Tips for beginners in the gym

I have started to make another serious effort to integrate gym training into my routine. I found out 2x a week was too much in terms of fatigue and stress, but I have been consistently going once per week.

This isn’t my first time in the gym, but I still feel like a total noob. I am sure I am not the only one struggling with the basics. Here are a few questions I have, but everyone else, feel free to chime in:

  • How many sets and reps should I do? By default I am doing 3 x 10.
  • How long should the rest between sets be? 30 seconds? 1 minute?
  • How do pick a sequence of exercises? I typically try to focus on different muscle groups, e. g. a back exercise after a leg exercise.
  • How many different types of exercises should I do per session?
  • My feeling is that most machines are not great as they only aim to work out a single muscle (group). They tend to load left and right side symmetrically. Should I focus on exercises that have me use several muscle groups at the same time?
  • What do I do during rest weeks? This week (= rest week), I only did 2 sets instead of 3. Is that enough?
  • How do I make sure I put the right amount of load (fatigue) on my system? I overdid it a bit in the beginning of this year, and while I felt great in the gym, I always struggled with the first hard workout of the week.

Feel free to add questions, I don’t want this thread to be just about me.


A lot of the answers are “it depends.” What are your goals for the gym sessions?


My goals are two-fold: (1) I want to improve health by exercising muscle groups that I don’t train during cycling. And (2) I also would like to work on eliminating weaknesses (my right leg has stability issues) to improve performance on and off the bike(s). E. g. if I spend more than 3 hours on my road bike, I tend to have shoulder discomfort that can escalate to shoulder pain after 5 hours.

I don’t care about how I look, I don’t need to look fit, I want to be fit. Rather than having a six pack, I would like to have a strong core. But I don’t want gym training to have a negative impact on my training.

Even though I have started my gym routine in November, I do feel stronger on the bike, but it’s hard for me to put a number on it. And I have exchanged 600 g of fat for 600 g of muscles according to my Withing scale.

I had one of the gym coaches draw up an exercise plan. Even though I told her I was a cyclist and trained 5x a week, I don’t think she took that into account. Her training plan had 10-13 machines per gym day on it, each with typically 3 x 10 reps. Nothing like piston squats or rear foot elevated Bulgarian split squats with weights.

As a cyclist better stick to free weights, compound exercises.
Keep it simple, a squat, hinge, push, pull (vertical/horizontal) routine gets you pretty far.

Concentrate on learning technique when starting, if your technique isn’t consistent it’s hard to make gains.

Even when maintaining strength I find it helps to add a second lighter day per week, helps a lot with the soreness.
If I lift just once per week I always get sore.


That’s an interesting comment/idea: Up until now I had a leg day and an upper body day. You are saying that a general gym day and a second, light day might be better? What about e. g. doing a gym day and one day of yoga at home (with my wife)?

Maybe this is not scientific or representative, but compound exercises (where e. g. I have to engage the core to correct for an intentional imbalance/asymmetry) feel much better than straight-up symmetrical exercises on gym machines. The only exception is a leg press that I do (low reps, high weight).

When I started integrating strength training seriously, I went and got myself a S&C coach. It took all the thinking and second guessing out of it and to me it’s money well spent. She’s a cyclist herself too so is very understanding of lifting fatigue affecting my bike legs and structures my program to fit my cycling goals. If that’s an option available to you, I’d recommend outsourcing the thinking.


