Why Endurance Athletes Need to Stop Worrying About Gaining Muscle Mass

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Whenever you suggest weight training to a cyclist, runner, or triathlete, one of the athlete’s first concerns is whether putting on additional muscle mass will hurt their sport-specific performance. Will more muscle make you slower by increasing you total bodyweight, or make you faster by increasing your strength and resilience? There are a few ways to look at the question.

You don’t need to be bigger to be stronger

Hypertrophy (making muscles bigger) is not the same thing as increasing strength (maximum force production). Professional bodybuilders are not nearly as strong as powerlifters, but powerlifters don’t come close to bodybuilders in terms of muscularity. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the most important for endurance athletes is the idea that developing strength depends a lot on improving neurological recruitment, whereas the stimuli for hypertrophy have more to do with inducing structural stress to the muscle (getting pumped).

Athletes looking to increase muscle size utilize more total reps and reps-per-set at moderate to heavy resistance (70-85% of 1RM), and they often use multiple exercises to target the same muscles in different ways and from different angles. This increases the structural stress. In contrast, athletes looking to increase raw strength utilize fewer total reps, fewer reps-per-set, heavy resistance (80-90% of 1RM) and a narrower range of multijoint exercises. This lifting style maximizes neuromuscular recruitment so you activate more existing muscle fibers with each contraction.

Even the recovery between sets is different depending on your goal. Bodybuilders and those looking to increase muscle mass take short rest periods (1-2 minutes) between sets, whereas the athletes going for pure strength take longer (3-5 minute) rest periods. This is similar to sprint training for endurance athletes. When cyclists train for sprints or standing starts, you want to take 3-5 minutes between efforts so you are recovered and able to produce maximum power for each effort.

Endurance athletes gain both mass and strength, at first

Bodybuilders are not weak and powerlifters are not small. There’s obviously plenty of crossover between gaining strength and building muscle mass. In the weight lifting world there is a big division between gaining strength and building muscle. It’s a matter of specialization. With the last good example being Franco Colombo in the 1970s, it’s extremely rare for an athlete to simultaneously be an elite champion in powerlifting and bodybuilding.

None of that matters for most endurance athletes because your strength and muscle mass are both so low that almost any strength training you do will result in structural and neurological stress and therefore lead to both increased muscle mass and increased strength.

Why endurance athletes don’t become bodybuilders

That last section is what scares endurance athletes away from resistance training, but it shouldn’t. Yes, you will gain some lean body mass, especially if you have avoided resistance training for a long time. The reason you are unlikely to gain a lot of muscle mass, however, is that substantial hypertrophy requires very specific focus and intention.

Sustained and substantial hypertrophy requires a lot of nutritional support. Bodybuilders and endurance athletes consume a lot of calories, but bodybuilders consume more protein per kilogram of bodyweight than endurance athletes and expend a fraction of the energy endurance athletes utilize for aerobic (cardio) training. To build muscle you need a caloric surplus, but cyclists and triathletes operate a much smaller energy surplus – and sometimes in an energy deficit. Exercising for hypertrophy without adequate nutritional support won’t result in hypertrophy, and endurance athletes who utilize resistance training and eat like endurance athletes rarely provide the nutritional support necessary for significant hypertrophy.

Gaining lean muscle mass is unlikely to make you slower

For elite amateurs and professional endurance athletes there is great aversion to gaining muscle mass, but that aversion is largely irrelevant for most age groupers, masters, and amateurs. For most of us, the small increase in lean muscle mass will be offset by fat loss and a change in body composition. Your total weight is likely to remain relatively constant, but you will gain strength through improved neuromuscular recruitment. And as I’ve talked about in previous posts, resistance training is likely to improve your ability to complete sport-specific training with greater consistency, and increase the range of activities you can use to supplement your sport-specific training when you can’t ride or swim or run.

Above all, it is important to realize that for the majority of amateur athletes, bodyweight is not your limiting factor for success. You have not maximized your potential for improving aerobic fitness yet, so while losing weight will help you get faster by increasing power to weight ratio, you have more potential for getting faster with improved aerobic fitness than you do by losing weight. That’s why gaining a few pounds of lean muscle mass is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it makes you a more well rounded athlete who can, in turn, be more consistent with high-quality sport-specific aerobic training.

The bottom line

Resistance training is good for you, especially if you are a middle-aged endurance athlete who is not pursuing a paycheck from endurance sports. You may gain a few pounds, you may stay at the same weight and improve body composition (more muscle, less fat), or you may even lose weight. In any scenario you will gain strength and in the end you will be a better, more well-rounded athlete.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS


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Comments 20

  1. Read, Underground Secrets to faster running by Barry Ross. Extensive research behind the technique, as well as many proven examples. The book refers to sprinters predominately, but Barry Ross trained me to use the application for endurance athletes. I have had great success with it. But endurance athletes will need to adhere to more rest between sets, and days of lifting.

  2. Gee I feel a bit left out. My knees suffer from damaged meniscus, so I am a bit worried about high weight presses or squats. Five reps to failure sounds like a tremendous amount of weight. Any suggestions?

    1. Yes, do not use high load resistance but instead practice isometric tension which will focus on the the right muscle groups without placing undue stress on your cartilage.

  3. Terrific article Chris… very helpful and certainly clears up a lot of questions around where to apply focus and effort in the pursuit of optimal performance. Well done and and thanks again!

  4. What about those of us on the opposite end of the spectrum? I believe I have more muscle mass than is desirable, particularly in my upper body, for the sport of triathlon. Will losing muscle mass (in the right places) improve performance? I’m lean although I feel as if losing some of this muscle mass is desirable for improved watts/kg and my running speed. I still do strength training, but the focus is on power and higher rep work with minimal focus on upper body.

