Don’t Fall Into Strength Training Trap

It is the $64,000 question for cyclists aiming to boost their performance: should they make lifting weights a part of their training regime? There are many arguments for and against and few topics raise the hackles of bike fans more than this.

But, in my view, one thing is certain: when you have a busy life and time is of the essence, strength and weight training should take a back seat. If you only have a limited amount of time to dedicate to your cycling training, then forget about lifting weights and pumping iron: focus on intervals and the sessions that will bring you the maximum benefit.

Use Your Training Time Effectively

Nobody is in any doubt that in everyday life strength training is excellent exercise and can benefit everybody. From a health and wellbeing perspective, people of all ages should do some kind of strength training as part of a healthy lifestyle or exercise regime. The benefits are boundless; lifting weights can help to maintain muscle mass and core strength throughout a person’s life.

But in my area of expertise we are not talking about ordinary mortals: we are talking about serious cyclists. For riders, lifting weights CAN be a good option, let’s say, during the winter months as an alternative to road training, or if they have the luxury of incorporating lots of variety into their training programs. During quieter training periods, pumping iron can be an excellent alternative to regular endurance training. And there is a school of thought that weight training can make the tiny but crucial difference to highly-trained athletes.

Sadly, few people have all the time in the world at their disposal. Ambitious cyclists who want to boost their performance tend to have busy lives: children, families, careers, social life…. So they need to prioritise their training to get the best results possible and spending several hours a week in the gym pumping iron may not be a feasible option. When you only have so much time available, something has to give, and training on the bike will almost certainly increase your performance more than lifting weights.

The Research Is Inconclusive

The studies that have taken place so far as to whether strength training can boost a cyclist’s power and performance are inconclusive. Most riders know that they must put in heavy bursts with 1,000 watts during a race. But can these bursts be improved by strength training? The answer is unknown because we lack the statistics to back up any theories advocated by some bike coaches and riders.

One of the most burning questions is whether it is possible to convert the neuronal power from strength training to generate extra performance on the bike.

One of the most common theories is that weight training makes muscles more efficient when they recruit muscle fibers for contraction. This theory does sound sensible and feasible, but it is extremely difficult to prove in the lab.

Extra body weight derived from lifting weights will slow you down when you climb or accelerate your bike. And then there is the “power-to-weight ratio”, which refers to how many watts you can push compared to your body weight. That ratio has a huge impact when you climb or accelerate.

But during the cold winter months, strength training can be an excellent alternative to road and endurance training. One crucial question cyclists should ask themselves is whether they would enjoy doing some weight training as an alternative to regular bike riding when it is extremely cold outside.

Strength Training Should Never Have A Negative Impact

So, yes, strength training is brilliant from a health viewpoint, but for dedicated cyclists wanting to stretch themselves and make tiny improvements, it can be dropped if time is tight.

In a perfect world it would probably be the ideal scenario to have “strength training only” days. In practice this can be difficult, especially if you are tackling a fair amount of endurance training.

But while strength training is a viable alternative to regular endurance sessions, especially in the winter, it should never have a negative impact on your overall training regime, so sessions on the bike should always come first.

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41 comments… add one

  • The benefits to resistance training are many and very well studied. It’s just that no one has ever proven that those results translate into improved cycling performance.

    Most of the latest science points to intense, short durations of high resistance work – e.g. single sets of 8 maximal reps of a few full-body functional movements – and long periods of recovery. Not only is it the most effective, its takes no longer than 30 minutes per week.

    If you can’t take 30 minutes per week for the benefit of your overall health (even if its not a cycling-specific benefit), then you need to reexamine your lifestyle.

  • John S

    Thank you J.

    An excellent article, well reasoned and concisely expressed.

    js

  • @Matthew – Thanks for commenting. I think the training strategy you describe is just on spot with my approache to time effectiveness. Though, it requires easy access to a weight lifting room.

    I actually tested out a strength training program with squats as the main (or sometimes only) exercise. It was time effective and the rider reached similar strength levels as previous years when he had done several other exercises.

    However, strength training is not that time effective and is not recommended if you want to be ultra time effective. Actually it is counter-productive to speed up high quality strength training sessions because the recovery periods are essential when you build neuro-muscular power.

    But from the a health point view, we should all lift iron. No doubt about that.

    @John – Thanks!

