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Depending on your location in the world, you might be sitting inside right now dreaming of warmer days and dry roads/trails. In that case, it’s a good time to start thinking about your fitness foundation for the coming year (though if you keep reading, you’ll see why you should be thinking about this all year – not just the off season). For a lot of cyclists (myself included), workouts usually include a lot of riding, and not much else. But to become a better rider and a better athlete, sometimes variety is a good thing. Because of that, The Sufferfest covers more than just cycling. From yoga, to mental toughness, and strength training, The Sufferfest is hoping to help riders become more well rounded. Which is why we thought it would be good to check in on the ins and outs of strength training for cyclists through the eyes of Neal Henderson and Mac Cassin of Apex Coaching – the duo responsible for developing the Sufferfest Strength Training for Cyclists program.
Question: Why would I want to do strength training as a cyclist?
The Sufferfest: There are tons of reasons for cyclists to incorporate strength work into their training:
- It improves your neuromuscular coordination. That means you’re able to recruit more muscles fibers, which translates to more power on the bike. Even if you’re not trying to win the city line sprint, better muscle recruitment will also help your endurance and your efficiency at all intensities.
- It helps prevent Injury, both through improved ligament and tendon strength as well as improved bone density.
- It helps improve your core strength, which in turns helps you transmit more power to the pedals and allows you to ride longer without getting fatigued.
- It improves your balance and stability, which translates to better bike handling (especially in the rough stuff).
- It can help you break through fitness plateaus.
Q: Will body weight exercises add mass?
The Sufferfest: Everybody responds differently to strength training. Depending upon factors like your genetic predisposition and your diet you may see a slight increase in muscle mass, while someone else doing the same program won’t. If you’re already relatively fit and exercise regularly than you most likely won’t see a noticeable increase in mass. If you’re just getting into regular exercise you may see an increase in muscle mass, but with a corresponding decrease in fat. The strength training program in The Sufferfest app is designed to improve your power and endurance on the bike—using high reps, low weight, and limited rest between sets—without adding significant muscle mass.
Despite cyclists’ fixation on making everything lighter, added mass isn’t always a bad thing (perish the thought). Adding a pound of muscle to your core will improve power transfer and allow you to ride stronger for longer, especially if you’re someone who tends to get back pain a few hours into a ride or on a long climb.
Q: Is there a benefit to “bigger” muscles, or can you get stronger without adding size and weight?
The Sufferfest: Bigger doesn’t mean better. You can get stronger without adding mass, but you can also increase muscle size without gaining functional strength. There are a host of factors that affect how likely a given program is to increase mass versus strength: the types of strength moves you do, the number of sets, the percentage of your one-rep max that you use, and the number of repetitions you complete are just a few.
Lifting with the primary goal of building mass (as opposed to functional strength) is called Hypertrophy Lifting. For most cyclists the goal of strength training isn’t to get bulging calves or vanity quads but to ultimately improve their performance on the bike. If you want to improve functional strength Hypertrophy Lifting isn’t what you’re after. That’s not to say that Hypertrophy Lifting won’t make your stronger, it’s just not the primary goal of that type of strength training.
That said, building more muscle mass can increase your power output as well as your VO2 max. While your relative VO2max (mL of Oxygen per minute per kilogram of body weight) might be the same, having more muscle mass will increase the absolute amount of oxygen you can use, as well as the power you can produce with that oxygen. There is a trade-off.
Q: What’s the main benefit of body weight exercises…strength? Power? Speed? When I think of any sort of weight lifting, whether with dumbbells, barbells or just body weight, as cyclists we mostly think of things like squats and leg presses. I’m assuming we should be doing way more than that, right?
The Sufferfest: Body weight exercises can improve your performance across the board, including strength, speed, and power. Even though riding a bike improves cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance, endurance cycling really doesn’t do much to improve your muscular strength. Track cycling is another matter entirely. Performing repeated standing start efforts in relatively big gears is one of the few areas that can improve leg strength on the bike. Otherwise, your time on the bike is really just improving your endurance. To counteract that, you really need to be doing specific strength work off the bike. And we’re not just talking squats and leg presses. Core work is essential, including planks, bridges, and side planks to help strengthen your obliques. You also need to focus on single-leg exercises that help build those crucial stabilizer muscles that are often neglected by cyclists but which are critical to maximizing your power transfer.
Q: Once the cycling season starts, I can quit lifting, right? Or, what’s the best way to transition from strength exercises back into full bike training?
The Sufferfest: That’s one of the big misconceptions with integrating strength training into cycling: you do it in the winter and then stop once the riding and racing season starts. Cycling alone won’t keep your core and stabilizer muscles strong. You need to continue to incorporate strength training year-round if you want to maintain the gains. Of course, during peak event times you’ll have to back the intensity and volume of your strength training off a bit, but it’s something you need to be consistent with.
One of the biggest reasons to keep strength training year round is that pesky adaptation phase. For the first couple months of strength training, your performance on the bike is going to suffer as your body learns to deal with the novel stress. Once you pass that adaptation phase you will be able to lift on a Tuesday and do hard VO2 interval session on a Wednesday without issue. But once you stop lifting for more than three weeks, most of that adaptation goes away. That means next time you want to start-up your strength training, you’ll be looking at another couple of months of not feeling great on the bike. Consistency is your friend.
