control the power output and keep it steady regardless of cadence. This can be useful for beginners so you can focus more on cadence than effort level. Over time, though, it’s important to gain the internal control of your effort so you can maintain the target power and cadence on your own.

Planning MuscleTension Intervals

When MuscleTension Intervals are too long your muscles fatigue, power drops, cardiovascular intensity drops, and you end up riding a low-cadence, low-force aerobic interval. The force is important, so keep intervals at 5-10 minutes in length and increase workload by adding intervals if necessary. Total time-at-intensity for a single workout should be around 20 minutes for beginners, 30 minutes for intermediate riders, and 40 for advanced riders (doesn’t need to be exact).

You can divide that total time-at-intensity a variety of ways: 3×7 minutes, 4×5 minutes, 2×15 minutes, 3×12 minutes, etc. A good starting point for beginner and intermediate riders would be 4x 5-minute MT intervals. Recovery between intervals should be equal to the duration of the efforts, so you should take 6 minutes of easy spinning recovery between 6-minute MuscleTension intervals.

A two to three-week block focused on MuscleTension intervals is a good use of your time. Within this block, beginner and intermediate riders should separate MT workouts by at least a full day. You can do endurance rides, group rides, and drill work on these days, but high-intensity intervals (VO2 max work, sprints) would be counterproductive. Experienced and/or advanced riders can often do MuscleTension intervals on back-to-back days, just be careful to take enough recovery time following those 2-day blocks.

MuscleTension Intervals are a great first step toward high-speed climbing fitness later in the spring and summer because they give you tools you can leverage when you move on to building greater climbing power at lactate threshold. So, get grinding!

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Comments 33

  1. Pingback: Carefully Curated Triathlon News for January 25, 2024 - TriathlonWire

  2. Point that bike uphill in a 42-22 or 42-23, which many race bikes came stock with “back in the day”, stay seated like Gino Bartali. “Lift heavy, get strong!”

    1. My ride is a Lynskey GR300 with a STAM Rival AXS Wide Crankset – 160 mm., 12 speed, 43/30T, 94BCD, DUB Spindle Interface. Does that sound about right for my needs?

  3. Advice would be appreciated for whether this mode of hill training would work or should be tweaked. I’m 69 y.o. and resumed cycling a year ago after years off; did so after found I have a total blockage of a coronary artery. (No bypass as collaterals had grown around the blockage.) Steep grades of anything but a short length (e.g. – 8%) leave me spinning in the 30’s-40’s or, if steeper (e.g. – 12% – 14%), bent over for several minutes fighting to catch my breath. (It was this after short bursts of non-biking exertion that got me to the E.R. in the first instance.) It’s all quite humbling for one who did a 19 mile climb at 13-14% grades to Cedar Breaks, Utah non-stop without once getting out of breath.
    Weight gain over several decades certainly plays a part but this goes above and beyond that, effectively stopping me from anything longer than a 10-20 second surge or burst of effort.
    [N.B. – Am consulting with a cardiologist, have a HR monitor, and am having a SRAM left crank w’ power meter installed on my Lynskey GR300.)

    1. Thankfully, evolution has provided our heart cells with mechanisms to reduce damage from hypoxia. I am also under the care of a cardiologist, 3 of them actually, 3 stents and a pacemaker. What you do is just go by steady state HR. Keep it down to where you feel OK. Then it doesn’t really matter how you’re pedaling, cadence, hills, etc. Just keep the HR down. I’ve been repaired enough that I can work at lactate threshold again – which of course is nowhere near where it used to be power-wise. Working on it though. At least we can ride, huh? This is what my doctors are telling me. Ask your doctor for confirmation.

  4. Yep, have done these for many years, usually in April. They work. It’s not only muscle fiber recruitment, it’s also that when climbing you’re riding with “low crank inertial load”. Look it up. Your pedal stroke should be slightly different. Low cadence/high force is way outside your normal pedaling envelope so it forces your ganglia to adapt to a slightly different way of riding.

    Helps a lot with doing multi-thousand foot climbs at whatever cadence because it increases muscular endurance. There have been top TdF riders who were famous for doing them.

