Bring this topic up in any circle of cyclists, and you may as well talk religion and politics at family functions. It is typically a recipe for circular conversations that go no where, leading to both sides holding firm on their positions.
The most common view of weight training in the cycling world seems to weight training will add size/weight to a rider, and that degrades performance. Another popular view is that you’ve got a finite amount of matches to burn each week, and unless you spend most of those on cycling, you won’t get better. But will you get worse? If so how much?
The weight training camp thinks that if you are stronger, your body will adapt to the load and give you more strength with which to turn the pedals over, fight fatigue and prevent muscle imbalances/injuries. Both sides of the fence make perfect sense, but is one method better than the other?
Can you concurrently strength train and endurance train without over training and losing performance? Does one thing have to give for the other to get better? In my opinion to the two can very easily live harmoniously together if done correctly.
Specificity of training principles dictate that to get better at something, you must train at it quite a bit. Makes sense, you wouldn’t run to become a better golfer. But what if you did something on outside of your given pursuit that helped you get better at it? Wouldn’t that help?
Well, I wanted to find out if my thoughts on this held any water, and it turns out there is merit to my belief that cycling (at any level) will benefit from a concurrent strength training program. Luckily, a strength coach named Russel Jolley, BSc, ASCC from the Conditioning Centre in Europe sent me about 12 studies for me to peruse to see if my crazy thoughts had any juice. Let me tell you before I go on, while reading over 60 pages of studies was fascinatingly informing, it wasn’t all that exciting. SO YOU PEOPLE BETTER APPRECIATE WHAT I DO FOR THIS RELATIONSHIP!!
However, the more I read, the more everything began to fall into place. For instance, a 2010 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research titled “The Effects of Resistance Training on Road Cycling Performance Among Highly Trained Cyclists: A Systematic Review” found that “positive muscular adaptations from muscle hypertrophy include increased anaerobic enzyme activity, increased force production, increased intramuscular enzyme activity” for cyclists.
Within that study, several others like it were cited that showed a positive benefit for cyclists from weight training. In 2005, Patton, , CD and Hopkins, WG (Combining Explosive and High Resistance Training Improves Performance in Competitive Cyclists) found that 18 highly trained road cyclists, using the outcome measurements of a 1K and 4K TT as well as VO2Peak, they discovered an 8.7% increase in 1KM power, and an 8.1% in 4K power. They did this by replacing segments of traditional cycling training with high explosive resistance training to produce sprint and performance gains. It should be noted that this study was carried out during a competitive cycling season giving this idea a lot more food for thought.
Another study mentioned was by Hickson, RC, Divorak, BC, Gorostiaga, EM, Korowski, TT and Foster, C (Potential for Strength and Endurance Training to Amplify Endurance Performance) found that both short term performance (11%) and time to exhaustion (20%) both improved over the course of 10 weeks with three sessions a week of parallel back squats, knee extensions, ham curls and calf raises in eight highly trained subjects. While I wouldn’t prescribe the knee flexion/extension and calf raises, it does demonstrate how this can help. Conclusive? Not by any stretch due to the small sample size, but it does lend credence to the idea.
Hickson, et al also found that by adding in strength training to the routines of cross country skiers and runners, their short term endurance capacity increased by 11-13%. They also found time to exhaustion improved from 6.5 mins to 10.2 mins during all out efforts using a double poling ski ergometer for cross country skiers. While not cyclists, it shows the benefits of strength training across other endurance sports.
One of the most intriguing findings in this study was that while strength increased during the course of the study, size didn’t. They found that due to the opposing hormonal releases during cycling, the endurance component of strength training essentially can “diminish or fully blunt out the muscle hypertrophy that normally occurs with strength training while increases in maximal strength are still observed.” This would lend credibility to the notion that you can build strength without putting on size laying to rest this particular concern for cyclists.
Well so far so good right? Yes and no. Yes because the studies lend credence to the idea, but no because the studies are too short. Using 8-12 week periods is flawed because that is typically when neural adaptations take place and not pure strength gains. Essentially, your brain is turning on more muscles fibers giving the appearance of strength gains.
The other common theme in the studies was bilateral (two legs) lower body training for an activity that produces strength/power with one. This also included extensive use of seated machine work with trashes prime movers and typically requires a longer recovery period.
All but one study that I read experimented during a competitive cycling season. I’d like to see this across the board for really accurate results.
To get a true sense of the potential for strength training for cyclists, I’d like to see a study done with rear foot elevated split squats, single leg deadlifts and upper body work done on a single leg to better attempt to mimic the strength/balance demands required to ride a bike. But, until that study is done, on with the show from the information Jolley sent.
