Cyclists are now turning to strength training en masse in a bid to improve their performance, but exactly how much strength training do cyclists need?
The answer to this important question will depend on a few key items:
- Your training age for cycling
- Which sport of cycling you’re focusing on
- You training age for strength training
- How YOUR body recovers and ADAPTS
Let’s take a look into each of these to help you figure out how much strength training you actually need, in order to see results.
1. Your Training Age for Cycling
If you’ve been riding long enough, you are highly likely to know at least one cyclist who has broken their collar bone, and perhaps even their hip due to a fall on the bike. This is an unfortunate part of our sport, partially due to the speeds and hazards involved, but also due to the demands we are NOT placing on our bodies.
The last 20 years or so we’ve seen a number of research studies emerge that show that those who cycle regularly for their sport or for their physical conditioning, have bone densities equal to your average 70 year old female.
But it’s not just our bones that become open to injuries due to our sport. As we put in the miles on the bike, year after year, the different connective tissues and muscles in the body change lengths as they stretch, tighten, and loosen, to help us perform our sport of cycling with less effort.
For example, the many hours in a spine-flexed position may cause some riders to stretch and overload the annulus fibers of the spine, leading to aggravation of the tissues of the spine.
These kinds of changes often take time, and while there is no “magic number” for how many years it takes for these changes to take place, we can often stay safe by making the assumption that a rider who has been riding 8-10 hours a week for most of the year, for 2-3 years, is going to need to be a bit more gentle in their approaches to strength training.
Once you get over 5 years, of riding this much without resistance training/ strength training- which MUST be done with an external load such as weights or bands, and you’re in the deep end.
You better be able to swim, or John Wayne, in this case AKA a tissue injury, is going to throw you in for more than you can handle!
It’s also incredibly important to note what your training age is for your chosen focus discipline of cycling. If you are just finishing your first full season of Gravel riding, your GRAVEL training age is 1. But if this was your 13th season since you began riding a road bicycle, then this is your 13th year as a cyclist.
These are two different- and important- ages to note, as you’ll see in #2 here in a minute.
2. Which Sport of Cycling You're Focusing On
The different sports within our sport of cycling have a huge impact on how much strength training you’ll need to do.
For example, if you’re a serious track cyclists, or serious track cycling hobbyist, you’re going to be pretty far behind the rest of the riders if you’re not performing strength training regularly.
But most of you reading this are not track cyclists. The majority of you reading this most likely are road cyclists, or gravel riders, and still a few of you will be XC mountain bikers.
The kinds of demands that your chosen discipline within cycling place on your body will significantly determine how many days a week, and how far apart your strength training sessions will be.
If you’re like Mark, whom I had in mind above (13th year since began road cycling, 1st year gravel riding), then we have to take both of these into consideration.
Road cycling places one set of demands on the body, and requires different use of the muscles throughout the riding than gravel riding does. Gravel is far more demanding, as there are many more obstacles and terrains for you to cover, and so different cadences are used, as well as having to use far more of your upper body strength.
We MUST keep this in mind as we move forward in our considerations of how much you should strength train as a cyclist, because the gravel season has created very different adaptations in your body, versus the end of a road season.
BUT, this is not the only factor, and the next one will determine how frequently you strength train, as well as the amount of loading you can, and should, use in your strength training.
3. Your Strength Training Age
You may have been riding a bike for the last 8 years, but that does NOT mean that you should jump into advanced or flashy strength training programs or exercises.
As it relates to our topic today, you have 3 distinctly DIFFERENT ages that we have to take into consideration:
- Your Chronological age- the age on your (legal) drivers license
- Your Training age for CYCLING- how many years you’ve been riding a bike, and also, how many years you’ve been doing your current focal sport of cycling (i.e. gravel)
- Your Strength Training Age
While the first two are pretty easy to figure out, determining your strength training age is one that many cyclists do incorrectly.
While you are most likely riding year-round, or at least 10 out of 12 months (if you’re not hitting the Peloton, Spinning Classes, or Zwift during the winter), those who have done strength training, tend to only hit the weights for 3-4 months out of the year, and then drop it completely (No, “Core” workouts, pilates, and yoga do NOT count!) during the rest of the riding year.
