When Should Cyclists & Triathletes Lift Heavy Weights?

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"Lift Heavy Sh*t" has quickly taken off in the endurance sports world as cyclists & triathletes come to realize just how weak they truly are...

But you cannot just jump to heavy weights! Here are a few considerations you MUST make before lifting heavy.

October 21, 2020 an article I wrote for PEZ CyclingNews went live, entitled “Cyclists: Beware of Jumping Into Heavy Weights”.

It’s quite possibly the most important article on strength training for cyclists and triathletes that I’ve written in my 15+ year cycling coaching career. However, while writing it, I knew that there would be some out there who would feel the warning would come off as too severe.

An overreaction. 

And that’s exactly what happened. While some brushed off the verbiage as “sensationalist” or worse, “click bait”, others were kind enough to share their thoughts, including this feedback:

I would definitely change “beware” of the title to “Be aware” or “Be informed of the reasons of”. “Beware can instill a fear of heavy weights.

Instilling a *Healthy* fear of heavy weights is exactly what cyclists and triathletes need, as we’re seeing a rapid increase in cycling and triathlon- especially at the amateur and age group levels, of back, hip, knee, and soft tissue injuries that happened in the weight room, that could, and SHOULD have been easily avoided. 

If only these considerations would have been taken, and a healthy fear of weights instilled early and reinforced often.

In my many years in the Powerlifting and CrossFit worlds, I have yet to meet a top-lifter or CrossFitter who doesn’t have a *Healthy* fear of the weights.

A deep deep respect, if you will.

Yet cyclists and triathletes attack the weights with a reckless abandon, which can result in unnecessary pain, injury, and even being forced off the bike, or to take a break from your sport. 

Let’s take a look as to why, while you do need heavy weights (eventually as part of your YEAR-ROUND Strength 

Cycling & Triathlon Load the Tissues Differently

While we like to think that as endurance athletes we are in phenomenal shape and can do whatever we like or want, that is not the case. 

Sure, we have a cardiovascular system that, if displayed outwardly as a car, would be the equivalent to BMW’s, Ferrari’s, and the like, as compared to our non-endurance sport peers. 

However, when it comes to adding external load, such as dumbbells, barbells, sandbags, heavy televisions, sofa’s and other Ikea branded furniture, we now are the equivalent to 1973 Pinto’s (better not turn on that left blinker, or the car will catch fire!), as our muscles, bones, connective tissues, and joints, have not been forced to adapt to these kinds of forces.

This leads to long-term challenges in maintaining bone density (higher risk of osteoporosis, fractures), lean muscle mass, and decrease in the abilities of the bodies tissues to handle other rigors of life.

Maybe this is why after the age of 30 our friends stop calling us to help them move, and instead post on craigslist looking for college kids, or just hire professionals. 

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Ryan Hall, the highly successful runner & record holder for fastest US marathoner and US half marathon record holder, has gone on the record saying, correctly so, that to be in the shape to accomplish what he did at the top level of the sport of running, required an UNHEALTHY level of general strength. 

While so many well meaning cyclists, triathletes, and coaches like to throw around the term “Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands” when talking about lunges, squats, deadlifts, and planks should be used in strength training programs because they’re “sport-specific”, they are in fact missing the fact that your body is not adapted to the specific demands of strength training!

What IS the SAID Principle?

Let’s start with what the SAID principle is NOT:

Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands is NOT mimicking the movements you do in your sport in your weight training/ resistance training.

This is simply copying the same movement patterns/ similar biomechanics. That’s it. 

Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands is:

The body adapting to the demands placed on it by a specific sport, event, or regular task… the body will respond by adapting hormonal, neuromuscular, metabolic, and biomechanically. 

Yes, if you were to do enough strength training the body would adapt, however it’s NOT copying the biomechanics of your sport. Again, it’s placing energy system, movement, and loading demands on the body.

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Totally redundant. 

But I’m doing that to help you remember what the SAID principle IS. 

So, the SAID principle kicks in then as you’re spending tens of hours a week out running, riding, or swimming, not forcing the bones and other tissues of the body to adapt to being under heavy load. 

Think about it like this: As you’re out cycling, running, or swimming, you’re placing small amounts of load into the system,  so the body will adapt to these small loads. 

From the bones restructuring, to the density of the connective tissues of your ligaments and tendons, the body will adapt to deal with these kinds of forces, and energy demands.

That, in a nutshell, is the SAID principle.

Now, don’t you feel more powerful?!

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The Consequences are far more reaching if you "go too hard" in strength training

Moving on from the SAID principle, is the need to consider the consequences of cyclists and triathletes lifting heavy weights, and doing so too soon- before the necessary tissue adaptations can take place.

If we look at the consequences of going too hard in cycling or triathlon, and exclude the absolute extremes of someone having a cardiac events, should we train too hard, the possibilities are relatively benign. 

Overtraining in and of itself is serious, but with rest, decreasing stress, and proper nutrition, many can bounce back from overtraining within a few months (of course this depends on how deep they dug themselves and life conditions).

However training too hard lifting too heavy even just one time, can lead to significant injury that can alter your daily life for the next 10+ years. 

