5 Mistakes In The Weight Lifting Gym

There are many myths about training principles in the bicycling world, but there are even more in the weight lifting gym.

I have seen a lot of strength training programs for cyclists on the internet, but most of them are of a very poor quality. It is obvious that many coaches are good at endurance training, but lack experience and knowledge about strength training. It seems like road cyclists and coaches have a ‘no pain, no gain’ attitude when they enter the gym.

I have a feeling that many of these coaches don’t pay enough attention to the physiology behind weight lifting.

Here are five of the most common mistakes:

Common mistakes in strength training programs

1. Non-functional exercises
It is important to know that neuromuscular adaptations are closely related to the specific exercises you do. You should try to do exercises that have a movement similar to pedal strokes. So you should avoid leg extensions and do some quality squats instead.

To be honest, if you are not injured it is a waste of time to do leg extensions for cyclists.

2. Too many exercises
If you do the right exercises you can train the whole body with only a few different lifts.

When you get familiar with strength training, I recommend you start learning the techniques for lifting free weights. When you lift free weights, you train more balance and are able to train more explosive.

My favourite exercise for cyclists is definitely squat. I agree when other cyclists tell me that squat is king. That exercise will make a difference in your view of strength training.

Before you do some heavy squats you should let an instructor introduce you to the correct technique. It is good to be supervised in the first couple of training sessions.

3. Too few sets
When you were 4 years old and tried to ride your bike for the very first time, you did not try only once to master the discipline. You tried over and over again. What you did was to learn your neuromuscular system how to ride a bike.

When you lift weights you want to adapt your neuromuscular system to lift heavy iron. Just as you needed many attempts to manage your bike, you will take advantage of many sets in the weight lifting gym.

4. Too many reps
When you are a cyclist you are interested in strength gains, not weight gains. I will recommend you to use a rep range of 3-6. With this rep range you will develop strength without gaining significant extra body weight. I have seen a lot of programs that would be better for body builders training for hypertrophy, using a rep range of 8-15.

There are also some coaches that believe that it is possible to build strength endurance in the gym. They recommend sets of up to 100 reps. I do not agree with these coaches.

If you want to train for strength endurance, you should do it on your bike. Again, we are talking about specificity.

5. Train to failure too often
Many cyclists believe in the ‘No Pain, No Gain’ attitude. I like the spirit too, but it is not the best way to increase performance in strength training. Your neuromuscular system does not like failure training and if you keep doing it, your strength gains will end at a plateau.

I recommend you finish your sets at least 1 or 2 reps from failure.

33 comments… add one
  • Patrick

    I just read your article with great interest but there was some things that fellt really wrong for me.

    I’m a Personal trainer, mainly working on streangth improvement. I agree with you on many points but not when you talked about reps.

    To say that 3-6 reps puts on streangth but not weight is just not true in my world. The debate around reps in fitness world is big and controversal. But in general 3-6 reps is great for putting on wheight and streangth. There is an old idea that that you can build up streangth without putting on weight. That idea is old that we have thrown in the trash.

    You can build up streangth without gaining weight for a while but eventually youre muscles are going to gain wheight. This is going too happen regardless of what your reps.

    As a side note, 3-6 reps is somthing people in powersports uses a lot.

  • Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for commenting.

    Maintaining a low body weight is essential in both road cycling and mountain bike, since carrying extra pounds (dead weight) decrease your performance. That is same situation for a weight lifter competing in a weight class. If the weight class is <82.5kg, then he will have to work hard for neural adaptations instead of hypertrophy, because additional body weight will make hime compete in a heavier weight class (<90kg).

    It is correct that the rep range is often used in powersports, but the people who are really interested in additional body mass (body builders) work much more in the rep range from 5 to 12.

    Sets of few reps apply very little damage to the muscle fibres (protein degradation). This damage is normally one of the parameters responsible for stimulating the muscle fibres to grow. By avoiding this protein degradation we can minimize the stimulus to hypertrophy. Also there is a couple of other ways to minimize or completely avoid additional body mass but still getting stronger.

    I wrote a series about it here:
    http://www.training4cyclists.com/strength-training-without-additional-body-mass-1/
    http://www.training4cyclists.com/strength-training-without-additional-body-mass-2/
    http://www.training4cyclists.com/strength-training-without-additional-body-mass-3/
    http://www.training4cyclists.com/strength-training-without-additional-body-mass-4/

    /Jesper

  • Patrick

    I read your articles. I did not see anything that supported your few rep theory.
    I am not sayin that it is wrong for cyclists to train like that. I’m from the world of bodybuilding and I’m here to learn how you train in different sports.

