Strength training for cyclists used to be a controversial subject, but a recent boom in scientific research into the subject has begun to turn that tide. Study after study is showing that cyclists can benefit from incorporating strength training into their schedule.
Not only that, but strength training is a great tool for general health and fitness. It’s key to fight low bone-density which plagues cyclists, and it helps to maintain muscle mass in older athletes.
Lower-Body Strength Training
Cycling is a lower-body dominant sport, and strength training should be focused largely on this area. The best exercises for cyclists are free-weight exercises like squats, lunges, and variations thereof. If an athlete prefers machine exercises they should focus on multi-joint exercises using as much of the lower body as possible. Examples include the leg press or machine-guided squats. Finally, isolation exercises like hamstring curls or calf raises can be used to build up a weak muscle.
Repetitions should generally be in the range of 5-8, with challenging but controllable weights. Repetitions can be slightly higher for isolation exercises. 3-5 sets per exercise and a few exercises per workout is perfect. We suggest two days a week in the gym in the off-season. During the season maintenance sessions one or two days a week can be done, or we can maintain strength through on-the-bike work, depending on the athlete.
Training the muscles in your abdomen and lower back (typically what we mean when we refer to the core) may not directly impact your power output the way training your legs does, but it can make you more stable on the bike, help you avoid lower back problems, and provide more efficient power transfer. All this can make you more powerful and more comfortable on the bike.
Core training should be designed to target all 360 degrees of the core, hitting the abdominals, obliques and muscles of the lower back. Exercises in the 10-20 repetition range, as well as static exercises like planks are ideal.
Upper Body Training
One look at the upper body of most champion cyclists should tell you that upper body strength isn’t an important factor in cycling performance. However, having some upper body strength can be important for general health and fitness. For that reason, as a coach, I leave upper-body work up to the individual. Some racers focused on being as light as possible may avoid it. For the most part, though, I recommend including some upper body work.
If you choose to do upper body work, choose a couple of ‘pushing’ exercises (bench press, shoulder press, push-ups) and a few ‘pulling’ exercises (pull-ups, lat pull-downs, bent-over rows). Similar to what we suggested for leg exercises, the 5-8 rep range is perfect, with a few sets per exercise. Make sure to balance your pushing and pulling exercises.
Gym work is best started in the off-season, or very far out from your goal events. When you first start in the gym you’ll be sore and the quality of training on the bike will be reduced. So, if you start too close to your goal races, you can actually hurt performance instead of helping. For a race like GFNY NYC, we suggest starting the previous fall and training hard in the gym until around January or February.
Two times a week in the off-season is ideal. This can be reduced in late winter or early spring. After reducing gym work, you can use a few strategies for maintenance. One option is to keep doing two sessions per week, but very short, at-home sessions. Another is to continue with one day a week in the gym. Finally, you can stop lower-body strength work all together and use the bike to maintain your strength. If you chose this final option, it’s important to keep a few days of core work in your program.