Why Strength Training for Cyclists MUST be Year-Round & How to Do it Right
Strength training is often viewed as an "offseason" or base period only activity. But if you're looking to feel great and ride strong, you need to include it year-round. Here's how:
When it comes to strength training for cyclists, we’ve seen a complete 180 degree turn around in how cyclists view weight lifting. Up until around 2010, many riders looked at weight lifting and resistance training being detrimental to performance on the bike, even with disdain:
“Strength Training will make you bulky”
“Weight lifting isn’t for cyclists, our sport doesn’t look anything like that, and it wont help.”
“All you need is some bodyweight core exercises (proceeds to plank and do a few hundred variations of crunches)”
“Oh yeah, I weight lift, but only squats, and hamstring curls, and some deadlifts”
“You don’t need upper body, it’ll just add muscle bulk”
And many many more…
Strength training is no longer shunned by cyclists, but how to do it right for our sports demands is still missing.
What many do not know, is that strength training programs to boost riding performance have been used by cyclists for decades, with the first book on the topic having been published by Harvey Newton back in the 1980’s.
Unfortunately, the resistance against weight lifting and strength training for cyclists was so deeply seeded (although unfounded), and it has taken us a good 30+ years to come around to our senses.
Acceptance of strength training for cyclists has begun, but there is much misinformation out there
Over the last 10-15 years we’ve begun the process of growing as a sport in our mindset and acceptance of strength training for cycling and triathlon.
We first started with “core training”, which has been interpreted to mean planks, and side planks, and lots of stomach exercises.
While this is a step forward, and something is usually better than nothing, this approach to “core training” left us still far short of what we really need to improve our on-bike power & performances.
But since around 2012, we’ve begun to see more conversations pop up around how to do weight lifting for cycling (and triathlon):
“Light weights and high number of repetition sets, because you’re endurance athlete, so we need to train for endurance”
“Heavy weight and low repetitions per set, because you are doing so much endurance and need more strength”
“All you need is TRX and maybe some bands”
“Strength training is an off-season only activity”
“When you lift weights for cycling, you have to drop down your riding time because of how sore you’ll be”
and many more.
While these statements show that we are getting a bit closer to what we REALLY need to be doing in the gym, we’re still missing the main pillars that will allow us to build strength for performance.
The first step to unlocking your full potential, is understand that an intelligently designed strength training program MUST be performed on a year-round basis, and that it’s focus and execution will change as you move through your training cycle & training year.
To get started on this topic, let’s take a look at the 5 stages of strength development, as outlined by Tudor Bompa.
There is a time for strength training for cyclists and triathletes and that’s ALL YEAR LONG.
Strength Training, like cleaning, should be a year-round activity.
Building The Strength Training Year
Strength Training for cycling PERFORMANCE is very different than strength training for general strength, and as such, it will require us to look at the use of strength training as a tool to help us build our abilities in a pretty different light.
And of course I have to mention the elephant in the room, and that is cyclists and triathletes as a whole lot, are incredibly weak, and DO need GENERAL STRENGTH, before we can begin to look at building strength for very specific sports results.
I don’t say this to offend anyone, but this is the truth, and is in fact one of the reasons why simply starting strength training with a general plan can be incredibly beneficial… so long as you’re learning proper technique for each movement.
And that is where the training year, for strength training, begins:
Stage 1. Anatomical Adaptations
The first stage of strength training for cycling, triathlon, or any sport, involves going through the FUNdamental 5+1 Human movements with little to no weight, allowing you to learn how the body feels and moves
This stage of training is often very difficult to get adults to spend enough time on, as they feel the need to, well, “Feel something” from their workout.
We thing “We’re adults! I can handle it!” and the attitude that you want to challenge yourself in the gym, and that just like a hard hill repeat interval, you “should feel the effort”.
Unfortunately, this thought process is a bit broken, and leads many endurance athletes who hit the gym looking for strength training to boost their biking or running power, into a world of pain, which takes away from their enjoyment of the gym, and over (usually a short) time, to stop doing strength training at all.
“I’m too sore to ride/run/swim”
“I can still feel my glutes from last Monday’s squats”
We actually are looking for difficulty levels of 5, 6, and 7’s (and occasionally an 8) for both each individual set, and our overall strength training session. This whole concept is very foreign to many triathletes and cyclists, as we’re used to pushing hard and “knowing a good workout when we feel it”.