While the “common sense” behind it may seem logical (I want to get better at being a cyclist, not a strength trainer, so I’ll just ride my bike more) it actually means that you’ve lost 95%+ of the changes you worked to get during the few months of strength training.
Think of it like this:
You have a mountain near your house that helps you know if you’re in good shape. You focus down and really train for 3-4 months, training on the climb itself, and other hills regularly each week. Your peak event is July 23rd, but in March you’re riding really strong, and can feel the effects. Then, on Aril 12, you hit a new PR on the climb by 15 watts, and 43 seconds. Excited to see your newly won strength on the climb, you decide that you’ve done “enough” and remove all climbing and threshold to VO2 max training from your training plan until the event.
What would you say is going to happen when you get to the event?
Yet this is exactly what many do with their strength training.
What does this have to do with Strength Training age, you ask?
If you’re like my client John, and you were “ahead of the curve on strength training” as he likes to say, and started strength training back in 2004, BUT you, like him, only did strength training only from November- March each of those years, your strength training age is NOT going to be 16!
Instead, because you’ve take those 8-9 months a year off from strength training, aside from pilates or yoga or bodyweight “core”, your strength training age is only going to be 1/4 of the total years you’ve been doing it- in this case, FOUR YEARS OLD.
Why Does Strength Training Age Drop Like That?
This jaw-dropping realization makes some people mad, and others confused.
“How is that even possible? Why is it only 4?!?! It should be 10, or 12!”
The drastic reduction in strength training age is driven by 2 factors.
- Loss of tissue, structural, and nervous system adaptations
- Loss of movement refinement/ motor unit advancement
In simple terms:
Because you haven’t been using resistance year-round, your body has not made the changes to the degree necessary to help you see progress.
- Your bones are still frail, although better than if you haven’t done any strength
- Your tissues are far more adapted to the positions you’re in on the bike
- Your body cannot handle the weights you want it to, as the connective tissues and muscles haven’t thickened and strengthened, because you haven’t done that kind of stress regularly enough
- Your hormonal system has not adjusted to the demands of resistance training, but rather to endurance training
- And your nervous system has not done regular enough repetitions of a movement to become better and more efficient
All this means that each fall, or whenever you head back to the weights, you are essentially starting from scratch- again.
Talk about wasting your time.
Sure, you’ll be better at squatting or doing exercises at year 16 as you’ll have had some practice each year, but it pales in comparison to where you should be/could be, had you done regular strength training.
4. How YOUR Body Recovers, and more importantly, ADAPTS
This is perhaps the most important, yet completely ignored piece of the puzzle.
Everything we have talked about up until now is important to consider. These must be added into the equation of how much strength you need. However, we must note that how your body will adapt and recover to strength training will also depend greatly on your:
- Sleep quality, quantity, and regularity
- Life Stress
- Training Stress (riding)
Of course we could dig deep here, but we’ll keep it at this for now.
The idea that heavy soreness and complete fatigue from a strength workout means it was a “good workout” is complete and utter bullshit, and a part of “common sense training approaches” that needs to die already.
The BEST training, is that which:
Gives you the least amount of training stimulus that will result in the desired adaptations, in as little time as is needed to get it.
THAT is what makes a great training plan and especially strength training program. Being more sore on day 2 or 3 after your workout is a sign that you did too much and pushed the body too far.
But don’t take this to mean we shouldn’t be pushing!
We DO need appropriately moderate to heavy things to pick up and put down in order to get those adaptations! We just make sure to get them with workouts that are, on a scale of 1-10 in difficulty, 5’s, 6’s, 7’s, and occasionally 8’s.
If you want to learn more about this, Tony Gentilcore and I spoke about it on my podcast.
This is all fascinating, but can you just give me a basic idea?
Ok, yes, now we can get into some general guidelines, but I MUST warn you, that if you scrolled down to the bottom of the page to this without reading everything up to this point, you’re most likely going to miss the mark on what your needs are.
So scroll up, read, and then come back.
If you have read, great! Let’s talk Details.
The Basic Starting Points
For the following starting points a few assumptions have been made:
- You are just now starting strength training
- You are riding regularly, and have been for 3-5 years
- You have no previous muscular or joint injuries
- You have no current injuries
- Your nutrition is good, hitting 8+ servings of vegetables and 1.6-2.0g of protein per kg per day
- You are male, OR you are a female in the first half of your menstrual cycle.