I went through NASM to become a certified trainer. What they usually suggest is higher reps for the first month or so. Then slowly add weight and increase/ decrease rest between repetitions.
I would also stick with compound movements, no need to do any tricky maneuvers that increase chances of injury. We’re cyclist not strength athletes.
Basically it goes…
12-20 reps 1-3 sets 90 sec rest
8-12 reps 2-4 sets 60 sec rest
6-12 reps 3-5 sets 60 secs rest
1-5 reps 3-6 sets 3-5 min rest

That’s free programming there, just choose the exercises ( the big 5 press, bench, squat, pull up, deadlift )
There’s more to programming but that’s a basic outline :grinning:


@hubba and @ChefAcB have got you pretty much covered as long as you have a horizontal pull (ie a row of some description)

High reps at first to give plenty of technique practice at modest loads. Then gradually reduce reps and increase loads to move towards your end goal which, at least for leg work, would be to improve your neural drive. Upper body work depends on what you want. Staying in higher ranges is more likely to add a bit of mass to your frame, but will usually be less mentally draining if you’re already doing, say, 3 × 5 on squats earlier in the session. See how you go. No need to take lifts to or even near failure. Injury risk and fatigue rise exponentially without sufficient increase in stimulus to make it worth it. As soon as you feel your technique starting to go, call it good.

Move on to unilateral work once you’ve reached a good comfort level with the bilateral variation and got used to stabilising the load. It’s easy to go wobbly with eg a front foot elevated split squat, and you’ll put yourself off a superb exercise if you have to bail out of one messily.

For recovery week, there’s a lot of individual variation. I tend to keep the previous week’s load but do half reps and half sets. It’s a nice quick workout, but keeps you in the groove.


Why not find a plan that focuses on strength for cyclists? Instead of trying to program your own workouts. I’m not an expert by any means, but if you’re not able to do 2x a week I think you’ve done too much in the gym with your session.

Sounds like your goals are the same as mine and to take the mental load and confusion off I am using Dialed Health. There are an other cycling specific strength like wukar fit as well.


Thanks a lot for the advice, it is great to hear from someone who knows the gym and understands the needs of cyclists. I did not know I should do more reps in the beginning with much longer breaks in between. I’ll try that.

How many exercises should I do? Given the higher number of reps and the longer rest periods in between, I should limit myself to less than what I am doing now.

I’m not so worried about adding (muscle) mass. I could actually use a little more upper body heft. On the other hand, I have no desire to become big. I’d rather be a bit of a sleeper, stronger and more athletic than I look. A BMW E39 M5 if you will.

Some of the people in the gym are legitimate specimen. One woman put more weight on the leg press than me (and I put a little over 230 kg on it). (Just to be clear, I say that with respect and admiration, she is clearly a proper athlete.)

The only thing I am doing to (near) failure are low rep leg press (6-4-2). I had to switch from a machine to a weight-based “frame” machine. As far as I (mis?)understood, that was a good exercise for cyclists as we do “low weight leg presses” for hours on end, literally. Is that wrong?

I’ll try that next month, thanks for the suggestion. :slight_smile:

I have taken inspiration from various cyclist workouts (e. g. as recommended by TR), although I do not have a structured program yet.

Money: we will be moving to another country in a few weeks after my wife gives birth to our third. (I got a Wahoo Rival on sale rather than an Apple Watch for the same reason.) I will probably subscribe in the future to check it out.

When I got into structured training on the bike, I did the same: I took inspiration from training plans I found on the net for free (e. g. British Cycling) and after I got serious, I subscribed to TR.


There are six main movements, so to my simple mind six lifts per session seems neat, maybe adding your leg press at the end as a finisher.

So maybe:

High bar back squat
Pull up or chin up
Deadlift variation
Bench press
Row variation
Overhead Press or dumbbell press
Leg Press

Once you start getting heavy on these you may need to split them across two days because of the neural load. Or you may not.

And you may want to do twice as much lifting as this from October to December and then gradually cut back to maintenance volumes or nothing once March rolls around. Opinion is divided.

ETA Yeah, feel free to go heavy (and deep) on your leg press assuming you can fail it safely. I was mainly thinking of the heavy compound lifts.


@OreoCookie what @Helvellyn said breaks it down pretty well.
If you can’t do pull ups, Lat pull downs are a good one to supplement with.
There are so many variations to lifting but if you stick to the core movements you don’t need to do much else. IMO
Strength training can be complicated but also can be simple. The variations of movements can make it confusing.

