Every cyclist can benefit from strength training, but many of us avoid it or don’t know how to begin. With racing paused and plenty of time to experiment, there’s never been a better opportunity to add some strength work to your training plan.
The Purpose of Strength Training
Stronger cyclists are faster cyclists. We all know it’s true, and we even use the term “stronger” as synonymous with “faster.” Still, many of us avoid strength training, whether due to confusion about what it actually is or uncertainties about how to start. Luckily, strength training can easily fit into our routines as cyclists and dramatically improve our abilities as riders and healthy humans, with just a few simple exercises each week.
Whether you are a complete beginner or an elite athlete, strength training can work in tandem with your time on the bike to make you faster and more resilient. Strong riders are more resistant to injuries in the event of a crash or through repetitive use, since weakness often correlates with poor bone density and muscular atrophy. Stronger riders are also more efficient at transferring power and recruiting muscles in the pedal stroke. Weaknesses in strength commonly act as limiting factors on the bike, and offer low-hanging fruit for improvement.
The primary goal of strength training for cyclists is functional- to facilitate better performance when riding. Leg and posterior chain exercises improve power transfer, especially during sprinting and climbing; upper body work assists in controlling the bike and in maintaining good riding position; core workouts help to reinforce all these abilities. In addition, strength training goes a long way towards making you a fitter, healthier, and more versatile athlete and human- a benefit that extends far beyond race day.
Basic Guidelines and Advice
Just like workouts on the bike, strength training should be approached with specific intentions, and applied progressively as ability increases. It also requires rest and periodization to be most effective. Think about strength training as a cyclist, not as a bodybuilder– your goal shouldn’t be building muscles for aesthetic purposes, but building useful movements and capabilities instead.
Generally, it’s best to start simple and light. If you can’t complete an exercise with good form under your own body weight, don’t add any external loading, and when you do become stronger add more weight gradually. When working with the lower body, single-leg movements are usually preferable to bilateral ones, as they mimic the unilateral nature of pedaling. Single-leg exercises also activate more coordination and core stability as your body balances itself, and will quickly reveal any differences in leg strength that need to be addressed.
Low Volume, Low Weight, High Recovery
There’s no need for long, grueling gym sessions. High volume and lots of reps are the formula for big muscles, but lower training volumes can result in equally large gains in strength without major increases in muscle size. Weight targets should be fairly modest, in keeping with your needs as a rider- we push the pedals many thousands of times every ride against a very low level of resistance, even in a hard sprint. During strength workouts, you should also allow at least 3 minutes of rest in between sets, letting the muscles fully recover anaerobic energy stores. The goal is to stimulate strength improvements, not to trigger the type of metabolic conditioning effects you’re already getting from your on-bike workouts.
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Timing Strength Training Within Your Season
Many riders mistakenly believe that strength training should only happen in the offseason or during base training, and not at other times throughout the year. While the offseason and base periods are excellent times to actively build strength through harder and more frequent workouts, a reduced level of strength training should occur throughout the year, with an aim towards maintenance.
During base phase training on the bike, aim for 2 to 3 strength workouts per week, including unilateral leg exercises. These exercises do cause some fatigue, but the low intensity of base training won’t be overly affected.
During build and specialty phase training, shift your strength focus towards maintenance with just one or two workouts a week, and focus especially on your core. High intensity exercise should be reserved for your on-bike workouts during this time, with your off-bike work intended as reinforcement.
Plan for Recovery
Planning when to incorporate strength training during the week should also be approached strategically. If possible, it’s best to do these workouts on the same day as a scheduled ride, rather than on a rest day. Like cycling, strength training generates fatigue, and any fatigue requires recovery. Try to pick a day when your scheduled ride is fairly low intensity, and space your ride and your strength workout as far apart within this day as you can. This allows your body some recovery in between and avoids sending contradicting signals for adaptation to your muscles.
For beginners, it’s usually better to do strength training first, and to ride later in the day. Proper form is crucial and if you are tired from your ride you may be less likely to maintain good posture and technique during your strength work. Some athletes like to split their strength routines across several days, this can be a good option but be sure to plan your recovery accordingly. If you do choose this strategy separate your workouts by type, perhaps into an upper body day and a lower body day.
Prioritize Important Rides
However you schedule your strength training, remember it is supplemental to your on-bike workouts. Each week’s high TSS rides should still be your overall training priority, so try to incorporate strength on days when it will least impact your ability to complete your bike workout, or vice-versa.
5 Simple Exercises to Get Started
We recommend 5 basic strength exercises as a great starting point for beginners. Start carefully and always prioritize form above all else.
These reinforce core strength and activate everything from your hips to your shoulders. They also help to reinforce hip flexibility by pulling your knees to your elbows. Aim for sets of about 10, but feel free to take breaks within a set if it’s a challenge. Begin with 1 to 3 sets of 10 pushups per workout and work your way up to about 3 sets of 15.
Planks are an excellent way to target your core. Start short, aiming for about 30 seconds at a time, resting for 30 seconds and repeating 3 to 5 times. Work your way up to holding the plank for about 2 minutes, and repeating this 2 or 3 times. Feel free to alternate with variations, such as side planks.
Squats improve single leg strength and hip stability. Many athletes can’t do a full unassisted pistol squat so don’t feel bad if these seem very challenging. Begin with band-assistance or limit the range of the squat by doing this over a chair (box squat). As you gain proficiency, reduce or phase-out the band assistance and lower the squat depth at your discretion, based on what your joints can comfortably tolerate. Try for 3 alternating sets of 10 (5 per leg) and build your way up to 3 sets of 10 per leg as you get stronger.
Deadlifts are a versatile way to strengthen almost your entire body, with hips and posterior chain experiencing particular benefit. Straighter knees with light weights and high reps target the posterior chain, aim for 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps in this version. More knee bend and greater weights shift the burden to the quads, start with 3 to 5 sets of only 3 to 5 reps when lifting this way. As you add weight, lower your reps and be extra cautious- one bad lift at heavy loads can derail a training block.
These target both strength and stability and can help reinforce the ability to maintain position on the bike. Start with 3 sets of 10 alternating rows and work up to 3 sets of 20. Weight will naturally restrict rep range, so if you find yourself able to easily do more than 20 alternating rows per set, increase weight. Narrowing the spread of your feet adds a challenge by activating torso stabilization, but don’t expect your feet to ever be fully in contact as they are in a regular push up.
Conclusion and Other Resources
No matter your goals or level of experience, strength training can help you better yourself as a cyclist and as a healthy human being. With benefits ranging from speed and efficiency on the bike to bone density and physical resilience, it’s one of the most important but commonly overlooked aspects of an athlete’s training. If you keep your goals in mind and schedule your workouts thoughtfully, just a little bit of extra time each week can lead to lasting and meaningful rewards.
Strength Benchmark Calculator
Check out our simple strength benchmark calculator to help you determine whether you need to build or maintain strength. By entering your weight and gender, you’ll see our recommended minimum strength abilities by rider type/ proficiency level. If you can successfully complete the recommended benchmarks, you should focus on maintenance, but if you can’t, focus on building strength. (Note: These benchmarks are meant to test your strength and are not meant as a workout plan.)
For more cycling training knowledge, listen to Ask a Cycling Coach Podcast— the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.
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