Strength training program to maximize pedaling strength/power

Power. If someone could figure out how to sell watts like Pez, they’d make a fortune. At 20 bucks a Pez, there’d be a line of cyclists stretching for miles, each more than happy to pay $1,000 for 50 watts. Just… one… more… hit… er, I mean watt…

For the last three or four years I’ve considered writing this post, but I’ve always put it off (as you will see, it is lengthy). I finally got around to writing it, and since TrainerRoad does not just have a fantastic service, it has a great audience, I’m happy to provide this info to ya’ll and engage in discussion and debate as desired. I expect a fair amount of disagreement (at least initially), as what I’ve written is unconventional, but sometimes unconventional is better than conventional (and in this case, significantly better). :blush:

With the off-season rolling in, I am going to share what I believe is the best form of strength training you can do for the purpose of maximizing pedaling strength/power. We will analyze this training from multiple angles: physiology, biomechanics, practical considerations, etc. Use yourself as a lab rat, experiment with different ideas, and find what works best for you. The best training program involves a balance between science and art, so be creative and experiment with your own N=1.

This strength training program emphasizes both intensity and volume, and is probably too advanced for someone who has never lifted before – it is important to have a solid foundation of lifting before undergoing this level of effort. Your neurological system, tendons, ligaments, muscle tissue all need to be ready to handle the stress. Please note, this is not for general fitness – it is focused on maximizing pedaling strength/power by 1) building muscle tissue and 2) converting work from the neuromuscular/ATP-CP system to the glycolytic system – so if you want to do planks, kettle bell squats, yoga, box jumps, upper body work, etc. that is great, but that serves a different purpose.

Whereas many strength training programs focus on neuromuscular development, I think that focus is too limiting. You will only use so much neuromuscular skill (i.e. neuronal activation) when pedaling compared to heavy, low rep efforts with maximal weight. You gain more by beginning with neuromuscular development, progressing into strength gains resulting from increased contractile protein synthesis, then further progressing into organelle development – each of these phases using the same weight you used for neuromuscular development. Ultimately, the goal is to experience significant leg muscle hypertrophy over a period of months. This growth in muscle will lay a foundation of massive power when you begin threshold and interval training in late winter or early spring. That said, lifting does not replace cycling, it supplements it, so you must continue riding endurance miles while building mass. In fact, you must ride on the days you lift, ideally as soon as possible after lifting.

There is much debate about lifting and riding on the same day, so I will explain why it is ideal, and why you lift first, ride second. 1) there are studies concluding that the combination of lifting and endurance training on the same day results in poor recovery – look closely at those studies and what they use as endurance training. Ones I’ve seen label intervals as “endurance”, which is clearly not what cyclists consider endurance (i.e. steady, low to mid effort miles for 2-5 hours). It is not surprising at all that you will lag in recovery if you perform interval training after smashing your legs in the gym, maybe not in a week, but certainly over the course of a month. 2) Lifting, especially when you get to glycolytic efforts of 8+ reps with many sets, consumes a lot of stored muscle glycogen, so your two-hour endurance ride is performed on lower glycogen stores, simulating a longer ride with a higher percentage of fatty acid metabolism. 3) As you engage in hypertrophy and gain muscle mass, the amount of work your muscles can do increases, and as a result so too does the need to bring fuel to the muscle and remove metabolic wastes from the muscle. Endurance riding is the ideal training for building your capillary system, and it this system you need to expand in order to bring in additional fuel and to increase the rate of waste removal. 4) You lift before you ride, rather than after you ride, because riding first significantly limits the weight you can use, and you do not want to inhibit your muscle fibers when you lift, both slow twitch and fast twitch. The goal is not to merely go through the motions, it is hypertrophy, which would be severely impacted by riding beforehand. Additionally, lifting first does not limit your ability to ride at endurance pace afterwards – the first 10 minutes will feel terrible, but after that your legs will turn over and you will be fine.

Why is the goal hypertrophy? Hypertrophy is not simply an increase in muscle size, it is an increase in the components of the muscle: actin and myosin proteins (the actual muscle fibers); organelles such as ribosomes, mitochondria, golgi, and others that are all involved in the processes that enable the muscle fibers to do their mechanical work; and increased glycogen storage (as much as 20%). You might hear in strength training circles that hypertrophy is merely an increased in fluid within the muscle and therefor irrelevant. That is a misunderstanding of physiology: yes, these components reside in fluid; and yes, the volume of fluid expands with the increase in muscle size; but the functional components of the muscle are also increasing.