  • sebastiano

    this is my second winter season spiced up with strength training. particularly, I have added squat to indoor cycling. I only follow pure strength programmes, and I enjoy that kind of stress. much more than the LSD rides… additionally, I can easily set targets and improvement plans, testing the effectiveness of different approaches to strength. last summer I have collected the most results ever, based on similar conditions (total mileage, etc.). the only difference? strength training. so YES to squatting till the snow melts. :)

  • @sebastiano – Thanks for sharing your experience. There is a clear benefit for riders who want to train other skills than cycling and still improve their cycling performance.

  • Hi Jesper

    Any time you view a competitive sport, , they all have a basis in strength training. That is because strength training is one of the single most important aspects of any competitive sport due to the anaerobic nature of the workouts and the heightened levels of endurance that are derived as a result of extensive strength training routines. There is no point in having large muscles if they cannot maintain their power over time. It is more important to have lean, strong muscles that can push for hours on end without giving out.

  • sebastiano

    @Ben: I am a supporter of the equation more strength = more endurance, as long as (like you point out) a correct “conversion” takes place. Muscle size and strength are bound to one another, though, and “large” is not necessarily the antonym of “lean”. :-)
    The break-even point in cycling is set also by other limiting factors, more functional than dimensional… Most of my work, after deep winter, is then VO2max and threshold (I shift from dimensional to functional, from size to quality). At that time I try and “teach” my body how to use force to create power: typically, in the winter I am “stronger”, and in the summer I am more “powerful”. But I would not give away my muscles for “leaner” ones… for a 10% more of VO2 max… well, we have a deal! :D

  • Jim Scott

    My take on the issue is that if you are lifting weights for the ultimate goal of getting faster on the bike and you are not a track sprinter, you are lifting weights for the wrong reason. There are many reasons to lift weights: overall body fitness, ‘beach body’, etc. However, getting faster on the bike as a direct result of lifting is not one of them… @Jesper: I think you are spot-on when you talk about fitting what training you can during the time that you have. One thing to remember about every bit of training is your ultimate goal. @Matthew: if your ultimate goal is to get faster on the bike and you don’t feel you have the time to fit lifting into your schedule, I don’t think you have any issues with your “lifestyle”…

  • AndreasH

    I agre with those of you who believes that strength training is secondary and that the transfer of strength is doubtfull. There is off course benefits from increased muscle mass (or the strength associated with it) but drawbacks as well. The general benefits from strength training can be obtained at home from doing bodyweight exercises like pullups, pushups and single leg squats. These 3 exercises will give a good overall effekt on the whole body. For the strong and ambitius individual a pair of ajustable dumbbels (up to 15kg/33ibs each) og a set of training elastics will provide extra resistance for the 3 mentioned exercises besides the oppertunity for a variety of other exercises. By performing the training at home, the timing becomes more flexible and there is less need for time overall.

  • Sebastiano

    One more interesting point for discussion is then open.
    If you limit the maximum load to some kilos and some elastic bands, then you are missing an important point. Very soon you will not be stressing your nervous system and your muscles enough to break through force barriers, you will either increase reps (hypertrophy?) or just apply an insufficient stimulus. The carry over of strength training to specific force is not in doubt. How much an endurance cyclist will benefit from strength training is in doubt. Otherwise, why would TRACK cyclists train their strength so much? For them, payback is out of discussion. For anybody else… I agree with Jesper that at least more fitness will come in handy.

  • AndreasH

    There is no point in maximizing poundages in upper body exercises for a cyclist. 30kg + bodyweight in full range single leg squat is a lot, if done without momentum! If one trains the exercise in limited ROM, then bands (like those used by power lifters) or a set of body elastics, is a more effective way of stressing the muscles.

    Track cyclist (assume you mean the sprinters) have muscles way beyond what is obtainable from low rep training. The benefit for the sprinters are larger muscles meaning larger cycling engine.

    The intramuscular neural adaptation from low rep/high resistance weight training is likely to be almost fully obtained from less than 6 months regular training. Strength increases later on are mostly the result of improved inter muscular coordination (specific technique that is!) and to hypertrophy and neither of these qualities are of much value to the average endurance cycling enthusiast.

  • sebastiano

    @Andreas: we agree on 99% of the whole topic…
    I agree that 6 months are periodically enough time to develop or maintain the amount of strength that a cyclist need (let alone average, enthusiast and endurance for a minute).
    I totally agree that upper body specific strength training is no use at all.
    I have a doubt that intermuscular efficiency cannot be transfered to different abilities, or that at least there is no cross-benefit.
    I am not sure I understand the comment on sprinters: part of their training is strength training indeed, as like in any other sport there are abilities that you cannot acquire or develop without an overload. And definitely yes, they need larger muscles rather then an aerobic engine. Those muscles, although similar in size, are different than powerlifters muscles in many other aspects, but still some of the skills they develop are easier controlled and increased through strength training.

