heavy strength training

Why Cyclists Benefit from Heavy Strength Training

Strength training protocols for cyclists have evolved through the years, and the current consensus at CTS is that heavy strength training is recommended for most amateur, Masters, and especially Grand Masters (60+ years old) cyclists. There are exceptions for some highly competitive cyclists and elite riders who may need to sacrifice balanced, well-rounded fitness in pursuit of specific goals. But for cyclists who are not earning a living from riding a bicycle, strength training – and particularly, heavy strength training – is beneficial for your overall function, resilience, and performance on the bike.

If you need more convincing, here are some key strength training concepts to help you understand why heavy strength training is a good idea for the majority of cyclists.

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 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, instead, you wear a weighted vest that a load equal to the maximum load from the jump, then the load is equal, but the rate of loading is slow. The jump stimulates bone growth more effectively because of the high rate of loading, not just the loading itself. When you put these two factors together, both the rate of loading and the load itself must be high 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 strength training goal 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, if you are pushing to failure (inability to complete another rep) you can use either strategy to achieve very similar improvements in hypertrophy (increase in muscle size), but when it comes to strength gains, heavier loading is needed to maximize 1RM, i.e. strength (Mitchell, 2012).

This is one I believe cyclists should really pay attention to: the power and strength gained with heavy lifting (HFLR training) could pay dividends when it comes to power and strength on the bike. And it can be beneficial for bone density. Of course, heavy weightlifting must first be safe and appropriate for an individual athlete, based on medical and training history.

It’s important to note that LFHR might be a place to start for those new to strength training to ensure that training is safe, but once the athlete is comfortable and confident, HFLR will yield more bang for your buck, particularly for Grand Masters (60+ athletes) and Time-Crunched Cyclists of all ages.

What about the fear of ‘bulking up’

Some cyclists are reluctant to start strength training because they don’t want the increased bodyweight that comes from carrying more muscle. Here’s the thing. In our experience coaching endurance athletes, significant hypertrophy is less likely, and more difficult to achieve, than you think. However, the strength and function you gain can far outweigh the small amount of weight you gain from minor hypertrophy.

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. 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 but can maintain good form with each repetition. If the resistance is so light you can complete many, many reps, you’re not getting the same benefit from heavier loading that results in improved power, strength, and healthy bone density.

This set up may not be appropriate throughout a full season for all cyclists but including heavier strength training at the right times (for example, the offseason) can produce benefits on and off the bike. Well worth considering lifting heavier as you set up your coming training season!

Bodyweight or External Resistance?

If your goal is to lift heavy, it’s likely you’ll need to incorporate external resistance (free weights, bands, machines). There’s a limit to the resistance your bodyweight can provide. 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 or the desire 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. Ideally, you should incorporate two strength training sessions per week – on nonconcurrent days – into your training program.

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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 greater balance challenge compared with traditional squats. If stabilization and balance are what you are working on, the lunge is a more effective exercise. 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 better.

Some athletes mistakenly try to combine the balance/stability with the maximum force production. 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, a unilateral movement (single leg or single arm at a time) is more effective with less weight but a greater stability/balance challenge. It is also important to note that when balance/stability/proprioception are your goals, the precision of the movement is crucial and lifting to 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”

Sarah Scozzaro, MS
CTS Pro Coach, National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Personal Trainer and NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist



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.

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Comments 22

  1. I understand the benefits of ST and need it to counteract some osteoporosis but in my experience fitting it all in is very difficult especially if I am competing as well. Nobody mentions the effect on the pleasure of cycling. ST hurts my legs for up to 2 days afterwards which is most discouraging. Any advice appreciated. I am 73 and been National standard age group racing cyclist for 25+ years.

    1. Don,
      ST for cyclists and us ‘mature’ athletes, especially having co-morbidities is very beneficial to your overall health. I would bet that if you added 2 days of ST to your program, you’d feel better than with just cycling, and be stronger and healthier. The soreness is called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), which is a breakdown of the muscle fiber and excess of lactic acid, that would benefit from a short/easy ride the day after your ST day. I can get a complete training program done in 45min. (which is ONLY 3% of your day)
      Good Luck
      Bill Burke-Miskell P.T. ExSc MBA

  2. Great article! I have a question about workout frequency. You say two strength training sessions per week are ideal. Would this be two sessions of the same exercise or muscle group, or two sessions, total. For example, I like to do a push workout, including squats and a pull workout, including deadlifts. Should I be doing each workout once per week, or twice?

  3. I’m in total agreement ,people always want to want to walk around the facts,and malign.Completely missing the point being made here.👍

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  9. 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?

  10. 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!

  11. 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). 🙂

  12. 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.

  13. 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 ;).

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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).

    1. Todd, re your super-slow, is not better to be slower on the eccentric phase ie 5 up, 10 down (if one can somehow manage to go that slow!)

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