    What studies have you read to support the theory of few reps, no hypertrophy?

    The reason for my reaction is that, I grow up in the gym and has worked a lot with different reps and set and filosofies. I did my greatest gains working with low reps and I’m not alone, I have seen a lot of people, grow with that sort of training.

  • It is very, very well documented that choosing low reps is the best way to build strength.

    If you think low reps is the best way to build muscle mass, I guess you have some basic exercise physiology to catch up with.

    Here is a good article on strength training:
    http://www.dragondoor.com/articler/mode3/69/

    And an article on adaptation:
    http://www.training4cyclists.com/how-a-muscle-develop-force/

  • Heath

    Hi, after reading the comment banter, I came across this site (Below) which seems to support the few reps approach-

    http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/wotw57.htm

    -as a serious cyclist (climber) looking to increase power without extra muscle weight this info was a lot of help so thanks, I was doing way too many reps!

  • Guys – for the recreational reader/lifter I think it is important to add that low rep/high weight execises should only come after a substantive adaptation/endurance period – the potential for tissue damage is significant and early lifters who “go heavy” to try and increase “strength” (which is a bit of a non-starter term to begin with) may increase their injury risk. Additionally – for cyclists especially, it isn’t so much the low rep count that relates to performance – it is the plyometric/speed-strenght element. That is to say that for a cyclist to see true gain from lifting they must focus on the explosive movement rather than the amount of weight lifted. Consider- how often do you pedal as slowly as that 3-5 rep sequence? It’s about muscle fiber recruitment – move faster recruit more type II muscle mass…

  • Matt,

    It seems like you don’t know that much about how the central nervous system adapts to heavy weights referring to your last comment about ‘pedalling as slowly as in a 3-5 rep sequence’. This indicates to me that you really doesn’t know what you are talking about since the whole idea of training with heavy weights is to increase the 1rep maximum – not to simulate pedalling frequency. If we can increase 1rm in a relevant exercise like squats we can also pedal harder in sprints and accelerations.

    Yes, explosiveness is important, but making explosive movements with light weights will not activate all motor neurons, thus you will not generate the neural adaptations needed for development of maximal force. Example: Who will make the fastest squat with 100kg?
    Rider A: 1RM 100kg
    Rider B: 1RM 200kg

    It is obvious that Rider B will make that squat faster than rider A even though rider A might be more explosive. Thus, absolute force is very important. Who of these riders can generate the highest power in a sprint? Well, who would you put your money on..? 🙂

    What I recommend is lifting the weights as fast as possible in the concentric phase, thus recruiting every single motor neuron. But lifting heavy weights (above 80% of 1RM) will naturally develop explosive force (and absolute strength).

    High rep strength training is a waste of time since it doesn’t improve your 1RM and if you was interested in strength endurance, you should not do it in the gym, but on your bike (better neural adaptations).

  • Shawn

    “”There is an old idea that that you can build up streangth without putting on weight. That idea is old that we have thrown in the trash.””
    That comment is 100% WRONG! Powerlifter George Halbert (to name only one) has increased his max bench in the past 1 1/2 years from 628 to 702 while maintaining 8% body fat & a 198 body weight. I have been an avid powerlifter for years & have increased my Deadlift from 390 to 505 while maintaining a 225lb bodyweight. Powerlifters regularly increase their totals while maintaining body weight. Muscles CAN get stronger without getting larger (to a point). An example is to armwrestle a farmer or contruction worker with smaller arms against a bodybuilder with larger arms. Unless we’re talking a pro bodybuilder……My money is on the farmer/contruction worker. I cycle to increase my hip/leg strength & to help recover from my Max-rep cycles. A cyclists diet will help keep the Strongman build away.So please…Go ahead & (once acclimated to it) GO HEAVY!!!

  • danny

    im a 17 year old who has just started time trialing. through out the winter in engaged in an extreamly intense weight session aim at increasing my lower body strength. i did this workout 2 days a week and the gains were phonominal. it completely transformed my riding and made me a great climber and really helped my time trialing. however, now the racing season is upon me i want to concertrate on threshold intervals and proper riding but i also want to keep all of my strength.

    any tips on how i can maintain my strength with only doing 1 strength session a week

    cheers for any replies.

  • I think you shall focus more on your performance on your bike especially when you are new into time trialing. Having a good position on the bike and a solid aerobic engine is far more important than the benefits you will get from strength training.