When we look at the lack of tissue changes, and the consequences of going too hard leading to massive failure of the tissues, we have to think about our back and spine, as already in our chosen sports of cycling and triathlon, so many young, relatively otherwise healthy riders and triathletes, suffer from back pain and discomfort. 

In specific, due to the long hours we put in on the bike, our vertebrae, specifically the smaller trebeculae which make up the vertebra body itself, and the endplates which sit between the body of the vertebra and the discs themselves.

While many mistakenly believe that the discs compress and serve as “shock absorbers” for the spine, it is actually the barrel of the vertebra itself that compresses under forces.

However, in order to be able to resist compressive forces, such as a deadlift or a squat, the trebeculae and end plates need to placed under smaller loads over a period of time, in order to allow them to adapt to these forces. 

The trebeculae will form more small bridges, vertically and horizontally as they are stressed, and the end plates will essentially gristle (toughen) to deal with these forces. 

However, as many cyclists and triathletes strength train, their leg muscles can produce more strength than these spine tissues can bear. This can lead to what’s called a “slow crush”, in which the trebeculae are destroyed over time, short or long), which leaves a cleft or opening in the vertebral body itself.

You may think “ok, so the bone will regrow into the area and get stronger”, but while that could be a possibility given the removal of the compressive mechanism, in this case the deadlift and squat, many endurance athletes will hit the weights again, looking to add on even more weight, leading to overloading the system so much that the end plate may fracture, and even allow the nucleus of the disc to leak into that space. 

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This, while not the only mechanism of injury to the back by jumping into weights that are too heavy, too quickly, is just one of many that may occur.

When compared to overtraining, or training too hard on the bike, run, or swim, the consequences of a connective tissue injury or a back injury, we are talking about months, if not years needed for recovery, and possibly even the loss of being able to do your sport!

Push it too hard in the run/bike? 
You’ll probably need a few days or weeks to recover.

Pick up a weight that’s too heavy or overload your system too much with strength training?

You may need a few months or longer for the connective tissue or structures to heal.

This is why there is a need for endurance athletes who don’t list weights year-round to BEWARE of heavy weights, not to just “be aware”.

Women: Beware of Lifting Heavy Sh*t

An even more special consideration needs to be made for women, as a number of studies have shown that women’s spines can handle 2/3 of the compressive forces that their age-equivalent male peers can handle. 

Now let’s make one thing crystal clear here, I am 100% FOR women lifting heavy things. Have been since 2001, well before Dr. Stacy Sims started to lead the charge in the endurance sports world.

However, we MUST do our due diligence and slowly ramp into these heavy weights!

Yes, work up to heavier sets of 2,3, and 4 repetitions.

Yes, you should adjust your training based on your menstrual cycle.

Yes, you need to lift heavy sh*t. 

But jumping right in and going 0-100 real quick is the express train to injury town- especially if you aren’t matching your nutrition and strength training to what you body’s actual needs are!

But that’s a theme for another day. 

(You should subscribe to the HVTraining weekly newsletter so you don’t miss that one!)

Conclusion: When Cyclists and Triathletes Should Lift Heavy Weights

Heavy weights are a necessity on the pathway to improved strength, performance, and function, but only if due diligence, and a healthy respect for heavy weights is developed and maintained. 

Otherwise, you’re taking a big risk of winding up like Ron Burgundy:

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Don’t let the hype of heavy weights and their benefits pull you to doing things before your body is ready. Take the time to build great technique, movement patterns, and tissue qualities, before hitting the heavy weights.

Remember: Train Smarter, Not Harder, Because it IS all about you!


Picture of Menachem Brodie

Menachem Brodie

Coaching since 2000, Menachem Brodie has been working with athletes in a number of settings, and a broad variety of sports.

2 thoughts on “When Should Cyclists & Triathletes Lift Heavy Weights?”

  1. Avatar for Mike C

    How long does it take for the normal body and trebeculae to form those small bridges? Assuming we keep proper form, how often can we increase the weights? Prior to reading this, if completed all my sets/reps without breaking form then I would up my load by 2.5-5 pounds and if I didn’t complete 90% of my given reps then I would drop the weight in the subsequent workout. Should I go even slower and make sure I complete it twice/three times before increasing? (Note that when I started a while ago I did several weeks worth with an empty bar to try and ingrain the movement pattern and worked up very slowly. Even now, my first set is empty bar followed by roughly 40-50% then 66-75% goal work weight before I get into the work sets and due to working out alone without a spotter I tend to be conservative with my weight selection and don’t do weights higher than my 5 rep max.). Thank you.

    1. Avatar for Menachem Brodie

      Great question Mike!
      Anywhere from 72 hours, depending on your sleep, hydration, nutrition, and training habits.

      While it’s hard to say what you personally need, as there are many factors, it sounds like you’re in the right range. Just keep in mind it’s not only completing the repetitions, but rather completing the repetitions with great technique and getting movement from the right places.
      If you want to learn more details about this, and figure out what your personal needs are, pick up “Gift of Injury” by Brian Carroll and Dr. Stu McGill. Many more details are given there, and will help you dive deeper into this.

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