Winter „Bulking“ in cycling? - controlled weight gain or maintain race weight all year round?

I couldn’t find anything on this on TR, and since this might be relevant with the season (if you could even call it that) being over in most of the northern hemisphere, and winter approaching rapidly.

This is my second year as a (recreational) cyclist and has been my full first year of focused, progressive, structured training. The gains were great and the results are satisfying.
Now that my next event is (at least) 6 months away, I am wondering about the topic of bulking.

Before cycling I did fitness. First focused on aesthetics, later focused on power lifting. In both, I’d bulk up 10-15 pounds during the winter, and cut for the summer (or for events with weight classes). This is recommended by many coaches, to build strength and muscle mass over the off season, and then get in shape or Prime your body for competition.

Since cycling season is over, I have been training harder than ever, but also gained a few pounds. While I firstly felt like being overweight and cutting carbs for the next 8 years (a bit of an exaggeration, but still felt bad), I gave it a second thought.
Winter is used as a base phase by most of us. I like the saying „build the engine as large as possible over the winter, and then Prime the gears for each specific event during the season“.
Since you recover faster and get stronger when consuming more food, I was wondering if a (!) controlled (!) bulk of 5 to 10 pounds over the winter is even something positive, and that benefits the rider over the following season.
I couldn’t really find specific articles on that matter,
So I was wondering if TR users could share their experience or their ways of going about it.

I am really good a losing weight, so I don’t fear getting out of shape and never get there again. But being super lean all season round can’t be right, can it?

Thanks in advance.

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How much do you weigh and how tall are you? Would you consider yourself lean? Does not matter much, but what event are you doing? Putting on muscle in your legs WILL increase your raw FTP more for the same amount of training stress. You can relax your diet in the winter as your weight does not matter. I have seen that the more i weigh the better performance I have since I am small guy. Doing strength training will add muscle and help recruit more existing muscle fibers while pedaling, so make sure to do that.

^ If you are going to add more food in your diet to “bulk”, consider the most effective time in the day to add food. I would recommend adding more carbs before/during/ and after training on the bike to increase watts. I would also add more protein after strength training, but you do not have to go crazy, probably 20-30g right after strength training, and keep protein in each meal you eat.

As far as I know, gaining up to 10% more weight during the winter months is acceptable for endurance athletes.

I don‘t weigh much and I am pretty tall (BMI on race weight is around 19).
I am this spider-like creature :sweat_smile:


While I am usually powerful enough at my race weight (or don‘t experience that significant of a difference when gaining weight), I am not as capable of recovering from hard sessions.
RN, which is 1 month after my season has ended, I have ramped up my training (+50-100 TSS per week), and also started consuming more carbs (especially before and after the highest intensity days). This has resulted in me gaining a few pounds, nothing too wild.
Regarding my races, I do both, super flat Time trials, where raw power and core strength beat lightweight all day long, but my A+ event (which is late Summer 2021) is an Dolomites stage race, including 14‘000m of climbing.

I extrapolate from that, that I want to build as much power as possible over the winter, and then get lean when I have to. Obviously I am not talking epic bulk, but eating enough to get the best results, and then drop weight for the best W/kg when I need them. I just don‘t know if this is a fallacy in endurance sports…

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First off, I have absolutely no answer to this. But I thought I’d share some initial thoughts

  1. How would the bulk be carried? Muscle or fat?
  2. What role would this muscle or fat play?
  3. How would the bulk be achieved? Extra protein? Carbs? Fat?
  4. What role would these macros play?
  5. What effects on performance would losing this weight again have?

In my mind, the answers to these would be basically that there’s no benefit in carrying around extra fat. So if you were to gain muscle, would this improve performance? Yes, maybe if it’s in your legs, but then if you plan to lose it again before race season are you able to maintain the strength from that muscle and shed the bulk? Maybe, but then why not just improve strength without the bulk in the first place?

As far as macros go, there’s decent science on ideal protein intake for endurance athletes, which you can consume without being in a calorie surplus. A bit of fat is ideal but it’s unlikely I think that an increase in this will aid performance. And whatever calories you have left for the day should, in my experience, be enough carbs for fueling and recovery.

Lastly, as mentioned before, you then have to worry about losing this weight before the season starts. If its fat, which is likely undesirable, then it’s easy but unnecessary, and if its muscle then it’s maybe a bit more hard work and the stress of which could likely detract from your season build up.

You cannot gain muscles without gaining weight, unless you carry excess fat already.
Gaining weight will always be composed of both factors (like losing weight also is).
In any strength discipline (bodybuilding, power lifting, strong man) you will need to gain weight, fat also, to become stronger and more muscular.
Rn, I am just sitting on my rollers or do intervals outdoors (when the weather allows it), so being light doesn’t help my performance much over the next 6 months or so.
I am not talking about becoming fat, but rather not being as lean as I am now, to gain strength faster and grow my muscles, in order to benefit from that over the season.
I mean strength training is a major factor in base training (in any endurance sport also), and from all I know, strength training strives on a caloric surplus…

Of course. Sorry if my reply was misleading but I don’t think I suggested this anywhere?

Sure. So do you think faster strength gains have to be accompanied by muscle mass? Or could you just build the strength without the mass and then not have to worry about losing the mass before race season. in order to benefit from that over the season.

Strength and muscle mass are definitely close related. It doesn’t mean that the most muscular athlete will also be the strongest. However, to train for muscle growth, it is generally recommended to train heavy and use progressive overload.
I’d imagine that getting stronger also requires growing muscles. I also don’t think, that this is only pertinent for fast twitch exercises.
The world’s best time trialists are often on the heavier end of things (over 80kg for Ganna and over 76kg for Tony Martin).
If the goal is maximal W/kg you have to be super light. However, I’d still imagine that even the climbers build muscle during the off-season.