  • danny

    thanks jesper, i will bear that in mind and work more on my aerobic capacity and anerrobic threshold as well as the technical aspects of riding

    cheers again.

  • danny

    oh, one more thing though. if i did cut back on the weight training, would cycling be stimulating enough to maintain my strength, or maybe even get stronger in the form of cycling specific power????

    it would really help me if you could give me the jist of it. cheers

  • Eric

    I’m an Exercise Physiologist and keen road cyclist.

    Evidence in peer reviewed journals (not questionable websites or random examples of power lifters) supported by the American College of Sports Science (ACSM) indicates that strength can increase in the absence of weight gain. This is achieved through improved coordination of muscle fibres and increased motor unit recruitment (nerves activating more muscle fibres at one time).
    Shawn, you have stated, and I quote, “There is an old idea that that you can build up streangth without putting on weight. That idea is old that we have thrown in the trash.” You then go one to give examples of people (yourself included) who have achieved increases in strength in the absence of weight gain….confused???

    Jesper, I agree in part with some of your comments however I think you lack a distinction between strength and power. Like you say, strength is basically 1RM while power is how fast you can move a given weight. To train with heavy weights alone is no good for power improvements unless you are able to do so quickly. The weight must not be so heavy as to limit the explosive action and this is where the alactic anaerobic system with be utilised as opposed to lactic anaerobic and some aerobic.

    In regards to the number of reps one should complete, evidence suggests that power (mass/time) improves best with low reps (3-6) with full recovery (2min). Strength is best achieved through completion of 6-10 reps with four sets shown to be most effective once accustomed to resistance training. Hypertrophy is best obtained through higher reps i.e. 12-15. This is because the build up of metabolic waste products is essential for hypertrophy to occur. This type of training also facilitates muscular endurance.
    Also notable, the eccentric phase of lifting is essential for strength improvements and hypertrophy hence why some body builders do hypermax eccentric lifts i.e. are spoted with a weight >100% for the concentric phase and then control it unaided through the eccentric phase.

    Finally, it should be noted that there is significant cross over between various training protocols. Strength training will probably result in some hypertrophy and power training will elicite some strength improvements. There are certain exceptions each theory and certainly difference between individuals but don’t take one isolated example and use it as factual evidence.

  • Curtis

    As an ex professional bodybuilder who weighed 138kgs with 9% bodyfat at 20 years old and now many years later being a top track sprinter I can confirm the following from my own experience, knowledge and training. Simply put…
    The use of higher reps (6 or more) and multiple exercises builds muscle mass and fills the muscle with blood and lactic acid giving you the best possible pump. The use of low reps, heavy weights and minimal exercises (1-3) is the most effective for strength training without maximum muscle gains as a large portion of the strength comes from the tendon and not the muscle. You are also not allowing the muscle to fill up with blood and lactic acid which can take days to flush out. Sure you will build some muscle but not as much as if your reps were higher and you use more exercises. The lower levels of lactic acid also improves cycling training and recovery. Train for strength and power and not muscle building. An example is to only do Squats on one day with some leg extensions and leg curls. Leg extensions used to warm up the knees and quads and leg curls strengthening the hamstrings. The squats being your strength movement. Then for your second workout of the week do leg press and leg extension and leg curls. You are minimising the amount of blood and lactic acid you pump into the muscles by doing 5 sets of leg press as heavy as possible for less than 6 reps. Then to counteract the possibility of becoming slow on the bike and to increase your explosive speed, you finish off with plyometric jumps of eight reps or more. But make sure if you want to increase strength that you also cycle the big gears and stay in the big blade on the hills during training. Closer to your events you can drop down to the smaller gears and cut back on the weight training.

  • carbonarm

    Why on earth do you recommend to avoid leg extensions training?

    I have used this exersice combined with others for many years with great results. Are there any studies showing it is waste of time? If yes can I get the link to the study?

  • carbonarm,

    I understand your question and you are not the first one to ask me.

    The concept of specificity of strength training is generally supported in the literature.

    It is well known that the greatest gains you achieve through strength training are in the specific exercises you’ve trained. Thus, if you’ve trained leg extensions, you will see the biggest gain when do doing post-training tests in leg extensions. You will not see the same degree of improvements in other exercises. Keywords are neural adaptations, range of movement and specificity.

    Leg extension is a single-joint exercise that is far away from the movement you perform on a bike.

    I will only recommend leg extensions for cyclists who have had an injury of some kind.

