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3 Things You Need To Know About Strength Training For Cycling

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 07 October 2016
Hits: 2767

We have featured many articles on our website before about the need for strength training for runners and various sports like Golf, Tennis and Football, but we have not discussed the value and need for this with cycling. I myself have been a very competitive cyclist for many years and still do a few races each year. I used to race Mountain Bikes before I ventured into road cycling so I have a good understanding of the different skills and requirements for both disciplines. The biggest mistake many cyclists make is that they are ignorant to the many postural problems and muscle imbalance that their sport can cause. As the sport is so repetitive it is great for improving efficiency but a disaster for creating long term postural problems that lead to injury and pain. This can easily be avoided by adopting a corrective plan, and the good news is it will actually help you to ride much faster! Just spending endless hours on the road in the hope that you will get faster is not a well thought out plan. Other sports know of the benefits to their game by adopting conditioning and cycling is no different. Even if you are just an amateur and just like to ride with your friends you still need to do some form of strength work or risk developing problems down the track. Which could eventually lead to no more cycling!

Why Strength Training Is Critical For A Cyclist

As I mentioned at the beginning I myself have been a very competitive cyclist for many years and appreciate the benefits of adopting a strength program in combination with cycle training. I even competed in many duathlons and triathlons where time trial position and cycle efficiency from body position on the bike is of high importance. Sure I had to devote a lot of time on the bike, especially for endurance events like the Alpine Classic 200km race which includes over 3600m of climbing, (2017 will be my 10th year) or the Ottways Odyseey 100km Mountain Bike race, arguably the toughest race I have ever done!

 

But my strength program ensured I maintained good overall health and muscle balance and helped me develop extra strength into my weak areas that cycling would not be able to do. For example with the climbing involved in the Alpine Classic, it was important for me to get as much power from my glutes as I could for this is the engine room for hill climbing. Just cycling more would not provide this for me, which I will explain shortly as to the reasons why. With the mountain bike riding I needed a lot of upper body strength, to absorb the many difficult single track descents, technical cornering and general handling of the bike. Any good mountain bike rider will tell you just how much you use your upper body in these races. I saw so many riders fatigue badly due to weakness in this area.

If you are a serious cyclist and want a stack of cycling specific exercises and programs that cover core strength, hill climbing strength and sprinting power then you must get a copy of our Little Black Book Of Training Secrets by clicking here or on the image below. As the title suggests it has 101 programs that cover all the elements of a successful training program. And there is a specific chapter dedicated to cycling, for both road cycling and mountain biking as well as triathlon. In this article I will show you one of these programs and give you a taste of what is inside. These are all programs I have used successfully for myself and with many elite cyclists for over 11 years.

There really is 3 key reasons why strength training is critical for cycling

  1. Prevents Injury & Corrects Postural Imbalance
  2. Improves stability, power and speed
  3. Improves cycling efficiency

Let's break these 3 parts in more detail and discuss the important benefits a well designed program can provide.

1. Strength Training Prevents Injury & Corrects Postural Imbalance

This should always be your number one priority with any program for sports. For if you get injured you don't play, or in the case of cycling you don't ride! It is that simple. You must always have this in mind as being your first purpose, and then begin using performance enhancing strategies, exercises and methods second. Cycling, like running and many other endurance events is very repetitive so it can create enormous amount of stress on joints and connective tissue when muscle imbalance and poor movement patterns are present. You MUST have plans and exercises in place to counter this repetition or you will create an injury. Common injuries to cycling is back pain, neck pain and knee pain.

Back pain and neck pain are created as a result of being in the hunched over position for excessive amount of time. If you have a job that requires you to sit all day, then you drive your car home to spend more time sitting at night and your only form of exercise is riding a bike that requires you to sit, and even worse hunch over the handlebars, this is the perfect recipe for a herniated disc. (read our article on Disc Bulges for more information) In the exercise world this is known as flexion. The massive amount of time being stuck in this position is what causes muscles at the front of the body to shorten and tighten, with the muscles at the back of the body being overstretched and weakened. To counter flexion, you need to use many exercises that provide extension, strengthening the muscles that are being overstretched and weakened from your riding position. A corrective program that includes stretching, in particular the thoracic spine and the hips, along with simple stability exercises will do the job fine here.

The 2 exercises below, the cobra and thoracic extension over a small foam roller are perfect examples of how to do this.