The last one is an important note, as in the second half of the menstrual cycle many women tend to have a radically different hormonal status that leads to a more catabolic (breaking down) state that also offers up challenges in balance, coordination, and yes, strength.
If you’re a female in the second half of your cycle, you can and should still strength train, however, we want to listen to your body and adjust the weights appropriately so that your perceived exertion matches what the strength program needs/asks.
And if you’re having one of those days and are sluggish and cant get going? Perform 1-2 sets of 10-15 repetitions of each of the FUNdamental 5+1 human movements (Push, Pull, Squat, Hinge, Press, + Rotary Stability), and 1-2 balance and coordination exercises, and call it a day…..oh and aim to hit closer to 2.0g/kg of protein during that time, as it will help keep your body in a more anabolic state.
Those assumptions being said here are the basic starting points:
2 strength sessions
2 movement sessions
Mondays- Movement Session 20-30 minutes in total.
Tuesday- Moderate to heavy lift 30-45 min in total
Thursday- Movement Session like Monday
Friday- Moderate lift 40-60 min in total
2 strength sessions
1 movement session
Monday- Moderate lift 45-60 min IN TOTAL
Wednesday- NO RIDE- Movement session 20-30 min
Thursday- Moderate lift 40-60 min in total
2-3 strength sessions
1 movement session
Monday- Moderate lift 45-60 min IN TOTAL
Wednesday- Heavy Lift 45-70 min in total
Thursday- Light to Moderate lift 40-60 min in total
Sunday- Ride + 10-20 min Movement Session
3 strength sessions
2 movement session
Monday- NO RIDE- Movement session 20-30 min
Tuesday- Moderate lift 45-60 min IN TOTAL + Ride
Wednesday- No strength
Thursday- Moderate to heavy lift 50-70 min
Friday- Light to Moderate lift 40-60 min in total
Sunday- Ride + Movement Session 10-20 min
Again, I cannot stress enough that these are BASIC STARTING POINTS. However, if you’re a coach or rider who has gone through the Strength Training for Cyclists Certification Course, you’ll know exactly how to dial this in for yourself, or the rider you’re working with.
If you have not taken the certification course, start with a little LESS than you think the rider can handle. We want to maintain a 10-15% safety buffer for the firs 4-6 weeks when a rider is beginning their strength training. This serves the rider in two ways:
- Allows them to focus on learning technique first
- Helps us more quickly understand how long it will take the rider to adapt to strength training.
It’s always good to have a little safety net (little), than to go too far and have the rider lose training quality, or training time, due to soreness or fatigue.
Less is More, Especially when it comes to the back & spine!
The last few years I’ve experienced an influx of triathletes and cyclists coming to me for my Better Back & Hips Program, as they’ve been experiencing back pain that has reached the point that they can’t ride or perform their sport as they want to, and in some cases, it’s even affected their daily living.
8 times out of 10, the back pain began after they “Spent a hard/long session in the gym” and headed home. These long hours in the gym, especially coming from a summer season of lots of riding on your bike where there are next to no stresses on the tissues and structure of the body like those of strength training, means you’re ripe for an injury.
On episodes 8 and 9 of the Strong Savvy Cyclist & Triathlete’s Podcast, Dr. Stuart McGill, world renowned back and spine expert, shared with us that this is in fact the case. But it doesn’t have to be that way!
Sure, your legs may be very strong and you *could* add more weight to your squat or deadlift, but the weight on the bar doesn’t matter….but we’ll cover that in another post. Just know that you do NOT need to lift heavy to get the results you’re after. In fact, as you begin strength training, NOT lifting heavy is exactly what you need.
You can read more on the 5 Rules of Strength Training for Cyclists & Triathlete’s when you return to weights.
Follow the basic guidelines we’ve set out here today, keeping a “Less is More” mentality will help you stay healthy, get stronger, and to see the improvements you’re seeking to get out of your strength training. If you’d like to learn how to program strength training for cycling results, not weights on the bar or just for a break from cycling, sign up for the Insider’s List for the Strength Training for Cyclists Certification Course.
Until next time, remember to Train Smarter, Not Harder, because it is all about YOU!