Especially in the Anatomical Adaptations Stage, which lasts 3-6 weeks, we want perceived exertions of 5 & 6’s for each of our training sessions.
The point of this stage is to allow the body to begin to adapt to the new kinds of demands we are going to place on it, to allow us to learn (or begin to learn) the techniques we will need to safely and successfully use strength training to boost our power and performance, as well as help us get into the new routine.
Stage 1: ANATOMICAL ADAPTATIONS
Length: 3-6 weeks
Focus: Tissue and structural adaptations to strength training, learning technique for movements with low loads
Target session perceived exertions (1-10): 5 & 6
Stage 2- Hypertrophy
Hypertrophy has got a bad rap in the endurance sports world, but in truth, you NEED it if you want to increase your cycling power, or drop your running and swimming times.
Don’t worry, unless you’re training on the bike or for your swim/bike/run less than around 6 hours total a week, your risk of putting on tons of muscle are going to be slim to none, as the body will prioritize that which it’s being asked to do most.
And if we’re honest here, if you consider yourself a cyclist of triathlete and are training LESS than 6 hours a week total in your sport, we need to have a whole different kind of conversation.
Dean Somerset and I spoke a little about this when he joined me on The Strong Savvy Cyclist & Triathlete Podcast in 2019
Dean also wrote a blog post about this topic all the way back in 2010, which quoted some research from 1999 that shows endurance athletes can reap great benefits without bulking up.
That’s over 20 years ago, yet the myths still lives!
The muscular hypertrophy stage will generally last 6-12 weeks, depending on your strength training age (NOT your cycling training or triathlon training age!), your strength & performance goals, your physical needs, as well as where you are in your training year.
This phase is often neglected or omitted by many cyclists and triathletes, as they are afraid to bulk up, or put on unnecessary muscle mass. However, a big part of the gains you both want and need from strength training, come from the tissue and neurological adaptations that happen during, and because of, the hypertrophy stage.
During this phase is a good time to be doing the OPPOSITE on the bike, run, or swim, meaning that if we’re pushing for hypertrophy in the gym, this is a great time to look for endurance, tempo, and even short sweet spots in-sport.
What may surprise you to learn, is that most of the “Strength Training for Cycling” and “Strength Training for Triathlon” programs out there, already are putting you into the muscular hypertrophy range of 8-15 repetitions per set. Yet they claim to be focused on “strength endurance”.
Some of you may be thinking “well I thought sets of 5-8 were hypertrophy?”, much like the energy systems of the body, there is no on/off switch. So the results we tend to see in sets of 5-15 repetitions trend strongly to muscular hypertrophy. Much of this has to do with the total loads being moved, and how the tissues (primarily muscles) need to adapt in order to deal with these forces.
If you don’t believe me, just ask pretty much any body builder what set and rep scheme they use when looking to build some serious mass, and many/most will answer 10-15 reps to burnout…..sounds like what many triathletes and cyclists do…
But no worries! We need to go through this stage anyhow, the adjustment is pretty simple once you understand the 5 stages of strength development as we cover them here, and make the appropriate changes to your strength training program.
So, what’d you think about “The Hypertrophy Stage”? Did it surprise you?
Stage 2: HYPERTROPHY
Length: 6-12 weeks
Focus: Growth in muscle size , strength, and thickness, along with connective tissue strength
Target session perceived exertions (1-10): 6, 7 and occasionally 8
Stage 3- MAX Strength
Only after you’ve gone through the previous 9-18 weeks worth of preparation, will we turn to MAX Strength.
As we’ve discussed so far, much of this has to do with learning the techniques of each movement, how to appropriately position yourself and to breathe through the movement, as well as allowing for the mind-muscle connection to be developed in order to produce the stiffness needed to do these weights and movements properly….But above all else, it’s the tissue adaptations that we MUST get, before using heavy weights.
Taking the time to “set the table” properly will allow you to reap massive, massive benefits from this stage, as well as help significantly decrease your risk of injury.
When doing the programming for max strength, it’s important to note that we are NOT doing maximum efforts or weights for each and every movement!
Rather, we select 2-3 movements that we know need to be significantly improved on, in order to allow you to see great results, and we match those exercises with movements in the hypertrophy or strength-endurance ranges, in order to improve your ability to perform stronger for longer.
