As a cyclist, we are obsessed by optimization. We do everything we can to streamline our bodies, shave ounces from our ride, and scrutinise our every stroke. For us, everything is about efficiency. Even if it might only shave a second or two from our time-trial time.
But do we ever stop to think about our primary vehicle? Not the bike, but our bodies themselves. After all, without our muscles contracting and relaxing like they do, we wouldn’t even be cycling. In fact, we’d not be going anywhere fast at all.
So it makes sense that we should also obsess about our physical shape too. Imagine a motorcycle with a lackluster engine that’s not finely tuned for performance. Would we consider that bike race ready? Absolutely not. Only when tweaked for maximum torque and horsepower will it stand a chance out on the track.
One of the best ways you can start to set up your body for peak performance is strength training. Elite athletes in all sports go through carefully crafted strength building cycles to gear them up for competition.
After all, a strong and powerful body is a better fit for working at a higher rate than a weaker one. That’s why countries pump so much cash into their national teams’ gym programmes.
- Read: Cycling and Metabolism
Weight training for cyclists is a proven method for taking your pace and power to the next level.
Take a look at Sir Bradley Wiggins. He was in the gym three to four times a week whilst preparing for the Olympics, and his performance on the international stage was phenomenal. Throughout his preparation, he was hitting very sports-specific movements, many of which we’ll look at for yourself.
Cycling Specific Strength Training – What to do in the gym
Strength and weight training for cyclists should just be any old routine pulled from a fitness magazine. After all, there’s not much point spending hours perfecting the bicep curl when there’s minimal application to the bike.
Remember how we love to be efficient? Well, the same ethos applies to the gym too. We have to be sports specific.
Plus, strength training is an entire entity of its own. Building strong muscles is all about hitting low reps at high intensity – that means heavy weights, short bursts, and long intervals of rest.
We’re not here to make our muscles bigger like a bodybuilder, we’re here to increase their output like a real athlete. That and make our bodies more resistant to injury.
What follows is a bunch of exercises ideal for building muscles to handle any ride. We will first be looking at improving strength in the lower body, as it’s our two legs that power each stroke like pistons.
We’ll be using so many big muscles and larger muscle groups in the lower half. So you can usually expect significant DOMS if you aren’t used to strength training.
This is normal, but if soreness ever starts to affect your ride, pull back the pace in the gym. Don’t push too hard when starting out and listen to your body’s natural feedback system.
- Read: Common Cycling Pains
Then there will be an emphasis on building a stronger foundation by boosting the core. Now, when we say core, we’re not just talking superficial abs. In actual fact, our core is the entire collection of muscles that aren’t our limbs.
Therefore, they should be seen as an important platform from which everything else stems from. Our core protects our spine, allows us to distribute power through our limbs, and even stops gravity from folding us in two. It’s a pretty big deal for all cyclists at any level.
Strength Specific Weight Training for Cyclists Workout
|Exercise||Reps / Duration||Sets||Rest Time|
|Front Squat||5-8||4||2-3 Minutes|
|Bulgarian Split Squat (w/ dumbells)||5-8||4||2-3 Minutes|
|Kettlebell Lateral Lunge||5-8||3||2-3 Minutes|
|Seated Calf Raise||5-8||3||2-3 Minutes|
|Standing Dumbbell Calf Raise||5-8||3||2-3 Minutes|
|Toes to Bar||8-10||3||2-3 Minutes|
|Plank Position||45 Seconds||2||2-3 Minutes|
- Deadlift – 5 reps x 4 sets
The deadlift one of the three big lifts and no strength routine should be without it. Known as a compound movement, the deadlift employs pretty much your entire body. This exercise will strengthen your posterior chain, whilst also developing a tight core.
- Front Squat – 6 reps x 4 sets
Just like the aforementioned deadlift, squatting is also a compound movement. However, rather than opt for the more common back squat variation, we’ve gone front-loaded. Why? To make things more cycling specific.
Loading from the front will place greater emphasis on your quads and core, translating directly to push power and strengthening the shoulders.
- Bulgarian Split Squat w/ Dumbbells – 6/6 reps x 4 sets
Again, the Bulgarian Squat is a compound movement that targets the quads. But, the benefits don’t just stop there. This exercises also activated the calves and glute muscles. You’ll certainly need these for tackling those challenging climbs.
