The following is part three of our series on strength training for cyclists. You can head to the beginning of the series by clicking here.
Before we lay out a detailed plan, it’s important to highlight that sustainable strength training is better than optimal strength training.
Put another way, strength training should be done consistently throughout an entire season [1-3]. If your strength training has never lasted more than a few months, you’ve probably left improvements in health and performance on the table.
A “year-round” strength mandate requires a more thoughtful approach to integrating strength training with your cycling, starting with making sure you have the proper equipment.
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While bodyweight or other light strength exercises can provide a starting point to improve your health, they’re not likely to support the intensity needed to develop maximal strength [3, 4].
In short, to lift heavy, you need equipment.
That’s not to say that lighter strength exercises using kettlebells or dumbbells can’t contribute to better health, only that improvements in your cycling are most likely to come from lifting heavy .
Here’s how your equipment options may dictate the direction of your strength training .
Use bodyweight or banded exercises to build functional range of motion and prepare your body to safely lift heavier weights
Use kettlebells or dumbbells to progress in strength and functional range of motion while moving closer to the goal of lifting heavy
Use barbell movements to safely and progressively train heavy while maximizing your cycling performance potential
Investing in Strength
For most cyclists, gaining access to strength training equipment requires an investment, either in a gym membership or home gym setup.
I think the best option for most cyclists is to invest in a home gym where you’ll never have to waste time driving, wait your turn, or be tempted to lift more than you should.
If you find the expense of a home gym off-putting, here’s my sales pitch: Having the option to strength train at home will contribute more to your health and long-term cycling performance than a third bike ever will. Sell a bike, clear out some space in your garage, and make it happen.
If you’re willing to invest in home gym equipment, I have good news for you; you don’t need much.
As a result of the pandemic, options for home gym layouts have exploded. For any budget, and in nearly any space, you can make a squat rack happen.
Building your strength approach around a barbell isn’t just convenient; it’s your best option to address the health deficits we covered earlier.
Here’s why I think the barbell is the best strength training implement for cyclists.
1. Stresses your skeleton
Heavy barbell movements like squats and deadlifts place compressive force on the spine , delivering stress to the exact area where many cyclists suffer losses in bone mineral density [1,6].
2. Activates more muscle
Evidence suggests free-weight movements like the barbell squat activate more muscle than comparable squats using a machine .
The takeaway? It makes sense to challenge your body with movement not confined to the fixed path of a machine, especially since most cycling movement is restricted to a limited range of motion.
3. Improves balance & stability
Barbell training poses a greater challenge to our balance than fixed workout machines. This challenge improves awareness and control of our body in space [5,8].
4. Is scaleable
The weight on a barbell can be scaled to ensure safety and optimal intensity no matter where you’re beginning your journey in strength training .
5. Makes you smarter
New research suggests that barbell training might be more effective at improving cognitive function than comparable machine-based exercises .
For the reasons listed above, I think barbell training is the preferred method of strength training for most cyclists .
Let’s get to choosing some exercises…
- Klomsten Andersen, O., et al., Bone health in elite Norwegian endurance cyclists and runners: a cross-sectional study. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med, 2018. 4(1): p. e000449.
- Ronnestad, B.R., E.A. Hansen, and T. Raastad, In-season strength maintenance training increases well-trained cyclists’ performance. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2010. 110: p. 1269-1282.
- Mujika, I., B.R. Ronnestad, and D.T. Martin, Effects of Increased Muscle Strength and Muscle Mass on Endurance-Cycling Performance. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 2016. 11: p. 283-289.
- Suchomel, T.J., et al., The Importance of Muscular Strength: Training Considerations. Sports Medicine, 2018. 48: p. 765-785.
- Sullivan, J., Barbell Prescription : Strength Training for Life after Forty. 2016: Aasgaard Company, The.
- Mojock, C.D., et al., Comparisons of Bone Mineral Density Between Recreational and Trained Male Road Cyclists.Clinical journal of sport medicine : official journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine, 2015.
- Schwanbeck, S., P.D. Chilibeck, and G. Binsted, A Comparison of Free Weight Squat to Smith Machine Squat Using Electromyography. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2009. 23(9): p. 2588-2591.
- Rippetoe, M. and S.E. Bradford, Starting strength : basic barbell training. 2017.
- Wilke, J., V. Stricker, and S. Usedly, Free-Weight Resistance Exercise Is More Effective in Enhancing Inhibitory Control than Machine-Based Training: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Brain Sci, 2020. 10(10).
- Zatsiorsky, V.M., W.J. Kraemer, and A.C. Fry, Science and practice of strength training. 2021.