    There is well-written article about squats, leg press and leg extensions here:

    http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/0159.htm

    Best regards,

    Jesper

  • Evan

    is the low rep workout smart for a triathlete? im assuming it is… i want to increase my strength/power, endurance comes via bike rides…

    also do you have a layout for a workout that i can print off?

    Thanks in advance,

    Evan

  • Evan,

    I will recommend triathletes to use the same principles as road cyclists if they decide to strength train.
    http://www.training4cyclists.com/weight-lifting-for-road-cyclists/

  • Chris

    Hi,

    I am new to specific training for cycling but necessarily need proper specific advice.

    I have a 1700 KM trek to do by July 2009, across the Rockies within 2 weeks time (14 days).This is our last part of a transcanada tour started several year ago.

    It is on a tandem (father and son event).
    I have been able to do some 1400 Km in 14 days across the prairies this summer but came back with pains that took over a month to recuperate. But for sure, the Rockies I will need to develop more strength and endurance.
    We have only 2 days before hitting the hills from Edmonton.
    We normally travel heavy (500LBs in all, bike, captain, stoker, the trailer (BOB) and supplies).
    I am training twice a week in a gym lifting weights and squats. I squat with 60 LBs weights for 1 minute intervals over a bench(stepping) and do full jump all stretched 10 X in between with recuperation at least 3 times.
    Other training includes pushing weights (200 LBS 100 times)as fast as possible. I can push 400 LBS but barely 5 and slowly.
    Will these efforts suffice or should spinning on a bike be added or any other exercise?
    I wish the training will permit me to maintain a minimal distance in hills of at least 140 KM a day. At present, this summer, I barely attained 100Km day average( with a max of 153Km one day).

    Your assistance will be greatly appreciated.

    Chris

  • Ref. your answer the 29th of October

    Hi, Jesper I have read the article you are refering to and I agree that the Squat is the most effective exercise for cyclists. But I realy think you and others are missing two important points. As you know every movement are supported by other muscles.

    First; Doing the Squad demands a very strong back, and the knee demands support from the hard pressure from the weights. The knee/leg extension develop the muscles close to the knee and supplement to your overall strength in the leg. This will eventualy make you do even heavier training in the importent Squad exercise.

    Second: The use of the Round Pedalling technicue is also demanding very strong Calves, buttock and the muscle you develop from training the leg extension when you pull the pedal up and push forward (like kicking)

  • Brenda

    I read the article and responses; the issues I have with those who respond are lack of reliable sources, i.e., exercise physiology/other educational sources, AND spelling.

    As a new cyclist, I am in agreement that I must change how I work out in the weight room. During the past year, I’ve suffered several lower and upper body injuries simply by trying to maintain what I’d achieved with weights prior to getting into cycling. The two sports are absolutely incompatible from my personal experience. My focus must be on not tearing fibers in the weight room; I appreciate this information.

  • mike heit

    Intuitivly, I believe it is important to bike and from the gym (or bike the same day u lift) in order to intergrate gym stregth with bike strength. It does not have to be a hard/fast ride but long enough to spin the stressed gym muscels at a reasnable cadence. I have neverread ascietic study of this.

  • Martin

    Hi Jesper,

    Great article. I just wonder what the optimal rest period is for this type of srength trianing? From what I’ve read, 36 too 48 hours rest is recommended for weight trainers – but this is typically for guys doing 3 x 15 @ 60% 1RM. If I train just 3 x 3 @ 90%, can i train every day? Would 24 hours rest be sufficient, as there is no scarring to the muscle tissue? How long does neural adapatation take? I gues it is a different process from muscle repair, but have never seen anyone discuss this.

  • stevenwjoe

    I think you are right on with the low reps 3-5 for younger ages and 5-8 for the 40+ and not quite to fatigue, just so you are not too sore to do a bike workout the next day. Steady strong lifts. You want to build strength in the gym, the stronger you are the more power you have on the pedal stroke which you can tap for higher mph. It is like using sprints to up you mph, if you don’t develop the speed you want ever get to 30+ mph, that is you first have to be able to sprint up to 30 before you can cruise at 30, it is the same with strength, if you don’t develop strength your stroke will never have much force. For example, being able to exert a downward pedal stroke of 300lbs, makes pushing 200-250 many times over much easier, although it is never easy. I know it sound the opposite of what we have been led to believe, that is endurance racers should do every workout like it is an endurance event, but with strength you are really wasting time and energy by lifting high reps for muscular endurance, go do some long hills or 3 minute intervals which are better and more bike specific, those will give you muscular endurance. You should have mentioned deadlifts though, one of the best exercises that develops the whole chain from head to toe, and when combined with squats, and step ups, that is really all you need, but you can throw in some other exercises occasionally like leg curls, lunges, maybe leg press. Don’t forget the abs, and then bench presses and lats are about enough for the arms, those I do 8-10 reps with a good steady weight, usually 3 sets, you do need decent arm strength to come out of the saddle, but you don’t need to be the incredible hulk going down the road. The deadlifts will also develop the shoulders and chest as well, Of course, this is the perspective of a Time Trial rider where strength is everything.