  • AndreasH

    Well 99% is good enough for me! If you believe that skills obtained from training a specific strength exercise, will transfer to any other exercise, no matter how similar, I suggest that you read some scientific literature on the subject. The following two books have been recommended to me as being very accurate and detailed in their coverage of movements.
    Motor Control and Learning: A Behavioral Emphasis, 3rd Edition. Richard A. Schmidt and Timothy
    D. Lee. Human Kinetics, ISBN: 0-88011-484-3.
    Motor Learning and Performance: A Problem-Based Learning Approach, 2nd Edition. Richard A.
    Schmidt and Craig A. Wrisberg. Human Kinetics, ISBN: 0-88011-500-9.
    As far as I have understood what I have reed on the subject, skill transfer is non existing when it comes to movements, even if movements are almost identical.
    An interesting anecdote is that is has been proposed in the literature that concurrent strength and endurance training, involving the same musculature, will inhibit the neural adaptations that normally follows heavy resistance exercise. Which nicely explains what some people engaged in both types of training, have experienced.

  • thomas

    Here an interesting article:

    http://www.ergo-log.com/strengthtraining4cyclists.html

    Look at the results !

  • Jim Scott

    Thanks for posting the article!

    The question that I would ask is if both groups were on identical cycling training and racing programs.

    If not, how can you attribute the gain to strength training only?

    Jim

  • thomas

    I don’t know

    i think they replaced a part of endurance training by strength training
    it’s a little bit confusing

    But I also red on a Dutch forum about a guy who did in the winter only about 500km of endurance training. For the rest he did a lot of training in the gym and -listen now- in his first race of the season he said, the km’s were hard but he could make it to the end and fisnished 2nd.

    he did always 3 sets of 10 reps with a heavy weight (so he could do just 10 reps on a right way)
    the exercises were squats, leg press, leg curl, the normal exercises thus

    so i think strength training focused on maximal strength should be done. Because if you have more strength, a certain power ouput (ex. 400W) will cost you less force ( of you maximum), so you will be albe to use longer your slow twitch fibers (which are ” better” for aerobic efforts, more fat oxidation , so less lactic acid….

  • thomas

    AND it’s ” proven”; known that you anaerobic endurance is dependant of you maximum strength

    so only for you anaerobic power output (1 ‘ intervals, very important for break aways and sprints) it can /will be very usefull

    all track riders ( sprint) have enormous legs because of this

    but for ” normal” road racers, you can not do this because:
    - the extra weight (especailly uphill)
    - the distance between the capillaires will be closer

    So you can archieve this also by lifting more heavy weights ( neural adaptation)

  • sebastiano

    as far as I am concerned, I can confirm that the 1′ to 8′ power output HAVE dramatically improved after last winter strength training; note that due to weather and flu I had to sacrifice the “base” period, and as a result I am weaker on longer efforts, where I had 280W NP on over 3 hrs. For the extra weight… try extremely low carb diet. I have shed 3kgs in 6 weeks so far… although this has again affected endurance. :(

  • thomas

    yes, so only for the short power intervals it’s for sure that strength training is really good

    @ sebastiano: your power output which is dramatically improved is a good evidence.

    But how did you do it?

    twice a week? , 3 months long during winter?, which exercices, how much reps? which intensity?

  • sebastiano

    Hey Thomas, my plan was to squat 1RM = 2BW. I used a Russian program 3 times a week, usually in the evening. I started in October and ended in March, as planned. The only exercise was back and front squat. Reps max 5 per set; sets according to volume (consider an average of 7-8 tons per session); intensity 80 to 95%; then I used a new concept called Max Speed Lift; I controlled the efforts by using the Prilepin’s table. I checked the 1RM usually every three weeks, more or less. At the end of these sessions I usually finished the legs off by doing 3×3 of front squat. I ended up lifting “easily” 165kgs and regretted stopping… next winter I will introduce deadlift.

  • Jim Scott

    Sebastiano,

    Great to hear from you again!

    I would say that if you were performing the same workouts, from a power standpoint, for several years and saw no improvements in your ability to generate power, you could say that there was a very good chance that the increase you saw on the bike was improved by your new lifting program.

    However, there are too many other variables to definitively say that it was the lifting that helped you generate more power between 1′ – 8′ on the bike.