  5. Great write up Chris! Cycling is my thing and I can definitely attest to the fact that doing the odd squat hasn’t got me legs like Arnold Schwarzenegger :). I’ve definitely noticed some more tone but as you said, I eat no where near enough to engage significant muscle hypertrophy.

  6. This is a great article Chris and I’ve read some great comments as well. I get that we want to Low Rep/High Resistance to maximize strength. However, I think strength training can be approached much like a cycling interval plan in that you can mix intensity and tempo. If you do the same thing every time you enter the gym or ride your bike, your body will eventually adapt and stagnate. Also remembering that all work contributes to your TSS in that it all adds to training fatigue and training gains. Losing weight while maintaining the same FTP is an increase in Watts/KG. You’d expect a 200 lb cyclist to have a higher wattage output than a 135 lb cyclist. However, if strength training means that the 200lb cyclist loses 35 lbs with minimal loss in FTP that could be significant. While strength training can reflect strength, it also increases your basal metabolic rate. So there is a benefit to high rep work and functional training in that it can stimulate targeted weight loss while preserving or maximizing strength. In my mind it’s good to vary the strength training routine just as you mix up cycling plans with LT, Sweet Spot and VO2 In cycling you start with a base plan then go specific. You can also mix up strength plans with Functional Training, High Resistance/Low Rep, HIT Super Setting, Tabata which can all benefit cycling if approached considering variety and depth. I believe that strength training is much more than Power Lifting and Body Building. Basketball players and MMA fighters are strong, powerful, endurance athletes as well.

  7. Thanks for article guys. I’m a serious cyclist not far off 40 and one of the few who is regularly in the gym. I agree with all the points above particularly about weight gain. It’s hard to add mass on an endurance athlete’s diet. I’ve also noticed a dramatic increase in vascularity in the legs. More power, welcom reduction in lower back pain, less body fat, and guess what? A six pack. For me, strength training is a must for so many reasons, you get at the physiological benefits and a more well-rounded, attractive physique – not bad if like most of us you’ve a small amount of interest in looking good as well as being fit!

  8. Started including squats and lunges with weights a couple of years ago. Yes! Huge difference especially on sprints and hills. As far as being to “bulky” I have an agreement with my wife, She doesn’t ask me if the dress makes her look “FAT” and I don’t ask her if the SPEEDO make me look like “ARNOLD.”

  9. Definitely worth following training periodization when approaching a s + c program.
    Just like any classic training pyramid; moving through the Base phase of training with high reps on a low weight. Then through the build phase with more weight and less reps and finally into the peak phase in the 8 weeks up to your A event. Here, it’ll be max efforts and very low reps.

    It’s crazy to think anyone would go straight into heavy lifting. One way ticket to a bad injury.

  10. So I sounds like Chris has made sense or what was a non-issue.

    Strength traing will be a cross training to cyclists in the off season, period.

    No need to freak out that U will look like Arnold!

  11. Thanks for the great article. You mentioned that you know or no athlete that was an elete bodybuilder and power lifter at the same time. Franco Columbo is a man from the mid 1970s that was at the top of the heap in both those two sports. So it can happen but is very rare. Thought you might want to know. Keep up the good work Chris.

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  12. For years I used resistance training using 10 – 12 repetitions per set for 3 or 4 sets. I maintained good overall strength and muscle tone, but never seemed to get much stronger. Last winter I tried a program recommended by a podcast host I listen to. The program basically consist of functional movements with heavy weight and low reps. It is called 5 X 5 X 5. 5 movements X 5 reps X 5 sets. Typical movements are bench press, pull up, deadlift, squat, lunge, clean and press, etc. I use the heaviest weight I can handle for 5 reps. When I can do more than 5 reps on the last set I increase the weight. I go from one movement to the next until I complete the 5 different movements then rest and start again.

    Using this method, I achieved more strength gains than any previous period and felt great. With warmup total time is less than an hour and two times a week will result in maximum gains for most.

  13. Useful distinction of bulk vs strength building! ALSO increased upper body strength is the best weapon to protect against hitting your head hard from a fall. Pushups mimic the way a cyclist breaks their fall. Without it it’s like falling from a bike with your hands tied behind your back!

    1. Karate, Judo train not to throw your hands out to break your fall. You are trained to roll and slap your hands on the mat. The force from your momentum on the bike at what ever speed is greater. Weight training wont prevent a broken collar bone, only technique. What I have read is to keep your hands on the bars and roll. If you go over the tops of your bars, your best bet protecting your head may be a broken collar bone. Rolling diffuses the impact from a fall.

  14. So the long debated question that remains, “Should I, someone wanting to become a better triathlete, go for higher reps and a lower weight, or fewer reps at a higher weight. I.E. The Bodybuilder- high reps or the Powerlifter- low reps?

    1. Ultimately, you’ll want the powerlifter route. Use weight training to build your strength. You might get some endurance results from the low weight / high rep approach, but that’s a waste of your time in the gym. You swim/bike/run to build your endurance much more specifically for your goals. Use the gym to build the raw strength to support your aerobic engine. That said, you may need a few sessions of low weight / higher reps to help train the proper lifting forms. But move on to focus on higher loads and fewer reps to build your strength and get the most benefit from your time in the gym.

      1. Thanks for this article. This subject is open to much interpretation. Your program must reflect your cycling goals; sprint, time trial, 100km stage race.
        Slow heavy weights builds strength and endurance. It isn’t the right approach to build power and speed. (Compare a sprinter to a track high-jumper who needs explosive power, not strength in itself.)
        Many cyclists only lift weights in the off-season or to start a rebuilding phase after a heavy race program. It takes five days to fully recover from an intense weight workout. The power meter will prove it.
        I would like to see some detailed recorded testing results, or even some individuals would want to share their personal results.

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