Chapter 4: Selecting Exercises

Before we select our strength training exercises, let’s look at a continuum of options.

On the left, we find compound exercises targeting multi-joint movement patterns [34]. These exercises build general strength to be applied later to the cycling motion [36].

On the right, we find isolation exercises meant to target the muscles involved in cycling. These exercises replicate the limited ROM of pedaling, focusing on local strength [31, 37].

Exercise Examples

Compound movements like the low bar squat prioritize general strength across a full ROM [34]

Image from: Rippetoe, M. and S.E. Bradford, Starting Strength: Basic barbell training. 2017.

Isolation movements like machine half squats and calf raises prioritize local strength [31].

Image from: 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.

Should we build our strength training around a more general or local approach? Before we choose a position, let’s recap how we got here.

  1. In chapter one, we stated that improved health and durability is the best reason for cyclists to strength train.
  2. In chapter two, we highlighted the necessity of lifting heavy for enhanced performance.
  3. In chapter three, we shared that training at home with a barbell is the best bet for most cyclists to be consistent and consolidate year-over-year strength gains.

With the points above at the top of mind, I think the best exercises for most cyclists improve general strength that supplement the cycling motion rather than mimic it. 

Here’s a condensed list of barbell exercises that fit the bill in order of importance. Upper body movements have little relevance for supplementing the pedal stroke, but we’ve thrown them in to meet our primary goal of improved health. 

1. Squat

Or High Bar or Front 

2. Deadlift

Or Rack Pull or Trap Bar

3. Press

Or Bench or Pin Press

4. Chinup

Or Barbell or Inverted Row

That’s it: nothing crazy or “innovative.” No single-legged, blindfolded turbo squats on a balance ball. Our primary strength training prescription is built around words like classic, old school, and simple.

Technique and Safety

Of course, “simple” doesn’t mean easy. The barbell can catalyze improved health and performance or lead to injury and months of missed ride time. 

It’s not enough to own a squat rack and barbell. An investment in the knowledge of proper lifting techniques is mandatory. 

No matter how strong you are on the bike, you can’t just “wing it” under a barbell. Thankfully, there are multiple options to ensure your technique under the bar will foster safe and efficient strength training for years to come.

Here are your best options:
1. Hire a trained strength professional

Your best option is to hire a strength professional familiar with barbell training. Nothing can match the knowledge transfer of working one-on-one with a qualified professional, offering real-time feedback on your lifting technique. 

2. Work with an online coach to analyze technique 

A newer option born of the pandemic is to work with a qualified online coach to analyze your technique via video submission. 

While this option can’t replace in-person coaching, it can be a great tool to ensure you lift as safely and efficiently as possible.

3. Self-critique with video analysis and crowdsourced wisdom

If you’re a DIY athlete, you can collect knowledge from books, YouTube, and crowdsourced video analysis on various strength training forums. 

This option will require a more significant time investment and greater responsibility for separating signal from noise. Still, if you’re driven to learn, crowdsourcing feedback can be a viable option to help build and refine your lifting technique.

We’ve made our core selection of barbell exercises—our next order of business is to highlight the role intensity plays in your strength training program.