What DO cyclists need to do to ensure their strength training improves their riding?
Box Jumps? Plyometrics? Sprints?
Strength Training: You know that if you want to move towards maximizing your on-bike power or your riding that you have to include it in your yearly training plan.
But how do you take the strength gains made in the gym over to your riding?
This question has been one that many riders and coaches have struggled with over the last decade or so. But before we get into how to convert your strength gains into on-bike performance, we need to make sure 1 thing is clear:
Strength Training for Cycling MUST be done year-round. You can read more about why this is so and 4 other rules on which you should follow to get healthier, stronger, faster, and to be able to ride pain free in THIS POST.
Already up to speed on this? Great! Let’s talk converting your strength training to riding strength and performance.
Step 1. Building Strength in the right places
To build strength for on-bike performance, we first need to understand the sport, what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it.
This usually means a breakdown of what sport of cycling you’re doing (i.e. gravel, road, mountain bike, downhill/gravity, cross, etc) and what kinds of postures, movements, and positions you’re in. For today, we’re going to focus on a Gravel rider, as there is much to be gained by those riding gravel and learning how to transfer their strength training to their riding.
While many well-meaning cycling coaches will tell you that we need to focus on squats, deadlifts, and hamstring curls, as these are “cycling muscles”, these are in fact at the bottom of your strength training needs, as you’re already getting hundreds of thousands of repetitions of these similar movements on the bike. Meaning that while riding, you’re already performing movements like these, almost exclusively.
Sure, deadlifts work on the muscles along the spine, and when taught and done properly can teach you how to produce full-body stiffness and tension to produce a force downwards and lift (usually impressive) amounts of weight.
**As an aside, you don’t need to, and nearly all cyclists should not be deadlifting off the floor, but that’s another post…**
But when we’re building a truly performance-oriented strength training program, one of the biggest cornerstones is that we look to get you what you’re NOT getting in your sport. This allows us to balance out the body, keep the joints and muscles in optimal working order, and allows you ro become far more efficient of a human being- well, at least movement wise.
For baseball players it would look like working on the muscles of their back and shoulders to help better control and stabilize the shoulder blade, as well as working on the reverse of their batting and throwing movements to help maintain some balance in the body.
For us as cyclists, this means that yes, of course we’ll work to learn how to squat and hinge better, but these will be towards the bottom on our “to do” list.
First, and foremost, we need to learn how to brace our midsection and lock our rib cage and hips together appropriately for the task at hand.
Second will be learning how to moving side to side, and learning to move through our hips, not our spine.
From there we would learn how to perform the FUNdamental 5+1 human movements of:
- Press (overhead)
- Rotary Stability
But in order to determine what you need to focus on most, we would first need to assess how you’re moving for each of these.
The assessments take some time to learn and explain, which I won’t cover here, but if you’d like to learn exactly how to do this, you can take my Strength Training for Cycling Success course on Training Peaks University, to learn the very basics, or if you’d like to learn the deep ins and outs of building potent strength training programs for cyclists and take your skills up a few levels, you can sign up to be notified when my Strength Training for Cyclists Certification Course opens for enrollment in the spring and fall.
These assessments will identify exactly what your biggest movement weaknesses are, and help you to work towards building yourself to be stronger and more resilient.
Without doing at least the basic 3 assessments of Single leg Hip Lift, Bird Dog, and Overhead Squat, you’ll essentially be taking a wild guess as to what your needs are, and thus might as well blindfold yourself and throw darts at a wall with a bunch of exercises listed.
“If you don’t assess, it’s just a guess!”
Now I’m not going to leave you hanging here without a part of an assessment to do.
Here’s the Bird-Dog video from the HVTraining YouTube Channel (you should subscribe), and how to perform the Bird-Dog properly.
Video yourself, or have someone else record you performing the movement from the side, and from above, so that you can see:
- Can you keep your spine straight, or does it wobble and move as you go through the range of motion
- Are you getting the movement from the shoulder and hip, or from your back and spine?
- Can you fire your glute to raise the leg, or is it all hamstring?
- How far can you raise your arm? Is it moving from the shoulder, or are you arching your back?
- Do you have pain?
These 5 questions will help you begin to figure out if you have the basic ability to stabilize your spine, appropriately lock your rib cage and hips together, and get movement from the hips and shoulders.
Mastering the Bird-Dog is one of the 4 big keys that you MUST achieve if you want to see returns on your strength training out on the bike.
Step 2. Be Consistent In Your Strength Training
This is where so many cyclists go wrong- they include strength training either for an intensive 3 months during “winter” or “base”, and then leave the weights behind in favor of TRX, Bodyweight, Pilates, or Yoga.
