Strength training is standard practice in sport; most athletes and their coaches know that improved strength, power or muscular endurance is likely to lead to improved performance in competition. However, recent evidence suggests that, except for those at the very top of their sport, the same may not always be true for cyclists. James Marshall explains
Top cyclists such as the Tour de France competitors have a full sports science program helping them, including nutrition, physiology, and psychology. However, apart from training on the bike, the average club man or woman will probably limit him or herself to a bit of resistance training down at the gym, especially in the off-season. This article aims to answer the following two questions: Is strength training relevant for the beginner cyclist? How does strength training affect performance in elite sprint cycling and road racing?
Strength training for the novice cyclist
The ability to produce a greater amount of force, delay fatigue, and control the bicycle are all beneficial when looking to improve cycling performance, and strength training can help all three of these components.
Working with weights for the lower body “eg two days per week of four sets of 5 Repetition-Max (5RM) squats “will help improve leg strength as tested in the squat. Repeated lifting of weights, with less recovery time “eg a circuit of squats, lunges, step-ups all at 15-20RM with 10 seconds of rest “will improve local muscular endurance. The use of weights and stability exercises in the upper body and torso will improve body strength and stability in these areas. But can this help the beginner cyclist improve their cycling performance? Strength training inevitably leads to increased strength, but that is only relevant if it helps improve cycling!
A study carried out in 1995 compared the effects of a) single-joint strength training b) multiple-joint strength training and c) a sprint cycling programme in beginner sprint cyclists (1). The sprint cycling performance was measured by how much power they could produce in five seconds on a cycle ergometer.
All three groups followed their individual programmes for eight weeks, followed by a specific six-week programme of sprint cycling. The two strength-training groups improved their 10RM by 41-44%, with no significant difference between the two forms of training. However, all three groups improved their sprint performance by 4-7%, with no significant difference between the three groups.
It appears, therefore, that for newcomers to a sporting activity, doing that activity may be enough stimulation to initiate a change and improve performance. In the study above, it may be that after only eight weeks of strength training the improvements in the 10RM test were mainly skill based, and the cyclists did not actually get stronger, but just better at doing the strength exercises. It would be interesting to see if after a further eight weeks of strength training whether they got stronger in the 10RM test, and then see if that improved their sprint cycling.
Strength training for club cyclists
If beginner cyclists are able to improve their cycling through practice alone, how about club cyclists who are quite proficient at cycling but may need to be better conditioned? A recent study looked at introducing either a strength-based weights programme, or a muscular-endurance weights programme on club cyclists, three times a week for 10 weeks (2). Testing was based on 1RM on four leg exercises, and lactate and VO2 levels during a progressive cycle ergometer test.
Compared to a control group who did no strength training, the two strength-trained groups again showed improved 1RM scores on the strength tests. But neither group showed any improvement over the control group on the lactate and VO2 levels during the cycle ergometer test. This led the authors to conclude that strength training did not improve the cycling performance of club level cyclists.
However, the cycling test of both of these studies was conducted on an indoor ergometer, in a fixed position. Cycling, especially downhill or mountain biking (DOMB) requires great stability in the upper body. That, and remaining in a position bent over the handlebars for long periods of time in endurance cycling mean that pressure is placed on the lower back.
Whilst strength training has not been conclusively proven to improve cycling performance, certain exercises may be beneficial in allowing the new and intermediate cyclist to spend more time in the saddle, without incurring postural and overuse injuries in the upper body and lower back. Postural exercises performed twice a week for 15 minutes can help establish a base level of strength in the upper body and torso, helping the cyclist adapt to the added demands of their sport.
Go through the five exercises in order; start with one set and then progress to two sets with 30 seconds rest between exercises, and two minutes rest between sets. If you have any previous lower back pain consult your doctor or physiotherapist before commencing this routine.
Advanced level cyclists
If beginner and club level cyclists are best able to improve their cycling performance by simply doing more cycling, what about those at higher performance levels? Elite cyclists would probably find it hard to increase their volume of training and, indeed, excessive volumes of training are linked to overtraining in endurance athletes (3). Are they better off looking at improving and making their current training regime of cycling more efficient, or can weight training offer real advantages?
One potential disadvantage of weight training may be the increase in muscle mass that results. An increase in size could hinder the cyclist by increasing the air resistance they face as they cycle at speed; the greater the speed, the greater the drag of wind resistance. Even where drafting is allowed, a larger ‘frontal’ cross-sectional area will make efficient drafting harder.