An example week would be something like the below, which involves two or three lifting days. Absolutely lift twice a week and if you can handle three sessions, do three, or perhaps alternate two and three every other week. This will vary per individual, it depends on what you can handle, how well you recover. Your endurance rides should be of a duration that you can handle and still hit your lifting days hard. If you typically ride 8-10 hours/week, do not tire out your legs by doing 3-hour or 4-hour back-to-back endurance rides on the weekend – keep it steady and consistent. If you typically ride 12+ hours and have a solid base of 3+ hour rides, 4 hours is not a big deal. Find what works for you.
Example week
Monday: Off/recovery, upper body lifting, core work
Tuesday: Leg strength training, 2 hours endurance
Wednesday: 2-4 hours endurance
Thursday: Leg strength training, 2 hours endurance OR 2-4 hours endurance only
Friday: Off/recovery, upper body lifting, core work
Saturday: Leg strength training, 2-4 hours endurance
Sunday: 2-4 hours endurance

Here is how the program is set up from a high level: the program begins with neuromuscular/ATP-CP work (low reps), moves into strength/contractile protein work (mid reps) with the same weight, then organelle work (high reps) with the same weight. Your first couple of workouts should be focused on determining the maximum weight you can lift for 3 sets of 4 reps, with maximum defined as 1-2 reps short of failure. Warm up thoroughly and do a sort of ramp test with weights, getting closer and closer to your max effort, then repeat it a couple days later with slightly higher weight. You want to be as accurate as you can in determining this max weight; be honest whether you could increase the weight by another 10 or 20 pounds – the fact that it is painful does not mean it is the max. Once you determine the max weight, you will build from 3 sets of 4 to 5 sets of 4, and then you will begin a multi-month progression to 5 sets of 15 reps with this max weight. Most strength training programs will have you decrease the weight as you increase reps; in this one weight stays the same, and that is why it works so well - essentially, you will convert a 12 second ATP-CP max effort into a 45 second glycolytic max effort as you increase the stamina of your fast twitch fibers.

Here is an estimated physiological model for this program assuming 3 seconds per full rep:

Estimated energy system contribution based on number reps performed
Primary emphasis: Neuromuscular
4 reps/12 seconds/100% ATP-CP
Primary emphasis: Neuromuscular and contractile protein growth
5 reps/15 seconds/80% ATP-CP, 20% glycolytic
Primary emphasis: Contractile protein growth
6 reps/18 seconds/66% ATP-CP, 34% glycolytic
8 reps/24 seconds/50% ATP-CP, 50% glycolytic
Primary emphasis: Contractile protein growth and organelle development
10 reps/30 seconds/40% ATP-CP, 60% glycolytic
12 reps/36 seconds/33% ATP-CP, 67% glycolytic
Primary emphasis: Organelle development
15 reps/45 seconds/26% ATP-CP, 74% glycolytic

Here is an example of a five-month progression with two lifting workouts per week (e.g. Tuesday, Saturday):
Week 1: 3x4, 4x4
Week 2: 4x4, 5x4
Week 3: 5x5
Week 4: 5x5
Week 5: 3x6
Week 6: 5x6
Week 7: 3x8
Week 8: 4x8
Week 9: 5x8
Week10: 2x8/2x10 (remove 5 lbs per side)/2x12 (remove 5 more lbs per side)
Week11: 2x8/2x10 (remove 5 lbs per side)/2x12 (remove 5 more lbs per side)
Week12: 3x10 (back to the full weight)
Week13: 4x10
Week14: 5x10
Week15: 3x12
Week16: 4x12
Week17: 5x12
Week18: 3x15
Week19: 4x15
Week20: 5x15
At this point, drop the reps back to 4 and increase the weight, repeat. Also include one set of 15 reps with the prior weight after you finish the new sets.

Note: the slight decrease in weight during weeks 10 and 11 (i.e. drop sets) is done to give you a taste of reps exceeding 8. This is an interesting phase in your development because you are exceeding the 50/50 contribution of your ATP-CP and glycolytic energy systems. The pain you will experience above 8 reps is very different than below 8 reps, as glycolysis takes over and hydrogen ions begin to build up. Dropping the weight slightly as you increase reps for two weeks will help mentally, which is often an overlooked aspect of strength training. While the slight drop in weight looks insignificant (it’s only 10 pounds), because your neuromuscular system is primed for the higher weight, you will find that the tiny decrease in weight makes it feel surprisingly easier. Have confidence that you can push through the pain, and if you need to incorporate this modification at various instances to keep the progression moving, that’s fine.