While something is certainly better than nothing, these forms of training do NOT qualify as strength or resistance training, as there is not enough resistance to maintain or continue the tissue adaptations you need to stay healthy, continue to get strong, and improve your speed/power/strength.
Again, this does not mean they are useless! They certainly can and do have a place, but we must be clear about what is strength training, and what is movement training.
Strength training, as mentioned in the article linked to in our introduction today, must be done year-round. This means some kind of weights or resistance (dumbbell, kettlebell, bands, weight machines) throughout the year.
Minimum, we need 2 days a week of consistent strength training throughout the year to get the tissue and movement changes needed to build performance improvements on. While 3-4 days may work from some riders, I’ve found 2 days a week, with 1-2 non-strength days in between, to be a great sweet spot for many cyclists with their strength training.
Step 3. Converting Strength Training to On-Bike Performance
And now, after the important foundations of learning to move well, doing what you DON’T get in our sport of cycling (within reason…. nobody needs stability ball barbell back squats!), you can begin to build consistency in your strength training over 2-3 weeks, and at the same time begin the next step of conversion to on-bike performances.
Yes, as little as just 2-3 weeks into your strength trianing is when we would start pushing these a bit harder, but if you’d like you can start sooner.
Here’s how to convert your strength training to the bike.
Are you ready?
It’s also a 3 step process.
- Every time you do your strength training, focus on how the movement feels and looks. Aim to improve your movement proficiency (aka how good your technique is) every time you do your strength training. Don’t worry about the weight.
You just need an RPE of 4-5 while you refine these movements and improve your mind-muscle connection.
- Practice how to ride your bike
Many riders just get on their bike and pedal, but if you want to see performance improvements on the bike, you have to practice the SKILL of riding!
– Gearing Selection
– Bike Handling
– Riding in a straight line at slow speeds (why hello there, granny gear and 5mph!)
– Sprinting Technique
And most importantly, HOW you hold yourself up and pedal down the road, path, or trail.
Sebastian Weber and I had a fantastic conversation on my Strong Savvy Cyclist & Triathlete Podcast about just this, and how there are quite a few “easy wins” nearly every rider can get, by simply taking the time to learn how to pedal, and how to hold great positions on the bike.
3. Ride for longer than normal length of time (but don’t go crazy! A 10% increase in time is ample), holding a steady cadence of 90-110rpm (smooth & steady there buster!), while keeping your power rock steady, and your heart rate strictly in your endurance zone.
This practice of actually riding STRICTLY ENDURANCE, at a Small Cadence range that is +5-10 rpm than your natural/normal cruising cadence, while holding great riding position, and practicing sound breathing, is immensely underrated.
Perhaps because it’s not as sexy, or cool, or fun as sprinting, but the funny thing is, that with consistency of doing this 1-2x a week, you’ll begin to really feel 1 with the bike, as well as identify the weaknesses that you need to address in your strength training.
Common areas include, but are not limited to:
- Learning to appropriately brace your midsection to keep your hips and ribs connected
- Learning how to use the glutes to aid in pedaling down the road
- Firing up the mid-back (mid & lower trapezius, rhomboids) to allow you to better support your upper body and control the bike
- Learning how to breathe in a 360 degree full-expansion like an umbrella opening fully
Just to name a few!
This all makes a lot of sense now, but again, what about sprinting?
OK, so we’ve covered all the above, and talked a lot about how to convert your strength training to on-bike performances, but have managed to dodge the question, much like the peloton dodging that big sun umbrella.
So does sprinting actually convert strength training to on-bike performances?
But unlike other answers this “it depends” is pretty straight forward.
If you’ve taken the time to follow the above steps, in order:
- Learning how to move for the FUNdamental 5+1 movements
- Been consistent with your strength training over a few weeks and into/ throughout the next year, and
- Made practicing the skill of riding your bike to improve upon that skill and it’s many components…..
then yes, through your strength training and your learning how to produce power more efficiently, with less loss of energy (aka “energy leaks”), you can see carry over from your strength training to your riding by including specific sprint training.
If you’ve followed these steps it will have happened as you’ll have produced a sound foundation of:
- High quality /better quality movement patterns
- Improved ability to understand and sense where in space your body is
- Improved ability to produce proximal stiffness for distal motion
- Began to significantly improve your skill of riding your bike
- Improved the neuromuscular, cardiorespiratory, and local metabolic abilities to ride for long periods of time in great positions and postures, with fantastic breathing patterns.
Whereas if you didn’t take the time to focus on these 3 steps as we’ve spoken about today, heading out the door and doing sprints to “convert your strength onto the bike”, would be like firing a cannon from a canoe….
Fun to watch from the shore, but you sure as hell wouldn’t want to be on that canoe!