As endurance athletes, we tend to think of our many training sessions in terms of time (minutes/seconds). . . But when it comes to your strength training sessions, this it not how you should measure them.

strength training for cycling: how long should you lifts be

This past week, one of the members of the HVT’s Strength Training for Cyclists & Triathletes group (it’s free, if you’d like to join) noted that he was “spending too long in the gym” for his strength training sessions, as well as “was going too fast in his deadlifts”.

While there are a few points we can make from this exchange, today we’re going to focus on the “going too long eg 50 min” part, as this is an extremely common mistake that cyclists (and triathletes) make when it comes to their strength training sessions.

Why total time in the gym is irrelevant

In the sport of cycling, large amounts of our time are spent thinking about “time in zone”, and “length of interval” for the varying parts of our rides, especially in our training rides. However, this measurement is used as a cornerstone in our cycling, because the length of time, and amount of effort (power) maintained for that time, is what will determine whether we are hitting our training needs or not. This stems from these two variables allowing us to properly stress the metabolic (energy) systems in the body, which need to adapt in order for us to get stronger on the bike. 

Without them, you’re just riding aimlessly.

You need this structure in order to progress.

Yes, yes, yes, there are a number of other variables that matter, such as position on the bike, cadence, and the skill of riding the bike (which many do NOT practice- to their own detriment). But the primary building blocks are time segments at perceived efforts, and in some cases, total time.

However, for the gym, the total time in the gym is relatively, well, irrelevant. 

When looking at a strength training program, there are a few considerations that need to be made, primarily centered around the weight selection (based off of perceived effort or estimated 1 repetition max- something we’ll cover in another post), number of repetitions per set, number of sets per exercise, and, yes, time: Either time for each part of the lift (tempo), or the rest period between sets.

But time between sets has the largest effect on the outcomes of your strength training program.

I talk about this in more detail in my book “The Vortex Method”, but in short, rest periods 90 seconds or less will result in metabolic (energy system) adaptations, while the longer rest periods of 3-7 minutes, will lead to more neuromuscular changes. 

These rest periods will have a big influence on your total time in the gym, and the outcomes you’ll gain. 

It’s not simply “lift heavy things” or “lift things up and put them down”, but actually:

“Lift appropriately heavy things at the appropriate speeds, with appropriate technique, then rest for the appropriate time for the desired outcomes between sets”.

How Long Should Strength Training (for Cyclists) Session Take?

It depends on a number of things:

  • Total number of exercises in your program for the day 
  • Availability of equipment
  • Rest periods between sets
  • Distractions
  • How much time you actually have to train

Ideally, the session should last “as long as it needs to”. But, well, time. 

It would be fantastic to carve out 2 hours for strength training 2-4 days a week, just so you have enough time to get the *perfect* workout in, but that’s not how life works. 

For many of us with work, families, and kids, 60 minutes seems to be about the average time we can get, with intermittent days/weeks where 15-30 minutes is all we can do. This is where there is magic to focus.

Each workout should include:

  1. A dynamic warmup (5-10 min)
  2. A main focus (10-40 min)

That’s the bare bones of a solid workout program: 

Prepare; Do. 

Sure, all the fancy corrective exercises are nice, but if you understand how to program well, you can get much done in this way through the dynamic warm-up and the pairing of the main exercises. I won’t go into details here, as there are many, but I do cover the ins and outs of programming in the Strength Training for Cyclists Certification Course (currently closed, but you can sign up for the Insiders List).

How Does The Strength Training Program Actually Look?

When it comes to strength training for cyclists (and triathletes), we need to remember to keep the main thing, the main thing. In these cases, improved trunk stability with appropriate stiffness, and the ability to do work at the arms and legs. 

Of course, where you are in the training year and whether you’ve been doing your strength training year-round or not, will have a big influence on the specific exercises you’d use. For today, we’re using the example of a 43 year old rider, living in the northern hemisphere, for the first week of March and who is in the first week of their build for the season.