Q: In general, it seems to be an accepted truth that training should be specific. For example, cycling training should be done on a bike. Performing strength training always seems to limit my capacity to get on a bike that week. I might be on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday schedule for cycling, but if I mix in a good dose of strength on Tuesday, I won’t be riding on Wednesday because of muscle soreness. How can strength training help, when it limits me in my primary training time? – Jorick
One of the big mistakes cyclists make with strength training is not sticking with it long enough to get through that initial adaptation phase. Cycling is a non-weight bearing sport, meaning your muscles never experience what physiologists call Eccentric Contractions. This kind of contraction is the main cause of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). As a cyclist, your leg muscles are great at pushing the pedals down, but unless you regularly run or do some other weight-bearing activity, your legs won’t be accustomed to those Eccentric Contractions. Until your body fully adapts to this new stress, you’re going to be sore, which may affect your power on the bike. Don’t worry, it’s temporary. After 4-6 weeks you’ll find that you’re no longer sore the day after a strength training session and will begin to see an increase in both your power and endurance.
Here are some tips for getting through the adaptation phase while minimizing the negative impact strength training might have on your riding:
- Schedule your training efforts so that you don’t have high-intensity sessions the day after your strength training sessions. For your specific situation, Wednesday on the bike would best be reserved for general endurance. Adding a second day of strength training on Saturday and also keeping the intensity on the bike lower on Sunday would be reasonable.
- Just like you do with on-bike training, you need the proper ratio of work and rest to see gains. When you have an easier week on the bike, scale back the intensity and volume of your strength training sessions. Use lower weight, decrease the duration of your strength sessions, and perhaps only do one strength workout during your active recovery weeks.
Q: Hi, I have never done strength training before and I am trying to incorporate strength training in to a 10 week A race preparation. However, to perform 2 strength sessions means that I need to replace two on-the-bike sessions. Does that mean that my on-the-bike progress will be slower but more sustainable compared to conventional plans? Is it good idea to start now or should I wait for base training to start off the bike strength training? Thanks – Carlos
As we mentioned above, most cyclists who don’t do other cross-training or don’t have experience with strength training need a period of 6 weeks to fully adapt to the novel stress. During this initial adaptation phase your performance on the bike is going to take a hit. If you are brand new to strength training, then starting a full-blown program 10 weeks before your A race wouldn’t be ideal. But that doesn’t mean you should write it off altogether. In your case, a strength routine that is focused primary on core strength, single-leg stability, and a few full multi-joint, full-body strength exercises once or twice a week would still be helpful without negatively impacting your race preparation.
Q: Is there a best method to increase cycling performance/endurance without losing strength (e.g. 1-rep max on Bench, Squat, and Deadlift)? – Frank
Studies have shown that combining both strength and endurance training tends to inhibit strength gains but not negatively impact endurance gains. What that means for cyclists is it’s easier to maintain strength while increasing endurance than it is to try to increase both at the same time. Here are a few tips for improving your endurance while still maintaining your strength:
- Don’t try to bang out a big endurance training session after heavy strength session. If scheduling means you have to fit both into the same day, make sure you wait at least 4 hours after your strength session to hop on the bike. That will help reduce the interference effects and allow you to maximize the gains from your strength sessions.
- Pay attention to the amount of calories you’re taking in. If you’re combining strength and endurance workouts you need to be taking in enough so you don’t get into energy deficit, which could negatively impact your ability to maintain or even gain muscle mass.
Q: Loving my SUF strength training. Already seeing benefits, thanks guys! Question: I’d love to also add in some upper body strength (not specific to cycling). What would you recommend? Type of exercise, duration, timing vs. ToS plan? – Laura
Glad you’re enjoying the program and stoked to hear that you’re already seeing gains. For upper body, we recommend adding two exercises into each session that focus on building basic upper body strength: one that utilizes a pushing movement and one that involves a pulling movement. For the push exercises, try pushups, chest presses, dumbbell presses or shoulder presses. For pulling exercises, we like seated row, dumbbell rows, lat pulldowns, or pull-ups. Once you get further into the progression in the strength training program in The Sufferfest app we do incorporate more upper body exercises that don’t require any equipment.
Q: I hate working out, I only want to ride. Is there a way to mimic the bodyweight exercises you prescribe while actually on the bike?
The Sufferfest: We get it. Riding is a lot more fun than doing frog crunches or pistol squats. But if you really don’t want to do any work off the bike you’re not going to get the benefits of increased ligament, tendon, and bone strength that specific strength training will give you. Riding a bike involves a very limited range of motion, meaning you’re very likely to develop muscular and flexibility imbalances, in addition to weakening key stabilizer muscles in your legs and core. These issues can all be easily and effectively addressed off the bike in sessions as short as fifteen minutes (we happen to know an app that lays it all out for you). Many cyclists also enjoy the change of pace that a regular strength or gym session gives them, not only because of the new challenge, but because of how quickly they see improvements. When you start new moves/exercises off the bike, you won’t be great at them at first. But stick with it and pretty soon you’ll be crushing moves that you struggled with just a month ago. That progress can be super motivating, especially in the off-season when most of us are getting cabin fever.
But if you really, really don’t want to do anything off the bike, Standing Starts (starting from a near stop in nearly your biggest gear) is the closest you will get to off the bike strength work. The key here is maximal torque production for short periods of time (less than 20 seconds). While longer, bigger-gear efforts can help muscular endurance on the bike, the actual adaptations are more endurance focused rather than strength focused.
For answers to more strength training questions and information on The Sufferfest Strength Training for Cyclists program check out this link.
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