Year-Round Strength Training for Cyclists

Thursday, September 26, 2013 | By Mike Schultz
 
 
 
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A year-round strength and conditioning program for a cyclist is an essential aspect of training for every level of rider from beginner to elite. Strength training not only helps improve overall aerobic strength and endurance, it also prevents injury and promotes recovery. Strength training is also important throughout the race season as long as there is a proper balance between strength training off the bike, training on the bike, racing, and recovery. In this article we will take a look at a yearly strength and conditioning program to benefit the overall strength and endurance of a cyclist. The first phase starts after the racing season wraps up, so for Northern Hemisphere cyclists, now is the time to get on the program.

Strength Training Goals for Cyclists

One of the main goals with sport-specific strength training is to target your prime movers as well as the assistance muscles that support your prime movers. With proper strength training, each time you press on the pedal, your primary group of muscles (those that take on the majority of the load) will be stronger and have a stronger group of assisting muscles to help produce power. Since you are only as strong as your weakest link, the stronger system you build as a whole, the more potential you have for cycling specific gains.

Another major goal with strength training for cyclists is to train more muscle aerobically. This includes the muscles in your legs and the muscles in your arms and core. The more aerobically trained muscle you have, the more potential you have to clear lactic acid, and the less overall body fatigue you will experience. A weaker core and upper body that fatigues fast will result in poor form and cause you to slow no matter how strong and aerobically trained your legs are.

A cycling strength training program can be broken down into the following periods throughout a year - anatomical adaptation, max strength, muscle endurance, and a maintenance period.

Anatomical Adaptation (AA)

The anatomical adaptation phase probably starts right about now for most cyclists - after you have transitioned from your season and usually after a break from formal training and racing. It takes place 1-2 months prior to the start of your off-season base training on the bike. The goal of this phase is to prepare the muscles for more loads and repetitions in the upcoming phases.

Duration: 6-8 weeks
Frequency: 2-3 times a week
Primary Exercises (pictured below):

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Lunges
  • Body weight exercises such as planks, pushups, and core

Do 20-30 reps per set using 40-60% of your 1 rep max (1RM) for each exercise. Complete 3-5 sets with 1-2 minutes rest between sets.

Max Strength Phase (MS)

The MS phase should be incorporated within the first few weeks of your base building period and prior to working the muscle endurance phase.

Incorporating a max strength phase for a cyclist has a few key benefits. Lifting maximal loads requires greater force which results in a greater recruitment of muscle fibers. This activates and trains more muscle, creating a stronger support system for your prime movers. Incorporating a maximal strength phase has also shown to improve cycling economy without sacrificing a decrease in VO21. An improvement in cycling economy means it will take you less energy to complete any given duration.

It is important to remember to ease into the max strength phase, lifting with lighter loads closer to the 80% range of 1RM for the first few weeks before challenging yourself with heavier loads closer to the 90% 1RM range later in the stage. It is also important to use good form, and a spotter, with each exercise during this phase to help prevent injury.

Duration: 3-6 weeks
Frequency: 1-2 times a week
Primary exercises (Olympic lifts):

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Squat Press (not pictured)

Do 4-6 reps per set using 80-90% of your 1 rep max (1RM) for each exercise. Complete 3-5 sets with 3-5 minutes rest between sets.

Muscle Endurance (ME) Phase

This phase will begin towards the end of the base period and can be carried into your early season races, before you transition to a maintenance phase for the year.

The muscle endurance phase is the most important strength phase for all cyclists. This phase stresses aerobic metabolism. So for a cyclist that needs to pedal at 90-100 revolutions per minute (rpm) over many hours in competition, the muscle endurance phase needs to focus on many repetitions per set with less recovery between sets.

Duration: 6-8 weeks
Frequency: 1-2 times a week
Primary Exercises:

  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Body weight exercises such as planks, pushups, and core

Do 20-30 reps per set using 30-50% of your 1 rep max (1RM) for each exercise. Complete 2-4 sets with 60-90 seconds rest between sets.

Strength Maintenance (SM) Phase

The strength maintenance phase is a time to focus on maintaining core and upper body strength while properly training the legs on the bike. The most specific strength gains you can make are on the bike, so it is important to be conservative with lower body strength training at this time so as not to overtrain the legs in any way or take away from your training on the bike. This is also a great time of year to make use of body weight exercises such as planks, trunk twists, and abdominal exercises. That will allow you to reduce the load on the lower body while maintaining good upper body and core strength.

Duration: Throughout race season
Frequency: 1x a week excluding all race weeks, and also the week prior to an “A” priority race
Primary Exercises:

  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Body weight exercises such as planks, pushups, and core

Do 10-15 reps per set using 30-60% of your 1 rep max (1RM) for each exercise. Complete 2-3 sets with 1-2 minutes rest between sets.

I hope this article has been a good a primer on what a cyclist should generally be doing in terms of strength training throughout their season - and has convinced you that it doesn’t have to take a lot of additional time. Plan your strength training in terms of a year-long cycle just like the rest of your training, and you will definitely see yourself make gains on the bike.

Photos: Cycling Specific Strength Exercises

Squats

Can be performed with or without weights – can be used in all phases

Wall Squat 

Can be performed with or without weight – can be used in all phases

Box Surges 

Can be performed with or without weight – can be used in all phases

Reverse barbell Curl

Best used with AA, ME, and SM Phase

Dumbbell Renegade Row

Best used with AA, ME, and SM Phase

Plank Variation

Best used with AA, ME, and SM Phase

Ball Pass

Best used with AA, ME, and SM Phase

Trunk Twists

Best used with AA, ME, and SM Phase

Balancing crunches

Best used with AA, ME, and SM Phase

  1. Arnstein S, Oyvind S, Marius B, Morten H L, Jan H, Jan H. (2010) “Maximal Strength Training Improves Cycling Economy In Competitive Cyclists”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Vol 24 No. 8, 2157-2165.

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