I have covered this topic a couple of times before, but there are still many reasons to consider whether weight training is a waste of time or a way to improve your overall performance. When road cyclists discuss strength training, it sounds like a discussion of religion rather than about having some amusement in the wintertime.
There are firm believers in the possible gains from strength training, and strong opponents argue against lifting weights.
There are very few arguments supported by scientific research.
Like most studies in exercise physiology, research on trained cyclists is 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 evident for most riders that there are heavy bursts with workloads above 1000Watts in bike races.
Can strength training improve these heavy bursts?
Well, that question is still unanswered. This question is not yet answered because 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 recruiting muscle fibers for a contraction. This theory makes sense to me, but it is tough to prove that in the lab.
Ric Stern, a 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’m afraid I have to disagree with him for two reasons:
1. Statistical power is insufficient to say that strength training will not help riders. For example, let’s say there is a benefit of 1 single percent of strength training (and it is probably less). However, scientists will never find that difference in a study with 15 riders randomized into two groups.
You will probably need study groups with more than 1000 riders to prove minor differences. To illustrate the problem: The opposite scenario. How many studies have shown that trained cyclists get significantly worse when strength training? It is clear that this answer will probably not be answered by statistics since there will not be any studies or meta-analyses strong enough to prove that minimal difference strength training might do.
2. Most riders train on programs focused on hypertrophy. These programs are not worth considering for neural adaptations. In addition, most riders train very differently from my recommendations for strength training without additional body mass.
Riders have considerable potential to adapt some of the training principles athletes use in weight-limited sports (e.g. track & field).
It is well known that these athletes benefit from strength training, but there has 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 recruiting educated cycling coaches.
Think of how many cycling coaches are old pros?
Not surprising that road cycling is way behind the scientific training strategies that many 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.
If you hate the game, you will rarely become the star in that particular game.
Some riders have a talent for strength training, which differs from endurance event road cycling. In road cycling, it is much about working hard for hours and suffering. Not much time or energy is left for jokes or small talks. There is a whole different atmosphere in weight training that often doesn’t fit an average endurance rider.
Strength training for neural adaptations requires a 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 entering a strength training program, please consider if you are willing to follow the necessary principles to reach your goals.
If you don’t want to develop neuronal strength, you will probably become a better cyclist if you stick to training on the roads.
If you are motivated for strength training in the wintertime and follow the instructions, there is a fair chance that you get better, and it is doubtful that you will get weaker.
It is impossible to prove the significant effects of strength training because the available studies 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 wintertime.