    Increased aerobic power production is a direct result of the muscles’ ability to resist fatigue. Short neuromuscular efforts, like squats or sprints, do nothing to improve the fatigue resistance over more than ~30 seconds or so…

    Could it have been a change in the way that you train on the bicycle? I know that when I stopped lifting during the winter and concentrated on doing 2×20 minute Threshold intervals, my FTP increased. I attribute this to 2 things: 1. The time that I pedaled close to my Threshold allowed my body to adapt to the load. 2. I was more rested, since I was not lifting 3x a week, so I was able to do the intense work.

    Jim

  • thomas

    interesting !!

  • sebastiano

    Hey Jim, I am glad we meet again! :)

    There is no doubt that I have also changed my bike workouts and the focus on certain performance indicators. And yes, I felt exhausted for months after stopping the lifting program, and (incredibly enough) have not tested my 5 sec to 20 secs power seriously so far, so I will soon be posting something about that. One thing, though: my skiing performance has dramatically increased as well (alpine skiing) for the first time in years. My conclusion is that the strength training, although hardly transferring to efforts longer than 30 secs (optimistically) has anyhow dragged up certain boundaries. Should I manage to lift 3BW, would I further improve cycling performance? My guess is NO. Unless I focused on sprints only. But we will see…

  • thomas

    @ sebastiano

    Can you give me some values? Power output before- after?

    Did you do also a lot of km’s during that winter? How much km’s? 5000? 6000? Can you describe you training program?

  • sebastiano

    Thomas

    program was much based on Jesper’s suggestions for VO2max and Threshold development: I used 3 min reps @ 370W, 8min reps @ 340W; used Allen and Coggan to determine the last useful effort. VO2max: targeted 420W CP5, pursued it with 30s 500W efforts, 45s 470W efforts, 430W 1+1, 2+1 up to 6-8 min.
    winter riding sucked; not much kms (3000?)
    my CP1 passed from 540W to 670W; max from 1280 to 1350W; drop below 1000W after 20s.

  • thomas

    interesting !
    thanks for posting !

  • thomas

    But the most important thing I wanted to know; is if your treshold power improved, which is also very important (maybe the most important) for an endurance athlete (next to anaerobic power).

    So, do you have values of your FTP before and after the strength training in winter? Did you do a 20 ‘ FTP test before and after?

  • sebastiano

    FTP has been a pain in the neck this year. I used to start from a solid 300W (tested at the University, the so-called IUSM) and then move forward. For some reason (mostly a devastating flu and poor endurance training) this year I did not feel like that. I was struggling to complete 20mins at 260W in January. Later (I mean in July, far too late) I could complete those 20 mins somewhere close to 340W. But I am unsure whether the strength training had any effect on this output, firstly because I stopped training strenght around March end, and then because you “feel” which factor is affecting a certain performance.

  • thomas

    ok thanks

  • Joe Rouse

    What if I did have time and want to use weights to improve several aspects of my cycling training-sprinting in particular? I know I only have so many fast twitch fibres, but I’m 50 and can make the time-and want to keep bone density up! Thoughts?

  • sebastiano

    Joe,

    hit FULL squats as hard as you can. You will get both / train your FTF, your CNS (the good ol’ gray matter will get brushed up HUGE) AND keep bone density up. Personally, I start with a Russian Scheme (Smolov, etc.) and then move on to waves. Deload and “switch” every 4-5 weeks, test your 1RM at that time. As much as possible, combine your rides with your strength training. I am a bit younger (turning 43) and CANNOT manage 4 bike sessions and 2-3 strength sessions in a week without doing bike AM / iron PM. Just can’t get over it and no recovery hurts both games. I am following what appears to be the latest rage in modern training: “train endurance specifically & strength non-specifically”.

  • Jim

    @Sebastiano: Excellent quote about strength and cycling, as well as the recovery aspect. @Joe: Please let me add a couple points: 1. I have said it before and will say it again: if you are lifting for the sole purpose of getting faster on the bike, you are doing it for the wrong reason. However, it sounds as if you are thinking of lifting for the sheer purpose of slowing down the aging process… Great reason! 2. As a sprinter in the amateur peloton, I think it more important to work your power at Threshold. You need to ensure your fast twitch fibers are as fresh as possible when you come up to the last stretch. 3. So, things you should think about: allowing as much recovery between workouts, regardless whether they are strength workouts or your average 2×20 Threshold-building workouts. Monitor your fatigue and don’t be afraid to change your cycles from the normal 3 on / 1 off to a 2 on / 1 off weekly cycle. Jim

  • Joe Rouse

    Thanks Jim and Sebastiano!

  • I’m reading some really interesting studies on endurance sports and weight training. Some say yes, some say no based on the study results. Based on how the studies are set up, it is easy to see why there is not a definitive answer on the subject. Funny side note, there are studies that show strength training has improved long distance running performance.

