Many cyclists enjoy visiting the local gym during winter and believe that strength training can help them perform better. But does strength training help them?
First of all, strength training is not a magic tool for better performance. However, if you like to switch cycling training with other sports during the winter, weight lifting can be an excellent 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 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 for many riders to overestimate the value of one specific training regime. If there were one clear answer to this question, every professional rider would use it.
Many riders can benefit from strength training and use it for most training programs during the winter season. However, since the positive benefit from a scientific point of view is minimal (if any), I consider other factors, for example, previous experience with strength training, injuries, motivation, the success rate of training sessions, etc.
So what should you do to benefit from weight lifting?
1. You need a squat rack
First, you need access to the right equipment for serious training. You don’t need any fancy equipment as long as you have access to a solid squat rack where you can perform the most critical exercise for cyclists. If you build a home gym, a squat rack should be your priority (or second priority after a quality ergometer bike).
2. You need to learn how to squat
Secondly, you need help to learn proper techniques for squatting. Please notice that body dimensions influence your practice. What is possible for one athlete might not work for you. Still, it is possible to improve your technique, and that way reduces the risk of injuries and increases your benefits from weight lifting. Ask a fitness instructor to help you and give feedback (or make a selfie video with your smartphone).
3. Focus on building strength, not hypertrophy
If you gain more muscle mass, you might push more Watts, and your sprinting power might improve. However, it would be wrong to focus on hypertrophy in most cases. Heavier legs will not make you ride faster because your Watts to kilogram ratio decreases. The problem is that a large muscle mass is heavy to carry, and there is a dilution of mitochondria in muscle cells. Thus, increasing maximal strength made through hypertrophy will probably not improve overall cycling performance.
Instead, cyclists should build neural strength because these gains won’t negatively influence aerobic performance. Some scientific trends indicate that if you’re able to activate your muscles more smartly and efficiently, you can perform a more powerful stroke and ultimately increase your endurance.
Here is a case story about how I successfully increased 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 spent in the saddle. Therefore, road cyclists should avoid weight lifting from a strict time-effective point of view. Instead, 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.