Example of a five-month progression incorporating the above drop set strategy more frequently:
Week 1: 3x4, 4x4
Week 2: 4x4, 5x4
Week 3: 5x5
Week 4: 5x5
Week 5: 2x6/2x8 (remove 5 lbs per side)/2x10 (remove 5 more lbs per side)
Week 6: 3x6/3x8 (remove 5 lbs per side)
Week 7: 5x6
Week 8: 2x8/2x10 (remove 5 lbs per side)/2x12 (remove 5 more lbs per side)
Week 9: 3x8/3x10 (remove 5 lbs per side)
Week10: 5x8
Week11: 5x8
Week12: 2x10/2x12 (remove 5 lbs per side)/2x15 (remove 5 more lbs per side)
Week13: 3x10/3x12 (remove 5 lbs per side)
Week14: 5x10
Week15: 5x10
Week16: 3x12
Week17: 4x12
Week18: 5x12
Week19: 3x15
Week20: 5x15

Why not just stick with 4 or 5 reps and increase weight over time? A neuromuscular focus means you miss out on hypertrophy, the increases in contractile proteins and organelles that will enable you to pedal with more power for longer periods of time. The glycolytic system, not the neuromuscular system, is the key when it comes to strength training for pedaling power, and by taking a neuromuscular, ATP-CP effort and developing it into a glycolytic one, you will optimally increase pedaling power. Yes, this is quite different than what you’ve read or heard elsewhere. But understand that you are not moving a lighter weight more times, rather, you are developing your muscles so that they use a different energy system, one that is longer in duration and plays a much larger role in your maximal aerobic efforts (VO2 max has a significant glycolytic component), to move weight so heavy that it originally required the neuromuscular/ATP-CP system. In strength training circles you will often hear of 15 reps being “endurance”. As you can see, assuming you are using the maximum weight you can lift for your sets of 15 reps, in cycling terms this is extremely glycolytic; it does not involve anything remotely related to endurance, it is only 45 seconds.

Note: for the first couple of months you might feel weaker on the bike as it takes time to adapt and grow muscle. Once you become used to lifting like this you will feel better when riding, and eventually, after you have done a couple weeks of 12 rep sets, you will feel surprisingly strong on the bike, like your legs suddenly turned over and now you are able to push much bigger gears than ever before. It takes a while to get there but the improvement will be astounding and undeniable. That said, I promise you, sets of 12 reps with what was formerly neuromuscular level weight is going to really hurt, physically and mentally. I cannot emphasize enough how grueling it will be, but on the bright side, VO2 max interval training will seem pleasant, almost fun.

Of course, whether you use this program or another, you need to use the right exercises – the best ones for developing pedaling power. Before going into specific exercises, I think it is important to analyze something that, unfortunately, has been overlooked by the cycling community: tying the manner in which force is exerted biomechanically during the pedaling stroke into strength training.

Studies show that from the top of the pedal stroke (0 degrees) to the bottom of the pedal stroke (180 degrees), pedaling force (power) increases through the first 90-110 degrees (depends on the study and is influenced by how high or low you place your heel during the stroke). Moreover, even after peaking at max force, the force applied to the pedal remains in the top 10% (i.e. 90th percentile) of maximum force from 90-110 degrees until around 160 degrees, rather close to the bottom of the pedal stroke, nearing full extension. Compare this to squats and leg presses, where at nearly full extension the force being applied is insignificant, the opposite of pedaling. Squats and leg presses, among others, are great exercises, but maximum force is generated at the start of the exercise and wanes all the way from that point to the end when extension is complete and you begin to drop the weight back down. With these exercises, as your leg extends, the weight is increasingly handled not by muscles, rather, by your skeletal system as the forces are absorbed by your bones longitudinally.

With that said, here is what I believe is the absolute best leg exercise for maximizing pedaling force: the pendulum squat. This is an amazing machine, though it is not too common in gyms. If yours has one, use it. What is a pendulum squat? Imagine a machine that gives the depth and flexion of a hack squat but without any knee pain, that stabilizes and supports your back so you can overload your legs like a leg press, that makes the weight heavier as you extend your legs through the squat thus better simulating the force requirements involved in pedaling.