I know myself when descending mountains like Falls Creek (30km descent) your neck can get really tight. This can lead to headaches and all sorts of problems so having a strategy to prevent this is essential. Read our article on Postural Correction to see more detail on exact exercises and stretches and why it is important to reach a time of 3 minutes of time under tension when using postural retraining.

Knee pain would be the other most common injury to cyclists and this is quite a tricky one. Paradoxically cycling can be used as a great form of rehabilitation for knee injuries and it also can be the major cause of knee injuries! Let me explain why. Firstly cycling can be excellent for knee injuries like torn or ruptured ACL to begin with, as the lack of overall strength combined with the minimal impact of cycling provides an easy way to add some much lacking strength, especially to the quadricep muscles. Many elite professional cyclists like Simon Gerrans started their career exactly this way, recovering from knee surgery.

However!

There are countless amount of riders who develop knee injuries from too much cycling and developing a muscle imbalance through the hips and quads over the glutes and hamstrings. This is the most common type of knee problem we encounter every day. Quad dominance is very bad for the knee, as it begins to stiffen the joint up, limiting range of motion with everyday movements, in turn inhibiting the glutes from firing and then creating a chain reaction of compensatory movements. Here is a great story of a client explaining how we helped him using basic postural and movement retraining

"I was into cycling in a very big way, one day I started having issues with pains in my knees in March 2012. I experienced a great deal of frustration with the injury that stopped my from doing the sport I loved. To try and fix the issue I did a lot of research, spend a lot of time and money trying remedies all for little to no result. It became clear that a quick fix was never going to happen and I gave up trying. Sometime later I found No Regrets while doing some internet searching. They assessed me and put me on a rehab program to correct my movement issues with strength work, massage tools and stretching. I've now been with them for over 9 months and although it's been a slow and sometimes frustrating process, I am very happy to be properly riding again having achieved rides over 100km, rides up into the Dandenong hills and I've just booked my first cycling holiday in 4 years. I still get mild pain but the team have been a great help not only in reducing my pain issues but providing me with the tools and knowledge to be able to build strength, maintain my own issues and stay on the bike. I would recommend No Regrets to anyone with chronic pain. Huge thanks to Elley, Nick and the team for all the help and support they have provided."

If you are experiencing Knee Pain right now I encourage you to read our articles below or get a copy of our Knee Pain Video and Book as this outlines exactly what to do in simple step by step instructions.

VMO Strengthening

How To Loosen Tight Hips

How To Strengthen Your Glutes

2. Strength Training Improves Stability Power & Speed

Now I don't know about you but if I can find an easier way to get faster and more powerful, I will do it. And for Mountain Bike riding, having a program that did not take too long to improve my stability and strength for cornering, jumps and treacherous descents would be amazing!

Well in both cases strength training provides quick answers to this. The key is to choose your exercises wisely and use the right amount of sets, reps and tempo to deliver the result you are looking for. When you use a correctly balanced training program you can significantly improve your muscular power and strength to weight ratio without producing any increases in body weight, even when very heavy weights are used. This not only leads to improved cycling performance (eg better sprinting ability, hill climbing and more power to overcome headwinds). Using exercises that target common weak areas like the glutes you can transform your engine room into a devastating machine.

However! This is where many people make big mistakes, and use body building exercises like Leg Press, Leg curl etc to build strength. Sure it builds strength but it lacks very important ingredients needed to be able to do this. You need to have incredible balance, stability and coordination to ride a bike efficiently and fast. You also need this before working on strength. All machines break this rule, and all isolation exercises break this rule. Using exercises on machines or bolted to the floor will be a disaster for your body for you basically are teaching yourself to not need the very key skills you need most! People must understand that you will enhance strength more from learning how to move correctly more than just isolating the muscle.

Read our article Squats vs Leg Press to get a detailed comparison of machines versus functional movement.

Key exercises to use would be Deadlifts with single leg squats & single leg deadlifts my preferred choice. Box Step Ups & Box Jumps and all Lunge patterns. Although a great exercise I tend to avoid too many weighted squats, and use the squat pattern more for stability and movement skill training. Squats are more of a quad dominated movement, which as we discussed already is how many knee injuries are developed. By focusing more on the posterior chain, you will be able to make more impact to your cycling speed. Below is some videos to watch on form for these key movements.

A good beginner to intermediate program to use would be below. This is taken from our latest book "Little Black Book Of Training Secrets".

