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Peaks Coaching: Strength Training for Cyclists: The Hypertrophy Phase

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By Bill McLaughlin, PCG Elite Coach


Here, at the end of the season, is the time we rest and recover from the hard work of racing, training, and cycling in general. This phase is important, as it helps prevent both mental and physical burnout. However, as I wrote previously, this is by no means the time of year to put up the bike, sit on the coach, eat junk food, and watch TV. It’s the time to look over the past season, see where you did well (met your goals), look over your limiters, and start setting goals for the upcoming season. Training isn’t done; It’s just going to be different.

Yes, we should take about two weeks off the bike (perhaps shorter or longer, depending on your past training/racing load), but I advise my athletes to do some cross training with any type of aerobic exercise they enjoy (roller blading, hiking, swimming, etc.) to help maintain aerobic conditioning. During this period I also meet with them to review next season’s goals and lay out a rough ATP that may or may not include strength training.

After three to six weeks of transitional weight training, the next step is the hypertrophy, or foundation, phase. Depending on your race season, this phase typically falls in November and December. In the transition phase we prepped the body for the heavy loads, and now we’re going to actually start to build lean muscle. Let’s get started…

The term “hypertrophy” means to enlarge muscle fibers. Don’t worry, though; we aren’t building bodybuilder-type muscles. We must stimulate muscle growth in order to gain strength. In the hypertrophy phase we’re out to improve body composition by increasing lean body mass while reducing body fat. Each muscle or muscle group is made up of bundles of muscle fibers. Researchers traditionally believed that the number of fibers we’re born with doesn’t change, regardless of any exposure to resistance training, but this idea has been contested by many proponents of muscle hyperplasia, who in turn suggest that training may cause the formation of a greater number of fibers.

According to the principle of hypertrophy, muscles become larger following a strength routine, in part because each fiber (usually fast-twitch fibers) become larger and thicker. One or more of the following adaptations cause the increase in fiber size:

  • An increase in the number of contractile proteins (actin and myosin)
  • An increase in the number and size of myofibrils per muscle fiber
  • An increase in the amount of connective tissue
  • Increased enzymes and stored nutrients

This is the time of the year we should focus on the weak areas that cycling alone doesn’t address. Even though these weak areas often aren’t directly beneficial to cycling, they help in a number of ways. A strong upper torso is helpful in cyclocross, mountain biking, and even road racing sprinting and climbing. It is also important for reasons we don’t like to think about; crashes with a little more muscle in the upper body may be saved the misery of broken bones.

You need to have a dedicated plan to include strength with your cycling. I am not one to have an athlete slave for hours in a gym; I believe what a cyclist is trying to achieve can be done in an hour, at most an hour and a half. The best way is to gear your exercise selection toward multi-joint, free-weight exercises. However, you still need to get enough time in, as this phase will progress from three to four times weekly.

Athletic hypertrophy is much different than bodybuilding hypertrophy, in which the body symmetry is more important than optimum athletic performance. As cyclists, our goal is to increase power, speed, and endurance, so we must train a muscle’s movement and only in its isolation. Both methods of training (athletic hypertrophy and bodybuilding hypertrophy) increase the number of cross-bridges and proteins in the muscles, but our ultimate goal as cyclists is to stimulate the fast-twitch muscle fiber and the central nervous system using heavier loads with more rest intervals between sets.

Generally this phase should last anywhere from four to eight weeks in duration before moving on to the pure strength phase. The intensity is moderate, around 70-80% of 1RM (rep maximum), with 8-12 reps and from 3-5 sets per exercise, focusing more sets on the lower body and 1-2 sets for the upper body. We don’t put as much emphasis on the upper body because we want to simply maintain muscle there while strengthening the muscles that really count in cycling. Rest for 3-5 minutes between sets to fully recover before completing the next set. I don’t have generic workouts to share for this phase because there is such a variety of them out there, and athletes need to choose workouts based specifically on their own abilities and needs.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, please feel free to send me an email, and I will respond appropriately. All the best to you in your training!

About Bill: I have always led an active life, although my activities changed as I grew older. As a teenager I played sports, especially football and track and field. In my early twenties I was involved in weight lifting and the martial arts and won several trophies in my weight class. I thoroughly enjoy being athletic, as well as the thrill of competition. For me, the ultimate combination of both factors has been met in bicycle racing. I became involved in the sport well over fifteen years ago and have been completely hooked ever since. Cycling is a team sport, but in actuality you race as an individual. That, as well as the constant focus to improve and gain strength, speed, and fitness, is what keeps me riding. I have now reached the point in my cycling career where I want to share my knowledge and pass on my love of the sport by coaching other riders who are looking to improve. I have been a member of the Somerset Wheelmen since 2004, and I’ve won several awards individually and with my team. I also found a love and passion to help others with training and racing. I have been an elite cycling coach with Peaks Coaching Group since 2008 and have been personally trained how to coach with power by Hunter Allen. From his training I have earned the USA Cycling certification as a power-based training coach, and at this time I am presently the only USA Cycling power-based training certified coach in the state of New Jersey. I can be reached at bill@peakscoachinggroup.com.

Peaks Coaching Group has custom coaching for cyclist and triathletes, with forty of the most experienced coaches in the business to fit your needs in road, mountain, track, cyclocross, and triathlons. All of our coaches have been trained by Hunter Allen’s proprietary, data-driven training methods, complete with power, heart rate, and perceived exertion. Our coaching and training programs are individually designed by coaches using specific information we gather from you. We do not use cookie cutter programs! Please feel free to contact Peaks Coaching Group for further info.

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10 years ago

Sit on the coach, eh?

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