Cycling Training Tips

Getting stronger without adding muscle mass. Weight lifting tips for road cyclists.

How to Become Stronger Without Adding Muscle Mass

Weight Lifting Experiment #1

Here is the story about how I have spent six months testing and optimizing a training program helping athletes to become stronger without adding muscle mass. So far, it has been a success, but it is clear that I am a much better coach than an athlete.

Why is this weight lifting experiment important?

Many road cyclists enter the local gym to use weight lifting as compensation for less training time on the road. Weight lifting is a great way to keep you fit during the winter, and that is also why I have used weight lifting in the majority of winter training programs I have made.

However, it is essential to emphasize that there is no scientific proof that weight lifting during the off-season is better than cycling training.
No matter if you decide to ride 2 hours more per week or choose to add two weekly sessions at the local gym, you’ll probably end up with better performance in both situations.

Nevertheless, there are some trends that I would like to share with you. I believe weight lifting may play a more prominent role in the future for some of the best-performing road cyclists.

First, it’s essential to understand that the training techniques mentioned here might work for professional or semi-professional cyclists. If you ride at a lower level, and I guess that is what most readers do, you would probably benefit more from an increased training amount on your bike (in a strict time-effective point of view). So yes, you’ll get more value for additional time on your bike than spending one-hour lifting weights.

Muscle physiology

More giant muscle cells (larger square diameter) can generate more power.
That is the most commonly known way to increase power, but it is undesirable for most road cyclists. The problem is that a large muscle mass is heavy to carry, and there is a dilution of mitochondria. Thus, increasing maximal strength made through hypertrophy will probably not improve overall cycling performance.

Instead, cyclists should mainly be concerned about increasing their neural strength. I know that many training programs take a different approach, but I’m afraid I disagree in most situations. As a rule of thumb, road cyclists should never aim for hypertrophy.

It is doubtful that hypertrophy in itself will help average riders. Yes, there are a few selective riders where extra muscle mass will give them extra punch in mass sprints, etc., but most riders should avoid hypertrophy for the majority of riders.

Nervous regulation of force

There are two ways to control a muscle’s force.
One way is to recruit more motor units, which will activate more motor units. You can think of this as your brain tells your muscle to use a more significant percentile of your muscle’s fibers to generate power. Motor units are recruited in order of size. Small motor units are recruited before large motor units. This is called the size principle of recruitment.

The second way to regulate force production is through rate coding. It is an increment of the frequency of impulse signals to the motor unit. When a motor unit is stimulated more frequently, the twitches overlap, generating a more significant force.

This is the basic physiology behind the mechanisms used to increase the force.

So if you want to generate more power, you have three options:
1) It is either to build larger muscle mass, 2) recruit motor units, or 3) fire a higher frequency of stimuli to the motor neurons.

Because you have to carry your body weight on your bike, training your neural system is much more interesting. If you’re able to activate your muscles more smartly and efficiently, you can develop a more powerful stroke and increase your endurance.

So there is – at least theoretically – a potential to increase performance.

Even professionals might benefit from this.

If it is possible to increase strength (without getting injured or decreasing performance in other training sessions), why shouldn’t a professional cyclist take advantage of it?

Weight lifting experiment – #1 (home experiment)

Since May 2013, I have practiced weight lifting to increase strength without adding muscle mass. I wanted to test specific training sessions that were time effective and did not affect performance the following day.

These training sessions should be difficult enough to increase my strength but demand that they stimulate my growing muscles. Also, it should be possible to recover without suffering from delayed onset muscle soreness the following day.

Typically, I use test pilots for new training ideas (it’s much easier for me). Still, this time, I wanted to get some hands-on experience to understand the training philosophy better.

I find it very difficult to follow strict training without a specific goal. It’s no problem to get your workout done when you feel good and everything is going your way, but it is much more challenging to get through a demanding training session when you’re tired, stressed up, or time-crunched.

Fact is, I have the same challenges as readers here on do: I have a full-time job as a medical doctor, I have a wife and three small kids (age 1, 4, and 6), an old house to repair, and a growing website that has the potential to become a full-time job.

So during the first four months, my training sessions were very infrequent (weight lifting 0 to 3 times per week, avg. 1.5 training sessions per week) and very time effective. Most sessions were shorter than 30 minutes.

Following two performance tests in July and September, I realized I needed a short-term goal to commit to my training. So, to put a little pressure on me, I submitted for a powerlifting competition and, suddenly, began to train harder and more frequently as I got closer to ‘race day.’

I always teach riders: You MUST have a goal with your training. I’ve seen so many riders perform much better when there is a specific goal with their training.

Since my training volume has been shallow, it has been possible to reduce body weight. In November 2013, I entered my first powerlifting competition ever (RAW powerlifting: no bench press shirts, wraps, or lifting suits of any kind). I took 13th place: Squat 150kg, bench press 102,5kg, and deadlift 200kg. I was far behind the best athletes, but I was delighted with my results.

How to Become Stronger without Adding Muscle Mass

So far, this little experiment with a minimal amount of training has taken me to ‘above average’ performance 1RM lifts in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

And my body weight hasn’t increased at all.

I know there is room for improvements (technique), but there is not much left for hypertrophy (weighed in at 82,7kg in the 83Kg class). In addition, my fat percentage is low – probably around 9 – so my primary focus towards the next competition in April 2014 is to become stronger without adding muscle mass.

I plan to continue this experiment for a couple of months to see what’s possible with this training method. I think it is fascinating because if this concept works just as well as I hope, this training method can be applied to many different sports.

In the video below, you’ll find the author with a 180kg squat (bodyweight 82,7kgs)

So what is the secret?

I’ll go closer into detail in a later post, but here are some of the cornerstones in this training program:

Limit the total number of repetitions in working sets
– 10 to 15 reps per exercise (e.g., squats)

Limit repetitions per set
– Five reps or less. Three reps are fine for bench press and squats. Single lifts are great for deadlifts.

No failure training or forced reps
– Forget about the ‘No pain, no gain’ attitude.

Long recovery between sets
– at least 3min, 5+ min if possible.

Set a goal
Always have a goal with your training (short- and long-term goals).

As mentioned before, this is not a scientific study but a home experiment. Therefore, I apply the best advice from books and articles and personal experience from previous training programs and athletes. In addition, I have coached and listened to feedback from many of my readers who have tested training ideas presented here on the website.

I look forward to keeping you posted about my training. If you want to keep me motivated, please leave a comment and share this post on Facebook, Twitter, etc.