- Kettlebell Lateral Lunge – 8/8 reps x 3 sets
The lateral lunge is another leg based exercise perfect for building an impenetrable lower body. Explode back to the starting position every time to simulate pressing hard on the pedal. Plus, there are the added core and stability benefits of employing a kettlebell.
Hold it by the horns and close to your body at around chest height.
- Seated Calf Raise – 6 reps x 3 sets
Hitting the calf-raise in the seated position is the ultimate exercise for tackling the soleus. And although you can’t see the soleus hiding away from view under the gastrocnemius, it’s very important.
During less intense riding this muscle gets the most activation. This is due to its predominantly slow twitch muscle fiber type that we rely on for slow sustained movement. Slow twitch has a much more free-flowing blood flow than fast twitch so don’t tire as easily.
- Standing Dumbbell Calf Raise – 6 reps x 3 sets
In reverse to the seated calf-raise, the standing version is better suited for testing the gastrocnemius. The gastrocnemius is the two-headed diamond shaped superficial muscle in the calf. It’s the one that gives top racers that incredibly defined lower leg shape,
Because it is filled with fast twitch fibers it controls all explosive movements from the feet. When you sprint towards a finish or to overtake another rider, your gastrocs fires into action. Therefore, it is important we strengthen them with this standing movement.
- Toes To Bar – 10 reps x 3 sets
Okay, we’ve really only worked the lower body so far. But turning a cyclist into a great one will take more than just leg-work.
Now it’s time to challenge that core and build you a concrete midsection. Rather than the traditional route of endless sit-ups (which can lead to a bad back) we have gone for the more spine-friendly TTB. Yes, it’s tougher, but the benefits far outweigh their difficulty.
If you struggle to get your toes fully over the bar, feel free to regress the exercise. Simply raise your knees to chest height without using momentum or bending at the elbow. Then once you have mastered this movement, invert like a pro and hit those Toes to Bar with ease.
- Plank – 45 seconds (Progress by raising arm out in front if too easy) x 2 sets
The beauty of the plank is that it can be performed quite literally anywhere. And whilst it might not scream “strength training” it is a very effective core exercise.
Plus, it is a great way to end a workout. Whilst here try to be measured in your breathing and maintain a flat spine. This will set you up well for when you’re tired in the saddle. Especially when you’re close to taking pole position.
Learning how to control your breathing and posture could be the difference between lagging behind or leading the pack come race day. So to make this exercise tougher, fully extend an arm out in front for the 45 seconds.
End of workout.
Aim to complete this workout two to three times a week. It’s short, sharp, and snappy so you can easily fit strength work into your busy schedule.
We also understand that not everybody can access or afford all the latest training equipment. Therefore, each exercise has been chosen because all regular gyms will have the tools you need. If yours somehow doesn’t, substitute equipment for a similar and safe alternative.
Allow yourself a minimum of 120 seconds rest between each set. We’re here to train strength, not hypertrophy or endurance. Your body needs this time to recover your ATP stores, as it is this energy system we are developing.
Don’t rush back into a set just because you feel fresh – trust the science and reap the rewards.
Finally, before you chalk up and grab the barbell, remember this… Keep good form, keep in the saddle. Don’t risk injury for the sake of ego or progressing quickly. The main goal is to improve your efficiency as a cyclist, so concentrate on technique not weight.
Why Cyclists Should Strength Train
Long gone are the days when we believed that endless junk miles on the road were all we needed. And whilst no one can deny the importance of racking rides under your jersey – there’s more to being an athlete than slogging steep ascents on the weekends.
We’ve entered a new era of cycling. The top professionals care about more than just endurance, and it’s showing in competition. Both Joe Dombrowski and Alex Howes, who belong to the Cannondale-Drapac pro team, credit the simple squat and deadlift to raising their riding game.
Today we understand that we need to be explosive enough to overtake on a moments notice. In a race, anything can happen, so we must be ready to react. Our highly tuned fast twitch muscle fibers must be ready to take advantage of any situation.
Even if you’re not a racer, who knows when you will need to hit a sudden burst. Maybe you’ll need to overtake a fellow weekend warrior, conquer a sharp country climb, or make it into the office on time.
Plus, we also now know that a strong core can keep us efficient in the saddle. Something that is especially true when fatigue rears its winding head. Forging an iron-like midsection makes sure
no power is lost between our bodies, the bike, and then the road. We are able to stay strong with every stroke without our soft bodies folding and wasting vital energy.
Good luck out there, guys. Enjoy the ride.