The pendulum squat functions by increasing its moment arm as you extend through the lift, thus requiring more force from your legs over time. What is a moment arm and why does it matter? This is easy to visualize with a side lateral raise. You are holding a 10-pound plate with you hand down by the side of your leg, elbow fully extended. Measure a vertical line from your shoulder down to the floor, then a perpendicular line from your hand/weight parallel to the floor. Your hand/weight is directly underneath the shoulder so the distance is zero and no force is acting on the deltoid. As you move your arm up to the side (elbow straight), the hand/weight moves away from the vertical line of the shoulder, so the moment arm (the perpendicular line measured from your hand/weight to the vertical line) begins to have a measurement. This measurement increases until your arm forms a 90 degree angle with your torso, which corresponds with the longest perpendicular measurement, as well as the hardest part of the side lateral raise. The pendulum squat is an amazing machine because its moment arm increases through the full range of the exercise, maxing at full extension. Your quads will get jacked.

Now the barbell squat – this is the king of compound exercises, right? It is a great exercise for general fitness, absolutely, and it involves numerous muscle groups so involves great caloric expenditure, but for the purpose of developing pedaling power it is inferior to the pendulum squat (and leg press – see below). It does not matter that it is a free weight exercise and the others are machines. Again, the squat is a great, general exercise, but we should analyze why it is not the one to use as a primary exercise if your goal is pedaling power.

As we know, the barbell squat does not just work your legs, it works other muscle groups, including your back. This is great for general fitness, but people overlook the fact that your back, because it is so much weaker than your legs, inhibits the amount of weight you can use, thus limiting the amount of force you generate with your legs. Sure, it can be a difficult effort, you can get quite tired, but you are not overwhelming your leg muscles to the same degree as an exercise where your back is not inhibiting the weight you can use, is not limiting the amount of mechanical tension your legs experience. This is not to say that you should not work your back, for general fitness you should, but as before, the focus here is pedaling power, so you do not want to have a muscle group that does not power the pedals limit those that do power the pedals.

If you do not have access to a pendulum squat then your next best selection is the leg press, for the simple reason that your back does not inhibit the amount of force you can require from your legs so you can really overload them, maximize mechanical tension, and focus on leg strength and hypertrophy. This is not to say that the leg press is always better than the squat – it depends on your goal. If your goal is pedaling power, prioritize the leg press. If your goal is rushing the quarterback while shirking offensive linemen off to your left and right (i.e. strong back and stabilizer muscles), go with the squat.

If you use the squat and/or leg press, there is a technique you should incorporate into the lift. For the squat, set the safety arms such that at the bottom of the lift, with full range of motion, the arms fully support the bar for a fraction of a second (i.e. pin squat). For the leg press, set the stop such that at the bottom of the lift the platform is fully supported by the stop for a fraction of a second – again at full range of motion. In either case you are not resting. What you are doing is nullifying the stretch-reflex which occurs when your muscle moves from fully flexed to extended, a sort of elastic momentum boost that helps propel the weight up. Additionally, you are not bouncing the weight on the arms/stop; it comes to a full, complete stop for a fraction of a second (if it bounces even slightly let the bounce settle completely). You will find that by doing this the extension phase is significantly harder; I’ve shown this technique to quite a few people at my gym and they are shocked by the increase in difficulty. Importantly, you want to set the arms/stop so that you attain full, 90 degrees flexion, or, even better, slightly more – go one inch below 90 degrees if you can. Full range of motion is key here, and this is a good way to make sure you always hit full ROM and do not cheat by stopping just short which makes the lift much easier.

Additionally, it is important to consider the use of chains or bands with the leg press and chains (only) with the squat (too much risk of injury with bands), which increase the force necessary to lift the weight as you move through the extension phase. Effectively, you gain the benefit of the pendulum squat while using the leg press or barbell squat. Both take time to set up, chains especially, but they are worth it. As an example, say you squat 200 pounds, and you add 25 pounds of chains on each side. At the bottom of the lift, in the hole, as you begin extension you are lifting 200 pounds, but as you extend up the chain links move up off the floor, continuing until you reach the top of the lift, at which time all 50 pounds are now adding to the weight. As you drop down the weight from the chains gradually decreases as you go. It is a fantastic way to simulate the increased pedaling force that occurs as you extend through the pedaling arc. This also applies to the leg press, though bands can be interesting since they not only increase the force requirement as you extend through the press, they also force you to exert additional effort eccentrically on the way down because they pull the platform in that direction.