    No, you can’t get the same result by standing, only seated, no upper body movement as described. I also do them indoors on my resistance rollers. Huge gear. That said, outdoors is slightly different and more closely associated with reality. Indoors one can also do 1-legged 2′ intervals at various cadences, which is kinda similar but not the same because of the low aerobic load. Of course one can also do low cadence standing drills, but it’s not the same though probably helpful, especially with hill sprints.

    I can’t speak to the knee damage thing because I’ve strength trained all my life, no issues at 78.

  5. Pingback: Cycling Cadence: Economy, Efficiency and How to Train Low and High Cadence to Ride Faster - CTS

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  7. Thank you for this article. I am extremely keen to try it out. I have been off training for a couple of months after a very bad crash and my climbing has suffered. I live in a very flat area and this workout for just a half hour a day sounds perfect. I usually do intervals on my stationary bike, but this sounds better.

  8. I do a couple of routines that are somewhat similar. First, at the suggestion of Kevin Livingston, hold a cadence of 60 for 30 minutes or more to mimic long climbs. Second, big gear hill repeats suggested by Kent Bostick, three sets of five on a hill at least half a mile long averaging about 6 percent. I use a standard crank and begin in my 15 followed by 14, 13, 12, and 11. Climb in the drops with a still upper body. Descend as quickly as possible after each interval and resume. Do a one to two mile recovery between each set.

  9. Great article!
    I ride a substantially long and steep road (24 mi 6-10% grade) several times a month. I can attest to the process discussed and see where it has benefitted me.

  10. Glad to see you return to this topic. I have a copy of one of your first training videos that covered this, and it did me a lot of good. Guess I should dig into my archived videos and hit it again. Thanks.

  11. I live surrounded by long and short climbs that range from 6-7% to 23% and I’ve struggled to find a workout to implement each spring to get me into condition for my favorite Strava segment (which is one long cruel climb made up of four climbs in a row, each one getting steeper)….but now, I think I have it!

  12. I’m glad to see an rpm number included. Many riders I see trying to do “strength” training by using low cadence are using a gear far too large and down at 25 or so rpm. That does almost nothing and results in trIning bad form. Plus risks knee joint injury.

  13. I tried doing muscle tension intervals for four weeks, earlier this season. I did not see any improvement in power output. However, after that I began regular strength training in the gym. Three times per week at first, then twice, and now once per week maintenance lifting for the summer. That has made a significant difference (increase) in my power output during FTP tests and FTP intervals, and especially on five to ten minute climbs.

    Also I feel better on my bike, less pain during or after hard rides because my body feels more “integrated” from head to toe. I’m doing full-body multi-joint exercises including squats, deadlifts and explosive squat-presses.

    The only issues are 1) the strength training takes a long time to recover from so subsequent workouts on the bike can be difficult to do at 100%. Sometimes a couple of days to recover, 2) I’m about 3 pounds over where my weight was last year at this time without the weight lifting. If I can lose that weight but keep the strength I should be able to hit some PR’s on climbs this year!

    I hear differing opinions on whether we should lift year-round or only in the winter. At this point I’m opting for year-round mostly because of the overall health benefits, how good and connected I feel in my body, and also the increased power. I do weigh more so right now I’m not climbing any faster despite the increased power output. Thoughts?

    1. Me too!!! Have never done MT intervals but will try out this CTS plan; however, if I stop weight training for my legs – no question about it, my climbing suffers significantly.

  14. There’s no conclusive evidence that muscle fibers can transform from slow- to fast-twitch or vice versa.

    1. Yes they can. Search on google scholar for articles on exercise induced transformation. In trauma or disease it happens as well, especially with nerve damage. The nerve determines the muscle fiber type, not the fiber itself. When a fiber is enervated by a fast or slow nerve it will be a fast or slow fiber. I’d you train for one or the other your nerves will seek out more fibers to enervate according the exercise

  15. I just started doing MT workouts this past year. As someone that lost 97 lbs. I thought I could just spin my way up hills and win/conquer on that alone. Where MT intervals have actually helped me is in races where small elevation changes of a mile or less have given me increased power and sustain that power without going into high muscle fatigue.