As you move through this stage, the rest times that you are (or are not) taking in between your sets is going to have a massive positive or negative effect on the end-results. If you’re resting for very short amounts of time in between your working sets, you won’t be gaining true maximal strength, but rather you will be getting a metabolic (energy system) response from your training.
Short (less than 2 minutes) rest in between your sets will result in not getting the maximum strength response, as your greatest limiter will be your energy systems.
However, if you rest 4-6 minutes in between your sets, and you’ll then have given the neuromuscular system enough time to “recharge” and put out another maximal effort.
This is a VERY important, but often glossed over point for many strength programs, with endurance athletes (and coaches) being some of the worst offenders, as we think:
“Hey I’m used to working hard on the bike/run/ swim, so I need to FEEL my strength also….so I’ll treat it like intervals and take minimal rest.”
This is often why we are missing the massive gains we are after in our strength training.
When it comes to RPE, because of where this period falls for most endurance athletes (late winter/early spring), we need to be aware of the target SESSION perceived exertion (how you felt for the session overall).
While within the session itself we’ll usually work up to having 2-4 sets IN TOTAL that have an RPE of 8-9, the overall session should have an RPE of 6, 7 and occasionally an 8.
During this stage of training we will usually spend 1 day in the gym moving the heave weights. Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s work well for most endurance athletes, as that allows for Monday to be a movement or recovery session, which can help boost recovery and even our performance in the heavy lift day.
While you may be thinking that more is more, in actuality, the vast majority of endurance athletes do best with 1 day a week containing their heavy lifting (usually a day OFF the bike/run/swim), with a second day containing a focused, but less taxing Strength-Endurance style lift, where they are doing sets of 5-8 repetitions, working with a weight that puts them into working to maintain great posture, positions, and technique on the last 1-2 rep for the next to last and last set.
Remember, CONSISTENCY is the key to long term strength gains and success, not crushing your soul and not being able to walk for the next 3 days.
Stage 3: MAX STRENGTH
Length: 6-12 weeks
Focus: Increase MAX strength, increase mind-muscle connection (neural drive), practice new skills of creating stiffness in the torso and spine, to MOVE from the legs and arms
Target session perceived exertions (1-10): 6, 7 and occasionally 8
Stage 4- Conversion to Sport Specific Strength
Where the "rubber meets the road" when strength training for cyclists is done right
The next stage is where most riders will fall off, but is where keeping at it in the gym really brings things together.
Usually done in the spring, this stage ties in with when the weather is beginning to change, and we’re itching to get off the trainer and get outside. But for those who actually stay the course and make a point to get into the gym 2 days a week for shorter workouts (~40 min in total), the rewards are big.
Here we’re looking to continue to build strength-endurance through the training program, by moving slightly lighter weights for volume, and continuing to build your abilities to maintain strength and great movement patterns and postures.
More often than not, the cyclists & triathletes who first go through this stage while working with me, are pleasantly surprised as to how “refreshing” these sessions are, as well as how good they feel out on the road, despite their concerns about “being sore” and not having the time they need to work in sport.
The key here again is to be focused on what we actually need in the gym, not on “feeling” like you’ve got a workout in.
Stage 4: Conversion to Sport Specific Strength
Length: 6-12 weeks
Focus: Take strength & new abilities to be shown in-sport through specific interval work, skills practices, and careful planning of strength & in-sport sessions
Target session perceived exertions (1-10): 5, 6, and 7’s
Stage 5- Maintenance
Maintenance is probably the easiest of all the stages, but because it’s easy to do, it’s also easy not to do.
These workouts are super short, and don’t necessarily need to be done in the gym, as we can use a number of variables at home, including time under tension, total volume, changing the type of contraction you need (think TRX vs. Bands vs. Kettlebells).
These workouts will usually be short 15-20 min in length done immediately after a workout, or on the same day as a workout, but at the opposite time of day.
These workouts will focus on 4-6 movements, with a dynamic warmup geared to help keep your body moving well.
Short, simple, CONSISTENT, done.
Stage 5: Maintenance
Length: 6-12 weeks
Focus: Keep and slowly progress strength & abilities gained to this point
Target session perceived exertions (1-10): 6, 7 and 8’s