Read Part II of our Strength Training For Cyclists Series here:
Strength Training for Cyclists: It’s clear we spend a lot of time riding our bikes, but is the secret to getting fast as simple as Eddy Merckx’s legendary advice to ‘ride lots’? On Team Sixcycle we certainly don’t think so. While there are many schools of thought on strength training for endurance athletes, this is the first in a series of posts by Team Sixcycle riders on how we use gym work to stay healthy and get faster. Unfortunately, there is no right or wrong answer and different theories work for different athletes, but for better or worse this is what we do during the fall and winter months. Oh and please seek the advice of a fitness professional if you try any of these exercises. If done improperly they will hurt you (and it’s not our fault if that happens).
An Introduction to Strength Training for Cyclists by Team Sixcycle’s Corey Morenz
Myths about strength training and the effects on endurance athletes abound. It seems every online “expert” has their own theory on why strength training will / won’t make you a better cyclist (and feels the need to post it on a forum for all to see). Team Sixcycle is a strong proponent of the benefits of a well designed gym routine followed during the offseason and early season base building months. The key words here are “well designed” – going to the gym and hitting every body part by doing several circuits of the gym’s snazzy new weight machines won’t have you looking great on the podium. Let’s take a look at the foundation of successful gym routine as we define it:
- Your routine should be made up nearly entirely of body weight exercises and free weight barbell movements – these are the exercises that will build your basic strength
- The weights you are lifting should be linearly increased to continually overload your muscles, force adaption and allow for ease of measurement so you know you are getting stronger
- Once basic strength is established, move on to sport specificity – for cycling this means single leg strength, power production and core stability
We’ll focus on points 1 and 2 in the first of our multi part article on the importance of strength training. Just like the blocks in your cycling regimen, training in the gym should be planned out in advance. Planning a routine will force you to be organized and goal oriented. A few terms that you hear thrown around a lot in the discussion of gym routines:
- Strength – The amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition.
- Power – How much weight you can lift very quickly
- Periodization – big word that basically just means having an organized and planned approach to training
A periodized gym program is a plan for what exercises to do on what days, how many sets and reps of each exercise and how much rest to build into your workout. Your goals will determine the number of reps and sets you perform. Lifting heavy weights that can only be lifted <5 reps before failure will lead to the greatest increase in strength. Weights that can be lifted 8-10+ reps lead to greater increases in muscle mass with slightly smaller increases in absolute strength. For building power you’ll be lifting moderate weights as quickly as possible. Most cyclists will benefit from building strength and power, not muscle mass, so the program design must align with this. This is akin to cycling, where one wouldn’t expect to improve sprint ability by riding endless miles in Z2 and vice versa – the program must match the needs of the athlete.
What exercises should you do and how many reps and sets? Start with fundamental lifts that will strengthen the entire body – box jumps, squats, deadlifts, step-ups, lunges, bench press or pushups, military press, chin-ups and dips. All of these exercises will stress multiple muscle groups at once and should be combined so that you are working your entire body every workout – no specific upper body vs lower body days, no days devoted to individual body parts like biceps or quadriceps. The body functions as a unit when participating in any sport and gym training should reflect this.
Alternate between two workouts that cover most of the basic lifts listed above. An example would be:
- Workout A: Box jumps, squat, bench press, lunges, chin-ups, 1-2 core exercises
- Workout B: Box jumps, deadlift, military press, step-ups, dips, 1-2 core exercises
For each exercise, perform 3 sets of 5 reps, and add 5-10 lbs every workout to each lift you are performing. Wait – when do we mix up the reps, doing sets of 3 reps, or 10 reps, or moving to the chest press machine or hack squat machine? You don’t. Sound boring? It won’t be once you see the rapid progress you make and how quickly you get “strong” following a basic routine. The biggest mistake most people make is adding too much variety to a program, which prevents the body from adapting and getting stronger and also makes results difficult to measure. Think about it – are you out this time of year doing dozens of different types of interval workouts or are you riding steady base miles? The same methods can be applied to the gym.
Lifting will not only make you strong but resilient. I’ve yet to miss a day of training due to overuse injury – no sore back, aching knees, etc. The added benefits of stronger bones and more muscle mass will also provide an extra degree of protection in crashes or the all too common altercations with NYC traffic.
Some will say they get sufficiently strong via strength training on the bike. While this is specificity taken to the extreme, you won’t reap the benefits of a gym routine – increased bone density, fewer overuse injuries and greater total body strength. The force production you create in the gym is significantly greater than that which can be applied to your pedals while cycling. More to come on this in future posts.
By following a basic gym routine, steadily overloading your body with heavier weights and making an effort to eat a balanced diet (remember, your diet will determine whether you are gaining muscle mass, maintaining status quo or losing weight) and you will surprise yourself with how quickly you build strength. Chances are, you’ll be the strongest you’ve been if you stick to this program for a month. Stay tuned to learn more on how strength (moving heavy weights slowly) can be translated to the demands of cycling – accelerations, sprints and climbing and how Sixcycle athletes incorporate the gym into their early season training.
Team Sixcycle-RK&O uses Sixcycle Performance Management and Technology for coaching and training throughout the season. To learn more about Sixcycle Performance Management and Technology, including programs for Strength Training for Cyclists visit: http://sixcycle.com/. Stay tuned for additional articles on Strength Training For Cyclists.