Key principles of strength training for cyclists

Before jumping straight into your program you must try to balance our all the things you need. Obviously riding time is number one, but you need to structure your week so you can fit in the posture and preventive injury exercises and the strength and power exercises without over training and not getting enough rest. More training by the way does not mean better. Sometimes taking a day or two off and just doing stretches will do your body wonders and freshen tired muscles to allow full recharge. Read our article on Progressive Overload to make sure you understand the key timings of when to schedule rest and recovery around hard training.

To help you out here is a simple checklist to keep in mind.

  1. Have 2 programs you can switch between. One for posture and one for strength and power.
  2. Strength train at least twice a week, (even if it means you miss one ride) but be careful not to overtrain.
  3. Try to integrate your movements as much as possible, eg lunges with shoulder press and avoid machine weights like leg press, leg curl etc.
  4. Make sure you stretch at the end of each session especially through the hips and thoracic spine
  5. Sets should consist of fairly high intensity, low volume (4-10 reps) reps with the resistance/weight adjusted to induce failure at the end of the set.
  6. Maintain good form at all times.

3. Strength Training Improves Cycling Efficiency

All cardio vascular based sports like swimming, rowing, running and cycling, the key to being the best is being able to get faster using the least amount of energy. In terms of cars this is fuel economy and in terms of cycling the person who does this best wins! Economy refers to how efficient the muscles are (in terms of oxygen usage) at producing force during sub-maximal exercise (ie not flat out). The better the economy of your muscles during exercise, the less oxygen you need to use to propel yourself along at a given speed. Training loads that increases fitness, combined with strength training program that increases muscle but not overall body mass makes your body much more efficient. A bit like upgrading a 6 cylinder car with a V8 and making the weight of the car lighter.

You may just be a recreational cyclist and don't care about what time you do. But being more efficient means you will enjoy your ride much more and also be able to go further to reach more exciting places.

But there is obviously more to being efficient than just getting fitter. Pedaling technique, and minimizing body movement, allows for better aero-dynamics also making you faster with less effort. One reason many cyclists move around too much is that they use too heavy a gear and cycle too slowly. This action forces the body to push harder as if doing a one leg squat and as a consequence move the body to one side to enable more power. This excessive movement with enough repetition becomes a habit that can cost valuable energy and prolong your ride. There are 2 things you need to do to become efficient.

1. Hire a coach to analyze your pedaling action or use a great program you can get over the internet to do it for you. I have used COMPUTRAINER software for over 8 years and it is amazing at helping to increase Watts, improve efficiency and analyze your spinning technique. Click here to see video of it in action. This program will teach you to use much lighter gearing and spin faster which improves your aerobic capacity and lessens the muscular damage to your legs. Over long rides this is important for you can last all day aerobically but if your legs hit the red zone it is all over. Better cadence teaches you how to stay under the red zone and keep a little bit of power in reserve for the fast finish or to drop someone on a climb.

2. Work on your Core Strength and interaction with your trunk and legs. I don't mean start doing stacks of planks and crunches as this will do very little. You want to work on what is known as the SLINGS of the body as this is what Core Strength really is and how we are best able to move. Combining the strength of the inner unit stabilizers to keep your body still while at the same time activating big prime mover muscles is how you will teach your body how to get ever last bit of power without compromising your perfect riding position. I like to work on evening out the work ratio of left and right leg with many exercises and one of the best is the Balance Board Squat and Hold. This activates the key muscles needed to needed for stabilization that must happen in a split second. This is so similar to the feeling you experience on a mountain bike but it also relates well to time trial and road cycling for the only way for you to achieve balance is to do the key things needed for cycling. Great posture, excellent feel and timing, low center of gravity and even distribution of weight between both legs. Watch the videos below of examples of how to do this. I would encourage you to read more about how to train the slings by reading the two articles below.

How To Train The Slings

What Core Strength Really Is

Many of these exercises will switch from easy program to hard program. The key is all in the timing and executing perfectly.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this article on the value of strength training for cycling. Like I said in the beginning I myself have tried my hands at all types of cycling, even BMX when I was younger. While it is all similar they are also very different with the type of training skills required. Having a well rounded strength training program that complements this is invaluable and not only prevents injuries, but dramatically increases the performance and enjoyment from the sport. This is true for all ages.

If you enjoyed this article and live in Melbourne you can schedule a Free Movement and Postural assessment by filling in the form below