Here’s what a 60 minute strength training session for this cyclist might look like:

Dynamic Warmup (8 minutes)

Breathing exercise (Crocodile breathing) 5 breaths

McGill Crunch 1*5 hold 10 sec ea

Bird-dog 1*12 ea

Side Plank, Top Foot Forward 1*45 sec ea

Tissue Preparation Jumps 2*15 sec ea   rest 1 min between rounds

 

Main Set (47 min, assuming a generous 1:30 min per set)

  1. Step off absorb 3*2 ea 
  2. Front Squats 3*8     
    Rest 3:30 between sets
  1. Romanian Deadlift 3*12
  2. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 3*8      
    Rest 3:30 between sets

 

  1. Modified Front Plank Hand to Shoulder  3*3 ea 
  2. Farmer Carry 3*45 sec      
    Rest 3 min between rounds

 

Cooldown

7-11 Breathing  2 min 



Of course, there is set up time for the next exercises, but if one plans properly and stays focused, it’s totally possible to get this in 60 min, even with having to wait a minute or two for weights, as most sets take around 60 seconds, and we’ve assumed a cushy 90 seconds. 




Here’s what a 30 minute strength training session for this cyclist might look like:

 

Dynamic Warmup (8 minutes)

  1. Breathing exercise (Crocodile breathing) 4 breaths
  2. McGill Crunch 1*5 hold 8 sec ea
  3. Bird-dog 1*10 ea
  4. Side Plank, Top Foot Forward 1*45 sec ea
  5. Tissue Preparation Jumps 2*15 sec ea   rest 1 min between rounds

Main Set (19 min, assuming a generous 1:30 min per set)

  1. 2-1-1-1 Tempo Front Squats 3*12     
    Rest 1:30 between sets

 

  1. Romanian Deadlift 2*12
  2. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 2*10       
  1. Modified Front Plank Hand to Shoulder  2*4 ea
     Rest 3 min between rounds

 

Cooldown

7-11 Breathing  2 min 




What ACTUALLY Matters in Your Strength Training?

Whether you need to complete a 30 minute or a 60 minute strength training program, the time in the gym doesn’t matter as much as the ordering of the exercises and the rest periods. 

But there is still one large piece we’re missing:

Technique

So often cyclists & triathletes get caught up in just “getting it done” by slogging through their workouts, following the weights that are written, or in line with what they used last week. 

But that’s not going to get you there. 

Strength Training progression is not linear. 

What matters most- beyond consistency in showing up and doing the work in just the right amounts- is your technique.

HOW you do an exercise will greatly impact the results your going to get, and also whether you’ll be healthy, or broken. 

Check your ego at the door to the gym.

 

There will be days where you’ll feel that you can do more weight.

There will be days that you’ll feel that you need to do less weight (for the perceived exertion and speed programmed) – and you should in fact do less in this case.

And there will be days where you just know or feel that you *could* lift the prescribed weight for your last set, but then your technique would suffer…. in that case, lower the weight to where you know you can get great technique,

Then for the next week, take a look at your programming to figure out if it was just a blip/bad day, or if your program is too ambitious and needs to be scaled back.

Conclusion

While the above training programs are loose examples, you can see that depending on the time available, HOW we get the desired outcomes from the strength training will change. The programming will change in how we program. . . But all that the total time in gym tells us, is how much time you have carved out of your day for strength training.

 

 

Technique should be the guiding principle within your workouts, along with checking your ego at the door.  

Being able to get the movement done from the right places, and with the correct speed, is what will determine if you get your desired results. . . Not slogging through the sets just to check off the box.

 

There are many different paths to get to the end result of utilizing strength training to get actual on-bike performance gains, but trying to determine if a strength program is “too long” based on the time in the weight room is like trying to fly a plane on your own to Reno, without knowing where you’re starting from. Sure, you’ll get SOMEWHERE, but it won’t be to your desired destination. 

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