    Additionally, my ability to out-power my opponents on uphill finishes has increased twofold. Even on flat crits- such as the one I did Tuesday night- resulted in a 2nd place finish, 2nd place for a cash prime and 1st for a restaurant prime. I guess what I am saying is that as a TCC, every workout must have purpose. That’s not to say you can’t just ride and observe Spring flowers. However, if you plan to ride competitively, MT workouts need to be part of your repertoire.

  16. For those who don’t own a power meter. Which RPE should the intervals have? Thanks in advance — mirko

  17. What are your thoughts on MT workouts for mtb riding. Most of the climbs we have in my area are under 10 min effort. Would you recommend MT on the road, or would it be more beneficial to do the workout on a trail?

    1. Post

      You can absolutely do MuscleTension on a mountain bike or gravel bike. In some ways these are not dissimilar from the low cadence, high torque climbing riders experience on a singlespeed MTB (you can achieve the same thing by climbing in a bigger gear than normal). The only caution to completing these intervals on a trail is that rocks, roots, and trail features can make it difficult to maintain a steady effort. A lot depends on the technical difficulty of the trail. – Jim Rutberg, CTS

  18. Hm. I think you need to define “climb”. If you means hills which take a max of 5 or so minutes to get up then maybe.

    But if you mean mountains then this is exactly the wrong thing to advise all except the best riders to do.

    I live in the UK but ride Gran Fondos in Europe to a reasonably high standard finishing in the top 150 overall aged mid 50s so I am used to having to train for real mountain climbing in less than ideal conditions.

    While riding in Europe I have passed many thousand other riders. I’d guess the vast majority of them were doing “muscle tension intervals” but not through choice. They are fighting the bike rather than riding it. The solution to their pain is not training to do muscle tension efforts better but rather avoid doing them in the first place.

    The way I practice for high climbs is on a turbo, doing sub threshold steady state efforts that represent the target power I want to hold with the bike set appropriate for the gradient. rpm will be around 5-10 less than my cadence on the flat. So for the longest climbs this may mean over an hour in sweetspot 70-75rpm. Riding the real thing is just the same, so long as gearing is correct. “Force” interval type effort is best avoided and reserved just to surge past a group of riders or tackle an especially short sharp segment.

    1. Martin, I guess I understand what you say. I live in French Alpes and I like climbing in mountains. I mean ascends like Alpe d’Huez. What I understand is that you try to keep cadence “high”. High frequency is considered to fatigue muscles slower than low cadence. I trained to keep my cadence high and I improved a lot in keeping cadence high. A one hour climb with an average of 7% I can maintain between 70 and 75 rpm. But the thing is it did not make me faster because my power output did not increase. I ride 250W with 70rpm/75rpm for an hour instead of 65rpm before. Obviously this is because I put a smaller gear to produce same power. Probably I went for high cadence solution, because I know that developing strength is tough for me. And I suppose I went wrong. Over the years I got more endurance and a higher cadence. I got more robust, I mean I can ride more km in a week than before. But, I did not get faster. In Granfondos I see people from my club who have probably not more endurance and pedal at lower frequency, but they have more strength / power. How can I know ? I see their power output on Strava and I know their weight. Briefly said, I will give muscle tension interval a chance this year.

    2. That’s why he defines climb as 5 – 10 minutes at the start of the article, this is only for training for longer climbs

    1. Since it’s above aerobic cruising power and below lactate threshold, I would probably look at tempo to low sweet spot ranges. I’d probably start mid/high-80% and adjust from there. Guessing, so would love a definitive answer from a coach.

      1. coaches? also will appreciate in an answer to this question “What % of FTP range should these be completed at?”


    1. I have been doing this type of training for decades with great results. In response to your question-there are benefit to doing these in both positions. I would not mix the 2 in the same day, but do sessions seated over a week or 2, then do sessions standing for the same period-sometimes alternating 1 week seated, 1 week standing.

      Do not forget the amount of force being placed on the knees-especially when doing seated drills. It is critical to have a properly fitted bike and to have done enough weight work in the gym to build strength in all the surrounding muscles of the knee to help keep it stable and prevent injury. Seated drills can also put alot of stress on the lower back, so make sure to work on strong core/back before these drills as well.

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