I think you’re maybe misinterpreting what I’m trying to say. That’s not to say that I’m correct though.

I’m not suggesting anyone trains for muscle growth.

My overall question remains.

What benefits does muscle mass provide during the off season, can you keep those gains when you want to shed the weight during pre-season and does that weight loss affect your preparation for the racing season?

Just my 2 cents, but there are several kinds of stress - cognitive, dietary, exercise-related, etc. Stress from these sources aggregates to determine overtraining and over-stressing the system. The off-season is a bad time to add dietary stress IMHO. If that leads to a few extra pounds, so be it, in the interest of focusing more on adding exercise-induced stress. As events approach, balancing them may be beneficial, but that is discipline-specific.

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Watch Greg Doucette’s videos on bulking. He thinks it’s counterproductive. All the time folks spend cutting weight could be used for training and bulking is just getting fatter. You may gain muscle also, but it’s impossible to just gain muscle when you are in a calorie surplus. The extra will become fat. You’re not going to maintain a 10% body fat when bulking so the difference between your “competition” weight and your “bulk” weight is a lot of fat.

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It is also hardly possible to gain muscle when not in a caloric surplus, especially when sub 10% BF. The extra will become fat, I know, but I don‘t need to be light during the winter. Shedding a few pounds of fat during the summer is easily possible…

All I am wondering if it is important to maintain low BF during the season with no racing. Also, I am sub 10% BF when racing, so I am not talking going 20% BF or beyond, just a few pounds (5 to 10) more …

I don‘t know the answer either but I don‘t think staying very lean has only benefits to it.

The benefit is your training and possibly mental health will suffer when you are cutting weight. If it takes less discipline to maintain than it does to diet and a good bit of that muscle that you gain, you will lose when you start cutting. I personally think it’s just more work than it’s worth.

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My personal take is that if you are so lean during the year that you need to ‘bulk’ during the winter to improve power, you are too lean. I want to be as light and lean as possible while: 1 - maintaining peak sustainable power output (i.e. FTP), 2 - recovering well, 3 - not hating life because I’m starving all the time, 4 - having a body composition I can maintain with low effort all year round. I’d rather be a little heavier than my lightest and have better power output than try to be so lean that it impacts my power and I need to gain weight during the winter to be healthy.

I think when people see the word ‘bulk’ we tend to think of a big weight gain and that is generally not desirable. It is fairly common to gain a little weight during the winter and then take it off in the spring. I don’t think many people would consider that ‘bulking’ though.

Regarding some of the best TTers being heavier: I think it is more about overall size (i.e. height which impacts weight). Ganna is 6’4". Martin is 6’1". I’m betting they sit on the high end of the height spectrum for world tour level riders. I don’t think you see too many 80kg (Ganna’s reported weight) riders at the WT level who are 5’9".

Comparing these two statements probably shows that there is not a one size fits all solution here and it depends on how much struggle with losing weight.

I am just wondering, if muscle and strength grows strongly benefits from a caloric surplus (at least every natural strength athlete ever, and most of the non-natural also will do a bulk over the winter), wouldn’t that be a similar benefit for gaining slow twitch strengt, too?

There’s a difference in adding a few extra pounds and bulking. Bulking suggests you will add a significant amount of extra pounds. Like I said, watch Greg Doucette’s videos for a different perspective on bulking relative to the “every natural strength athlete ever” comment.

I am very lean all year round and I am naturally lean, but I can get my W/kg up within two weeks by cutting one to two kilos (70 to 68kg or so). My short term power doesn’t suffer, but long term recovery will always suffer the leaner you are.
However, I don‘t hate my life, nor do I starve myself or live unhealthy. But maintaining my race weight requires work and I can‘t eat whatever I want whenever I want.

Agree. I however refer to gaining weight on purpose to aid training and recovery over the winter. Not becoming excessively fat like a steroid supported bodybuilder will.

That is correct. Height always carries weight. Body composition plays a big role also.
Brad Wiggins is 190cm and weighed above 80kg when he was focusing on Track and TT, and sub 70kg when he focuses on GC. He clearly felt a benefit from the additional weight. Also, considering Bradley weighed 69kg when participating in the TdF, while a rider like Caleb Ewan weighs 67kg at 25cm shorter, probably goes to show that height and weight is not a linear function.

I probably should have put bulking in „“… In my initial post I wrote: „ Since you recover faster and get stronger when consuming more food, I was wondering if a (!) controlled (!) bulk of 5 to 10 pounds over the winter is even something positive, and that benefits the rider over the following season.
I couldn’t really find specific articles on that matter,
So I was wondering if TR users could share their experience or their ways of going about it.“

I am NOT referring to epic bulking like in bodybuilding. Even there, for natural athletes gaining 20lbs+ over the winter has been found to be detrimental to your gains. A person with significantly higher body fat will likely not be anabolic as a leaner person.
It is not gaining for the sake of gaining, but rather finding the sweetspot for endurance athletes.

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I would say, if you are having trouble reaching equilibrium at your current weight to the point where gaining 5 to 10lbs would make you feel better and less stressed during the offseason, then go for it. Otherwise, I don’t think you will notice a difference in recovery from consuming more food if you are already fueling your workouts. I think of it like you have 3 different weights in this conversation. Your race weight, which requires disciplined cutting. Your equilibrium, which you can maintain without much effort. And your relaxed weight, where I put this winter weight gain. My intention this year is to try to stay at equilibrium.

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