Building on the Hickson study, in 2005 Izqueirdo et al, (Effects of Combined Resistance and Cardiovascular Training on Strength, Power, Muscle Cross Section Area and Endurance Markers in Middle Age Men”) found strength plus endurance training produced great on the bike improvements than endurance training alone in top level riders. Aagard and Anderson found in 2010 that national level team cyclists who increased maximal muscle strength found a long term endurance capacity increase lead to a 7% increase in Watt production in a 45 minute TT performed in a lab (Effects of Resistance Training on Endurance Capacity, Muscle Morphology, and Fiber Type Composition in Young Top Level Cyclists).
This evidence points to a lower level of muscle fiber fatigue per pedal stroke for a given power output for long term events. Hickson said this “would enable cyclists to more rapidly produce pedal force and thereby allow for a more prolonged relaxation phase in each pedal revolution.” Essentially, get stronger, and recover a little more per pedal stroke.
There are several benefits of this including an increased diffusion of free fatty acids in the muscles and potentially slow down the rate of muscle glycogen breakdown helping to delay the onset of muscle fatigue (Kiens, et al Skeletal Muscle Substrate Utilization During Submaximal Exercise in Man: Effect of Endurance Training). So to loosely translate, more strength allows for less fatigue, better use of fatty acids for fuel and less reliance on glycogen helping you to last longer in the saddle.
Perhaps the most interesting study I read was a 2011 finding by Ronnestad B.R., Raastad and T. Hansen, E.A. (Strength Training Improves 5-Minute All-Out Performance Following 185 Minutes of Cycling, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports). This study took 23 well trained cyclists and put them through a concurrent 12 week heavy strength (2x/week) and endurance training program. The strength exercises performed were Smith Machine 1/2 squats, single leg press, one leg ham curls and calf raises. Again, not exercises I feel provide the most accurate picture, but consistent with the other studies.
This 30 page nugget found that cycling economy was improved in a concurrent strength and endurance training program in well trained cyclists (VO2Max 66-7- mL O2/min/kg) in the final hour of a 185 minute ride which included a reduced rise both heart rate and blood lactate levels.
This study also found that at the end of the 185 minute, in max all out efforts for 5-minutes, the test subjects that strength as well as endurance trained got a 7% increase in average power production. This study suggests “that sprint capacity in the final phase of a race can be enhanced by strength training.”
While these studies are by no means 100% definitive in support of strength training for in season cyclists, they do support my original idea of the benefits of strength training for cyclists. Still, there are several gaps in my opinion that I’d like to see filled from future studies such as:
1) Study length
Most of them were typically 8-12 weeks in length. This isn’t enough time to accurately measure any benefits of strength training because this is primarily a neural adaptation period. Meaning, your brain is simply turning on more muscle fibers, not growing the ones you’ve got.
2) Exercise selection
All of the exercises chosen were bilateral, and typically seated. There are some flaws in this approach in my opinion:
- There isn’t anything on how a single leg strength training program in an unsupported environment would affect the results +/-.
- Its been proven by Mel Siff in his book “Supertraining” that seated machines are “inferior to standing exercise for building strength.”
- Machine work will typically trash prime movers, and do very little if any, to build stabilizer strength/endurance. This factor alone would explain little to no benefit. Prime movers need a lot more recovery time once they are worked.
- You don’t build core strength in a seated environment because you don’t have to support you as you move. So, if you aren’t improving the stabilization mechanisms of the joints, how can you accurately gauge improvements in neuromuscular coordination from strength training as it relates to cycling performance?
- Neuromuscular coordination is extremely tough to come by in a seated machine environment.
- Seated machines cause range of motion loss because the movement pattern is dictated for you by the machine. Same thing as to why cycling crushes your mobility: you’re sitting down doing the same thing for hours on end.
3) Perhaps most importantly, none of the studies mention how cycling robs you of ROM, and how strength training can help fight that. I’d like to see a study based on how corrective exercise THEN strength training affects cycling performance. That would probably be the most accurate picture that can be snapped of this whole thing.
4) I’d also like to see how cycling affects thoracic spine mobility, the negative affects this has on breathing patterns and then how these affects come into play while cycling.
Again, while there is not definitive evidence in these studies (there are too many variables missing) to say one way or the other if cyclists should strength train, there is enough information to convince me that is necessary from both a performance AND injury prevention standpoint.
Al Painter, National Academy of Sports Medicine Performance Enhancement
Specialist, Corrective Exercise Specialist is a Cat 2 Mountain Bike Racer as well as the President and Founder of INTEGRATE Performance Fitness.
He has also been named the “Bay Area’s Best Personal Trainer” by CitySports Magazine, and he has also received a “People’s Choice Award” from the Palo Alto Daily News.
INTEGRATE Performance Fitness has also been named “Northern California’s Best Fitness Facility” by Competitor Magazine as well as a “Top 5 Bay Area Fitness Facility” by the SFGate.com.
He also holds a degree in Journalism from Santa Clara University.