The other resistance faced by the cyclist is that of gravity; a greater mass means that there is gravitational force to overcome when there is any kind of incline. While this is not an issue for a track cyclist on a perfectly level track, it becomes a major factor for road cyclists, especially where the terrain is hilly. Any strength-training routine must therefore result in an improvement in leg power or leg cadence greater than the increase in gravitational or air resistance produced as a result of increased size or mass. To date, no research has been published that analyses this cost/benefit ratio in elite cyclists.
For endurance cyclists, increasing the legs’ ability to resist fatigue is important. Whilst the majority of work may rely on aerobic metabolism to provide the energy for the race, about 13% of the energy required comes from anaerobic metabolism (4). This energy source may be called upon at crucial times, such as the sprint to the finish line, or racing up a hill. The legs themselves may be working maximally, producing lactic acid, but because the rest of the body is working sub-maximally, it can redistribute this lactic acid to the liver, heart and upper body muscles, where it can subsequently be metabolised.
If the legs can become more proficient at dealing with an increase in lactic acid, by removing it quickly from the system, then more work can be done at a higher intensity, allowing the cyclist to sprint for longer. This is the theory behind circuit-type training of the legs, but as yet, there are no studies in elite cyclists that specifically assess this type of training.
However, these peripheral adaptations have been shown to take place after High Intensity Training (HIT) in well-trained cyclists (average peak VO2 = 64.5ml/kg/min) after only four weeks of training at two sessions per week (5). Cyclists were split into three different training groups and a control group.
All three training groups showed an improvement in their 40km time trial, anaerobic capacity, peak VO2 and ventilatory thresholds, but not their total plasma volume (PV). The fact that the PV did not change but the performance measures all improved, indicates that the changes were in the legs, not in the central system. The fact also that three different high-intensity training routines all led to improvements shows that it was introducing the intensity that led to improvements in performance. Moreover, it may be that sequencing the different routines every four weeks would lead to further positive changes.
Explosive leg training
A recent study in New Zealand looked at combining HIT with explosive leg exercises, in an attempt at using specific power exercises to improve mechanical efficiency and anaerobic power (6). This study took place within the cyclists’ competitive season, with the exercise protocols replacing 20% of their normal existing road training.
The cyclists were tested for 1km and 4km power as well as peak power and oxygen cost. After five weeks of training (12 sessions lasting 30 minutes each), all the power indicators had increased, and the oxygen cost of cycling had decreased. Remember that these improvements occurred in the competitive season, when the cyclists were already well trained and supposed to be in peak form.
Not all the improvements can be due to an increase in central aerobic power; indeed, the 1km trial is mainly anaerobic in nature so an alternative explanation must be found. It is likely that the explosive leg exercises stimulated the neural system by rapidly activating the motor units within the muscles. This may have led to a quicker rate of peak force development when cycling, resulting in greater acceleration and sprint performance.
Strength training may improve cycling performance through increased leg power, a greater ability to cope with local fatigue and improved upper body stability. However, this has yet to be proved in research. In beginners and club level cyclists, more cycling is probably the best way to improve performance. Taking time out from cycling to do strength training will probably lead to a decline in cycling efficiency and skill level. The exceptions are abdominal and lower back exercises that can help prevent lower back pain.
Once skill and aerobic fitness levels have improved through normal cycling training, performance can be improved through introducing high intensity training even during the competitive season. This is a very specific way of inducing load onto the legs that forces local adaptations to take place. Just doing ever-larger volumes of cycling may well lead to overtraining.
For elite level cyclists, introducing explosive strength and body weight exercises is likely to improve sprint and short hill climbing performance. Traditional strength exercises, however, may be detrimental in that they increase muscle mass and size, adding to the air and gravitational resistances that cyclists need to overcome.
The important thing to remember is that new stimuli force the body to adapt and improvements in performance are made. New training methods should not be used in addition to existing training. Instead, try to keep one or two sessions a week aside for variety. These may include strength training, HIT or core work.
James Marshall MSc, CSCS, ACSM/HFI, runs Excelsior, a sports training company
1. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 1995; 27(5): Supplement abstract 1013
2. MSSE 2004; 36(5):Supplement abstract 396
3. MSSE 2000; 31:676-683
4. MSSE 2000; 32:1002-1006
5. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2005; 19(3):527-533
6. JSCR 2005: 19(4):826-830