Either way, you need to learn how to properly set up these devices, so surf on YouTube to find good instructional videos for this. It is better to see what to do than read what to do.

In terms of ranking selections, here is how I would set up a workout, starting with your primary exercise then adding a secondary and tertiary:

  1. Pendulum squat; leg press with chains/bands; deadlift or standing, leaning leg curl
  2. If no pendulum squat: leg press with chains/bands; squat with chains; deadlift or standing, leaning leg curl

The initial exercise is the primary one that you use in the example program provide above. The other ones can follow the same program or you can just use a simple series of 3 sets of 6, 8, or 12 reps, or maybe you want to vary the other exercises a bit week to week or month to month.

Note: research indicates that mechanical tension, applied to a fully stretch muscle, is important for hypertrophy. While the pendulum squat has a force curve that best reflects pedaling, the leg press involves a higher degree of mechanical tension while the quadriceps is fully stretched, so I believe that using both exercises is the ideal strategy.

Finally, it is important to learn how to properly warm up. It is not as simple as doing a few sets of easy reps to get blood moving. Yes, you want to increase blood flow, but you also want to move synovial fluid throughout your joints, break up any micro adhesions in your muscles, and activate your neuromuscular system. This requires time, around 15 minutes, and is well worth it. I’ll provide an example below, but basically you start with higher numbers of light reps and progress to lower numbers of heavy reps.

Example: if my working leg press sets involve 540 pounds (6 plates per side) I would do the below. Note that a plate refers to a 45 pound plate and a half plate (0.5 plates) refers to a 25 pound plate:

2x8 @ 1 plate/side
2x6 @ 2 plates/side
2x4 @ 3 plates/side
2x2 @ 4 plates/side
2x2 @ 4.5 plates/side
1x2 @ 5 plates/side
1x1 @ 5 plates/side
1x1 @ 5.5 plates/side
Start my working sets at 6 plates/side

Happy to discuss, debate, you name it - whatever encourages people to get in the gym and on the bike. As Greg LeMond once said, “it doesn’t get any easier, you just get faster.” That’s exactly what this strength training program is for.


I wonder if I could just increase my cadence instead and put those 6-8 hours of leg strengthening into leg and lung syncopation with all the goodies in-between.

Tongue out of cheek, all the best with this. It feels myopic to me but I couldn’t have put this together and it does appear to target increased pedalling strength, just perhaps at the expense of being a faster cyclist, though.

I finally found the exercise in question!

Missed in this community and in the first several paragraphs of your essay:^)

You’re definitely onto something I would call this queue “dig with your toes” when out on the road pedaling.

Also check out the backwards sled pull

I’m going to follow this thread. But I have two comments.

  1. it’s too long.
  2. if you add up the total hours in your plan, it like 16 hours. What I’d you have 1/2 that time? How would you structure your workouts?
1 Like

Hi Erik,

Certainly everyone has their own schedule, but let’s say you work M-F. The off days you do push-up, pull-ups, dips, and arm curls at home and it takes 30 minutes so hopefully that doesn’t count against you (many people can find 30 minutes at home as a freebie if they avoid laziness in other areas or you could do it in portions throughout the day if necessary, 5 or 10 minutes at a time). You hit the gym on Tuesday and Saturday, so only once during the work week. The 2-4 hour endurance rides assume you have that much time and ability, so let’s say two hours is the general ride time. Two hours five days a week plus one and a quarter hours for each workout at the gym (of course, commute + people at the gym will influence this) means 10 + 2.5 = 12.5 hours. If you need to cut down more then here is a way to put in 8.5 hours:

M: push-ups, pull-ups, dips, curls
T: Legs training; 1.5 hours endurance = 2.75 hours
W: 1.5 hours endurance
R: Off
F: push-ups, pull-ups, dips, curls
S: Legs, 1.5 hours endurance = 2.75 hours
S: 1.5 hours endurance

2.75 + 2.75 + 1.5 + 1.5 = 8.5 hours

You could drop two of the 1.5 hour rides to 1 hour and add a 1 hour ride on Thursday, but I don’t see much value in 1 hour rides other than recovery. 1.5 isn’t particularly long, but it is 50% more than a single hour.

It’s better to do more, but life and work are what they are.

1 Like

Have you tried Nordic curls?

Hi Jenalpa13 - I have never done Nordic curls but they would be an excellent alternative to standing leg curls if you wanted an adjunct exercise to work hamstrings.