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.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
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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