    IMHO (and actually mentioned in one of the reviews of a study) there are some variables that are flawed in the testing process for most of the studies done:
    1) Study length: typically 8-12 weeks in length. This isn’t enough time to accurately measure any benefits of strength training because this is primarily a neural adaptation period. Meaning, your brain is simply turning on more muscle fibers, not growing the ones you’ve got. Nothing has been done long enough (at least in the ones I’ve read so far) to show how increased strength will help.

    2) Exercise selections seem to all be bilateral, and typically seated. Tons of flaws here:
    - there isn’t anything on how a single leg strength training program in an unsupported environment would affect the results +/-.
    - seated machines will typically trash prime movers, and do very little if any, to build stabilizer strength/endurance. This factor alone would explain little to no benefit. Prime movers need a lot more recovery time once they are worked.
    - you don’t build core strength in a seated environment because you don’t have to support you as you move.
    - you can’t work explosively on a machine because you’ll break.
    - neuromuscular coordination is extremely tough to come by in a seated machine environment.
    - seated machines cause ROM (range of motion loss) because that is dictated for you by the machine. Same thing as to why cycling crushes your mobility: you’re sitting down doing the same thing for hours on end.

    3) None of the studies mention how cycling robs you of ROM, and how strength training can help fight that.

    So, until a study takes the above mentioned into account, it is difficult to say yes or no with a high level of accuracy.

  • Sebastiano

    Al, agree with most of your objections, except one: study length may take into account only neural adaptation (although I doubt that at the same time other types of muscular adaptation don’t come in) but in the end this effect of turning on fibers rather than growing them is likely to boost endurance performance already at a reasonable metabolic cost. How do you see it?

  • Brian Richards

    It’s unfortunate in cycling that so little known about the effects of a strictly disciplined, purpose-driven weight training program, while so much is known about EPO, its effects, and how to hide its use.

    It’s time for the sport, coaches and trainers to examine what they can do to expand training knowledge and combat substance abuse. Certainly what is practiced now is not working.

    Ignorance of the effects of weight training is evident in the lead photo showing a stereotypical musclebound metal pusher. GMAFB. It looks like this article was written by a trainer who can’t get out of the way of the superstitions that drive this “sport(?)”/drug party(?).

    I came to cycling after a college career as a college track and field sprinter. I brought my experience with interval training and modified it for the requirements of all-around bike racing. It works. I also leaned on all my hours in the weight room — not simply my own training regimen, but witnessing the ones of other athletes in other sports. You know what? Each program is tailored to the sport! Amazing!

    And that’s what I’m doing now. I’m developing a weight program to enhance cycling performance. Ten weeks ago, at age 58-1/2 I went into early retirement for health reasons. Since then, I’ve lost 32 pounds. Resting HR went from 72 bpm to 57. Blood pressure has gone from an average 145/90 to 115/65. Max cadence has risen from 165 to 192. Max sprint speed has risen from 26 mph to 32 mph.

    I’m not here to troll. I’m here because of a couple of blog posts relating to getting back into the saddle and training for older riders. I’m here because I want to see what the author has in his 12-week winter training program that isn’t in the cycle training diary I kept from 1976 to 1984. I’m also here to say in-season weight training worked for me back then. Right now it is helping me regain my physical fitness and improve cycling performance.

    Oh yes, I started this whole thing a couple of weeks after a summer full of salvage radiation treatments for stage III prostate cancer.

    I have 12 weeks until the club rides start up again. I want to hang with the gang.

    I came

  • Sebastiano

    Hey Brian,

    Best of luck and show up every now and then with updates! And lift some barbells!

  • Al Painter

    Have a look at this article that I wrote a few months back, has done great studies cited. Supports why cyclists should lift weights.

    http://integratefitness411.blogspot.com/2012/07/does-weight-training-benefit-cyclists.html?m=1#!

    http://integratefitness411.blogspot.com/2012/10/strength-training-on-bike.html?m=1

  • Al Painter

    Interesting study:

    2010 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research titled “The Effects of Resistance Training on Road Cycling Performance Among Highly Trained Cyclists: A Systematic Review” found that “positive muscular adaptations from muscle hypertrophy include increased anaerobic enzyme activity, increased force production, increased intramuscular enzyme activity” for cyclists.

  • Al Painter

    @Sebastiano

    This has been a great discussion, what do you think about an interview for my blog on weigh training and cycling?

  • Sebastiano

    @Al: I am flattered. Please let me know how can I help.

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