Strength Training – Does It Make You Stronger?

During winter training many cyclists enjoy visiting the local gym and believe that strength training can help them perform better. But does strength training really help them?

First of all, strength training is not a magic tool to better performance. However, if you like to switch cycling training with other sports during the winter, weight lifting can be a good supplement to your bike training.

Even though so many cycling coaches have different opinions about weight lifting, there is probably a trend towards recommending strength training during the winter season. Several studies have shown that strength training may possible compensate for cycling training. However most of these studies are very small and in most cases tested on relatively untrained riders.

I believe there is a tendency that many riders overestimate the value of one specific training regime. If there was one clear answer to this question, every professional rider would use it.

Personally, I believe many riders can benefit from strength training and use it for most training programs during the winter season. Since the positive benefit from a scientific point of view is minimal (if any), I take other factors into consideration for example previous experience with strength training, injuries, motivation, success rate of training sessions etc.

So what should you do to benefit from weight lifting?

1. You need a squat rack

First of all, you need access to the right equipment for serious training. Actually, you don’t need any fancy equipment as long as you have access to a solid squat rack where you can perform the single most important exercise for cyclists. If you build a home gym, a squat rack should be your first priority (or second priority after a quality ergometer bike).

2. You need to learn how to squat
Secondly, you need help to learn proper technique for squatting. Please notice that body dimension influence your technique. What is possible for one athlete might not work for you. Still it is possible to improve your technique and that way reduce the risk of injuries and increase your benefits from weight lifting. Ask a fitness instructor to help you and give feedback (and/or make a selfie video with your smartphone).

3. Focus on building strength, not hypertrophy
If you gain more muscle mass, you might be able to push more Watts and your sprinting power might improve. However, in most cases it would be wrong to focus on hypertrophy. Heavier legs will not make you ride faster because your Watts to kilogram ratio goes down. The problem is that a large muscle mass is heavy to carry and there is a dilution of mitochondrias in muscle cells. Thus, an increment of maximal strength made through hypertrophy will probably not result in a better overall cycling performance.

Instead, cyclists should focus on building neural strength because these strength gains won’t negatively influence aerobic performance. In fact there is some scientific trends indicating that if you’re be able to activate your muscles in a smarter and more efficient way, you can perform a more powerful stroke and ultimately increase your endurance.

Here is case story about how I successfully managed to increase strength without adding body weight.

4. Don’t spend too much time
Weight lifting is time consuming for most riders. So if you are limited on time, you’ll get more value for the time spend in the saddle. From a strict time effective point of view, weight lifting should be avoided. In stead stick to your quality cycling training regime.

Does weight lifting make you ride faster?

Maybe, but there is no guarantee. So be realistic about what you can achieve with strength training. It’s a great supplement (or substitute) for your winter cycling. And if you make a few tweaks to your current weight lifting program, you can probably achieve even better results.

5 comments… add one
  • Susie Mitchell

    Hi Jesper,
    Good summary! Im a fan of strength training myself. I believe it improved my cycling last season significantly (Im a track cyclist) both in endurance and sprint events.
    What would be really helpful is some suggestions / workouts to help convert strength from the gym into on the bike strength and power. I feel I didn’t quite achieve this to my full potential last year and believe it may be an issue for many people. Any ideas??

  • Al Mack

    Hi Jesper,
    A good article and informative and I agree with all of it. Though I note you do not cover the benefits of using weights in core strength conditioning, sure it won’t make your legs faster, but backache or sore shoulders half way round the race will make you go slower.
    Also what about “on bike” strength training – this will “tune in” muscles to working in the specific manner they will be used in cycling.

  • Braden Poirier

    Hello, good article 😉 I am a 49 yr old cyclist (cat 4/5) racer. I recently started cycling again 2yrs ago after almost 15yrs off the bike. I did keep fit through regular strength training and light aerobics though.
    I’m a firm believer in strength training for cyclist to maintain overall fitness. The benefits are more then just increased performance on the bike. If cycling is the only form of fitness you do, your fitness is very one dimensional and you run the risk of repetitive injury. This is the reason cross training was introduced years ago. Challenging the body and muscles with new and different activities helps to overcome plateaus and break up the monotony of a repetitive training program.
    Some benefits of strength training are increased hgh and with heavier lifting the potential for increased testosterone.
    For me, I’ve noticed that working the upper body, core, as well as legs has helped me become a better sprinter and climber, especially out of the saddle efforts. When my core and upper body are strong, I can go longer out of the saddle with more intensity. I also feel that with weight training you can work the supporting muscles that normally don’t get worked on the bike, like hip flexors, etc. This can help prevent injury while on the bike. Lets not forget the most important thing, and that is that cyclist generally don’t have very good bone density. Loading up the body with weights is one of the ways to help increase bone density and bone strength. If you ever take a spill on the bike, you will appreciate the extra bone strength 😉 As you get older, it’s important to maintain that.
    Overall, strength training is a great form of cross training I feel every athlete can benefit from. If improved cycling is your main goal, obviously you want to go about this as a supporting form of cross training. You don’t want to do too much to negatively effect your performance on the bike. At first I was doing more of the workouts I use to do and it would take me too long to recover from my weight training. I backed off a bit on the intensity and reps, try not to go to failure to often, and only 2 times a week, maybe 45min sessions to an hour max.

  • Martin

    Hi Jesper. Considering you are giving advice to (primarily) athletes with a limited amount of time during the week, strenght training is really not beneficial as it is far from the most effective training method off-season. It doesnt make you worse, for sure – and that is why a pro-cyclist can spend time in the gym, but that is only because he has an “unlimited amount of time” to spend training during the weak. The gains are so disputed – if any they are extremely marginal – that I really can’t see any point for the average club rider to waste time on it when using the same time on the bike is a vastly more effective use of ones time.

    keep up the good work though! 🙂

  • Tom

    Great article. I’m curious, when you insert weight training into your routine, how many days a week do you ride. Currently, I am weight training 2x/week and riding 3x/week. I don’t ride the day after weight training.

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