I have covered this topic a couple of times before, but there are still a lot of reasons to consider whether weight training is waste of time or way to improve your overall performance. When road cyclists discuss strength training it sounds like a discussion of religion rather than a discussion about having some amusement in the winter time.
There are strongly believers in the possible gains from strength training and there strongly opponents arguing against lifting weights.
There are very few arguments supported by scientific research.
Like most studies in exercise physiology, research on trained cyclists are always made on small groups, thus making it very difficult to prove significant differences for trained individuals.
Effects of weight training for cyclists remain unknown
After we have entered the Power Meter era it is obvious for most riders that there are heavy bursts with workloads above 1000Watts in bike races.
Can these heavy bursts be improved by strength training?
Well, that question is still unanswered. The reason this question is not yet answered is that we lack data to support the theories bike coaches and cyclists have about strength training. The question is whether it is possible to convert the neuronal power from strength training to extra power on the bike.
One of the more serious ideas is that strength training makes muscles more efficient when they recruit muscle fibres for a contraction. This theory makes definitely sense to me, but it is very difficult to prove that in the lab.
Ric Stern, British cycling coach and busy writer in a couple of bike forums, is pretty convinced that it is not possible to benefit from strength training if you are a well trained cyclist. I don’t agree with him for two reasons:
1. Statistical power is not sufficient to say that strength training will not help riders. Let’s say there is a benefit of 1 single percent of strength training (and it is probably less). That difference will never be found in a study with 15 riders randomized into two groups.
You will probably need study groups with more than 1000 riders to prove such small differences. To illustrate the problem: The opposite scenario. How many studies have shown that trained cyclists get significantly worse when they strength train? It is clear to me that this answer will probably not be answered by statistics since there will not be any studies or meta analysis strong enough to prove that very small difference strength training might do.
2. Most riders train on programs focused on hypertrophy. These programs are not worth considering for neural adaptations. Actually, most riders train very different from my recommendations for strength training without additional body mass.
There is a huge potential if riders start to adapt some of the training principles athletes in weight limited sports use (e.g. track & field).
It is well known that these athletes actually benefit from strength training, but there have also been more studying of practical training in athletics. In road cycling there is much more money in developing aerodynamic equipment, thus that is where all the brains go. One of the biggest problems in road cycling is to recruit educated cycling coaches.
Think of how many cycling coaches actually just are old pros?
Not surprising that road cycling is way behind the scientific training strategies that a lot of other benefits from.
Weight lifting requires a special mentality
There are several other explanations why some riders prefer to strength train and others don’t.
Like in all other games, players that are talented for a game like the game, because they are good at it and are likely to become great players.
If you hate the game, it is rarely you will become the star in that particular game.
Some riders have talent for strength training which is very different from the endurance event road cycling. In road cycling it is much about working hard for hours and a lot of suffering. Not much time or energy left for jokes or small talks. In weight training there is a whole different atmosphere that very often doesn’t fit a normal endurance rider.
Strength training for neural adaptations requires long recovery between each set, which I know very few riders respect.
Instead they try to translate their attitude from the roads into the gym like “No pain, no gain” and experiments with workouts they can do in the recovery periods.
Weight Training for Cyclists – Motivation is important
Before you enter a strength training program, please consider if you are willing to follow the principles that are necessary to reach the theoretically goals.
If you don’t want to spend the necessary time for developing neuronal strength then you will probably become a better cyclist if you stick to training on the roads.
If you are motivated for strength training in the winter time and follow the instructions, there is a fair chance that you get better and it is very unlikely that you get weaker.
It is not possible to prove significant effects of strength training because the studies available lack statistical power. There are too few observations to prove the good or bad influence strength training has on cycling performance.
So there are no guarantees that strength training will make you a better cyclist, but it might make you a happier and more motivated cyclist during the dark winter time.