  • Ronny

    I am 23, and I really wanna increase my tt performance. Do you think squat jumps are useful for cycling? I ride in a country with a lot of mountain and I must be competitive at climbs too . Should I keep training in the gym?. I was told weight training decrease your cadence, is it true?. Thanks

  • mike heit

    I cycle and pump iron. Regarless of weight/reps/weight gain in the gym, most cycling improvement comes from biking up hills, sprinting or getting a high heart rate multiple times a week.

    I pump iron for two reasons:
    1. to survive a fall (everyone crashes!)
    2. to avoid injury during hard cycle sprint and hill training.

    Cycling is a great exercise but it is all on a up/down plane below the waist and in mild but long isometric-like above the waist. The power stroke starting off on a bike is less than 40 lb pressure so endurance trumps one time strength but yes strength is important. Most cyclist have strong quads but great cyclist have a more even distribution of strength. Hence we get muscle imbalances and easly injury if we strain outside these planes and motions. It is almost a total aerboic exercise so peak power performances or crashes injuries happen. One needs strength to minimize the legament/ musles tears of a hard high speed crash- like football or hockey players.
    Yes cycling hills and sprinting is all about weight/power indicies. – tour de france sprinters are 160-200lbs as sprinting takes real raw power and fast twith muscel. King of the mountain guys are120-140 lbs or 2 lbs per inch of height. Both have less than 5 percent body fat- very very few non pro cylist ever aproach below 10 % body fat.

    Muscle gain from lifting weight is a lot slower than people think. As u exercise one loses fat and gains muscle. Losing fat happens a lot faster than gaining muscle so most people lose weight. Ignoring protein shakes, roids etc, very few cyclist would gain more than a 4-5 lbs from pumping iron over the course of a year. This goes double for women and muscle gain on a female due to weight lifting is slower. Natural body builders seldom gain 8 lbs of pure muscel a year from truly brutal weight training way beyond any cyclist would even attempt.

    I agree the squat is king and leg extensions are not very useful. I recommend the 45 degree sitting leg lift machine as the bread and butter for cyclist. This machine has 5 position so one can move the true power base higher thanthe quads. Its safe and strengthens the toe to lower abs. Freee weight squat is betterof course but poor form leads to injury.
    I do 5 sets of 40 machine squats 5 times a week and increase the weight with each set. . I do 21 different lifts, 1 set, 10 reps for muscel balance.

  • Josh

    Jesper, Thanks for the free info, agreed on the low reps. What about sets and rest in between sets?

  • Joe

    Jesper,

    I ride my bike to and from work almost every day. Each way is about 8.5 miles with some good hills thrown in (I live in San Francisco).

    I want to start lifting but don’t want to overdue things. Is it okay to lift legs 2x a week if I’m riding every morning and evening? When I did lift I was doing squats, deadlifts, calf raises and hamstring pulls for my legs.

  • Rich PT

    Man there is so much misinformation out there people. This article is spot on, low reps will increase strength with less damage to muscle tissue than higher reps. Strength is the ability to recruit multiple motor units to work together to overcome the resistance and is quite different from hypertrophy training. Yes they cross over and each will increase strength/size but strength training will give you more function with less muscle weight gain. Just look at a light class olympic lifter or gymnast… Im a cyclist, lifter and PT and I train for functionality 1-6reps squat/dead/clean/press/row that’s about it.

  • Tom

    I have the same question as Joe a couple comments up. I commute to and from work, 20 miles round trip. On Tues and Thurs I do hill repeats on my way to work. MWF are easy pedal days. Should I do weights on Tues and Thurs? Thanks guys!!

  • Rich

    Brilliant article, completely agree on the strength training and rep ranges you speak of. Far too many people trying to train endurance in the gym when that’s what you are already doing on the bike! Strength and power in the gym.

  • stephan

    Last summer I started with road cycling and I want to step it up this spring. Due to weather conditions I won’t be cycling outside for a couple of months.
    So I picked up spinning and a bit of weightlifting.
    What kind of (leg) lifting exercises would you recommend and can I do spinning right after the weightlifting?

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