For 2 days a week I choose what I’ll do each day and then do that for a month then move on to the next phase. Similar to cycling, you can change movements every month or you might even see results by changing sets and reps.

This is an example of what I do, each “phase” I use same movements just different variations.

Examples of different leg exercises
Bulgarian split squat
Step up
Side step up
Side lunge
Goblet squat
Zercher squat
Front squat…….


I got started lifting using Stronglifts 5x5 which I still use for be a while in the off season and base, basically until it starts negatively affecting my cycling. There’s an excel version on the site that is free or you can pay for the app. The website also gives thorough explanations of the program and how to do the lifts.

I do feel like I could use more dynamic strength than the traditional compound lifts provide (I want to add more lateral and dynamic movements) so I switch to Dialed Health early in the season.

I was going to say you can use Stronglifts 5x5 as a template but modify the sets and reps to your liking then just noticed new “lite” and “mini” versions. Those might be a good place to work from.


I think you need to go twice a week, even if they’re shorter sessions. You’re not really going to progress in a meaningful way going once a week. That’s considered minimal maintenance.

Imagine if someone posted they wanted to get better/faster on the bike using trainerroad, but they could only ride for one hour, once a week. Something’s better than nothing, yes, but they’d see marginal if any gains and plateau within a matter of months. The same is true for lifting. If you want to actually improve and see growth in how much you can lift and body composition, then you have to do 2-3 sessions a week minimum.


My evergreens are:

  • 8-minute warm-up on the bike. I Basically want to go beyond VT1 up to threshold power for 2 minutes to get me going.
  • Planks (currently 3 x 1:30, although I can go longer)
  • Pistol squats to address instability issues with my right knee. I aim for 3 x 8, prioritizing technique. I can’t go down all the way, especially with the right leg, but the left leg feels very stable.
  • I close out with a leg press. I’m really looking forward to that.

Apart from that, I would usually do rear-foot-elevated Bulgarian split squats, assisted pull-ups, a machine that focusses on my lower back muscles, I think a type of row, … I’m a bit scared of free weights as I don’t have anyone to show me proper technique. They are quite intimidating and I feel I’d need a coach to show me the ropes. Should I just try?

That’s the goal. But I haven’t adapted my schedule yet, and I thought it’d be better to go reliably once per week than to go 1.5 times per week. Start small and easy. Going more often is currently kinda hard as I have juggle that with all of my other commitments.

I’m quite sure that going once will lead to some gains, but I am sure you are right that I will plateau quickly.

I did. Pretty sure pretty much all people could. I’m neither naturally strong nor well-coordinated. I just started very light, progressed slowly, and if I found that a lift wasn’t working for me I swapped to an alternative. For example, my shoulders don’t like overhead barbell press, so I just use dumbbells instead with a neutral grip. Is it as good? Probably not. Good enough? Probably.

Also, I’ve never once squatted or bench pressed without using a squat rack with safety arms. Safety is your (only) priority.

The internet is awash with lifting content. If you want or need a place to start Greg Nuckols of Stronger by Science is particularly great. Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodization is also very good. And funny.

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If you haven’t try holding a counter weight with straight arms, like a 4kg kettlebell, makes a huge difference. It feels much easier even when lifting more weight. Gym shoes with elevated heel help too. Pistols squats are great.

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when I hear people talking about strength training for cyclists, i think why?? why would you want to learn strength training from a cyclist??

learn strength training from strength athletes. you know enough about cycling and yourself to experiment and integrate.

a classic way to start is Starting Strength with Mark Rippitoe. that’ll keep you busy for a few years and you’ll learn movements that will last a lifetime.


There isn’t a single “strength athlete either. A close friend of mine is into cross fit and boy does he look good compared to me. Then I have encountered traditional body builders who want to look good. Others want PRs in specific lifts (strength > looks). Traditional gym coaches also have no clue about fatigue management.

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