Research strongly suggests, and fitness professionals agree that strengthening is essential to maximizing your endurance!
When cyclists are faced with the choice, spend an extra hour riding their bike, or two thirty minute strength sessions per week in the gym, the decision is usually a simple one. Most endurance athletes, and cyclists in particular, don’t prioritize traditional strength training as an essential component of their training.
By considering research into the topic, however, it may convince you that the addition of strengthening to your training is not only important, but it is also essential!
Through many research studies examining the question, strength training has proven to produce a wide range of beneficial physiological improvements in cyclists. The results are impressive enough to make even the most fervent strength training skeptic agree.
Strength training may be one of the top training adjuncts to consider when trying to improve your performance.
Despite the evidence and the well-documented positive correlation between strength training and improved endurance in cyclists, it is puzzling why this proven modality is underutilized. Further knowledge of the subject will change that and make you a better cyclist in the process.
A 2017 Norwegian study published in the Journal of Sports Science entitled
Ten weeks of heavy strength training improves
performance-related measurements in elite cyclists
investigated the effect of strength training on cycling performance in
In the study, 20 elite national and international level cyclists were divided into two groups. For ten weeks, 12 athletes performed a traditional strength program and their endurance training, and the others completed only endurance training.
The strength training group performed two weekly sessions of 4 lower body exercises. The group performed three sets of each activity and progressed the number of repetitions to a protocol to increase maximum strength output.
Following the ten-week training period, they determined that the strength and endurance group achieved better maximum power and a tendency towards improved threshold power. The 12 elite cyclists also demonstrated more significant improvements in a 40 minute time trial than the endurance-only group.
In elite cyclists, where minimal gains are difficult to achieve due to the exceptionally high-performance level attained consistently, the results of this study are hard to ignore.
The potential for more significant improvements in amateur and less highly trained athletes is even harder to deny.
In a 2015 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports entitled
Strength training improves performance and pedaling characteristics in elite cyclists
the authors investigated the effect of 25 weeks of heavy strength training in young elite cyclists.
Nine cyclists performed endurance and heavy strength training, while the other seven cyclists performed endurance training only. The findings agreed with the previous study on elite cyclists, where the strength and endurance training resulted in more considerable improvements in cycling performance and related factors.
The researchers found that maximum power, threshold power, and mean power over a 40 minute time trial were significantly better in the strength and endurance group, approximately 3% for maximum and threshold power and 6.5% in the time trial.
A 2016 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport entitled
Strength training improves cycling performance, fractional utilization of VO2max, and cycling economy in female cyclists
investigated the effect of adding heavy strength training to well-trained female cyclists’ regular endurance training on cycling performance.
This study provided further confirmation that strength training improved cycling performance and economy. Eleven female cyclists performed 11 weeks of regular endurance training combined with heavy strength training, and eight others completed standard endurance training only.
Threshold power increased 7.6%, and mean power in a 40 minute time trial was improved by 6.5% in the strength and endurance group.
In addition, the researchers demonstrated a strengthening related endurance improvement in fractional utilization of VO2 Max (defined as the relationship between FTP and your sustainable power at VO2 Max).
The researchers suggested that the positive effect of strength training on endurance performance may be due to a combination of muscle hypertrophy (an increase in muscle mass) and conversion of fibers within the muscle from fast-twitch to more fatigue resistance types.
A 2021 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance entitled
Cyclists’ improvement of pedaling efficacy and performance after heavy strength training tested eighteen well-trained cyclists.
Ten of the athletes performed 12 weeks of heavy strength training and their regular endurance training, and eight merely continued their standard endurance training. The researchers found that the strength group increased their mean power by 27 watts over the 12 weeks, while the endurance group suffered a decline by -5 watts.
A commonly held belief among cyclists and fitness coaches, and where most of the studies in this area are focused, is that strength training only improves the ability to produce high power values over short periods.
It is undeniable that the most pivotal selections of cycling competitions often occur after long periods in the saddle when the participants are excessively drained.
This study is unique and significant in that the authors addressed this question by giving the riders a 5-minute all-out test following 3 hours of submaximal cycling.
A 2010 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology entitled
Effect of heavy strength training on thigh muscle cross-sectional area, performance determinants, and performance in well-trained cyclists
studied twenty well-trained male and female cyclists for 12 weeks.
Eleven cyclists formed the endurance training combined with heavy strength training (four lower body exercises performed twice a week) group, and the others conducted endurance training only. Not only did the strength and endurance group improve in all performance determinants, but the athletes also displayed an increase in thigh muscle cross-sectional area.
The benefits of increased muscle cross-sectional area include:
Strength Training Improves W/Kg
Of particular significance to cyclists, where the power to weight (W/Kg) ratio is crucial to performing at a high level, the added strength training increased thigh muscle cross-sectional area without causing an increase in body mass.
In short, the study suggests that the fear of increasing body weight by engaging in a strength training program is not justified.
Further Research Which Supports the Benefits of Strength Training for Cyclists
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research entitled
Maximal strength training improves cycling economy in competitive cyclists
“Maximal strength training for eight weeks improved cycling economy and efficiency and increased time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic power among competitive road cyclists … Based on the results from the present study, we advise cyclists to include maximal strength training in their training programs.”
A 2010 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology entitled
Effect of isokinetic cycling versus weight training on maximal power output and endurance performance in cycling
“We showed that the studied combination of weight training and endurance training increased maximal power output in the full range of cadences between 40 and 120 rpm. Furthermore, both combined resistance-endurance training groups improved the mean power output in the 30-min endurance performance test.”
A 2005 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research entitled
Combining explosive and high-resistance training improves performance in competitive cyclists
The addition of explosive and high-resistance interval training to the programs of already well-trained cyclists produces significant gains in sprint and endurance performance, partly through improvements in exercise efficiency and anaerobic threshold.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research entitled
Acute prior heavy strength exercise bouts improve the 20-km cycling time trial performance
“Results were a 6.1% reduction in the time to complete the 20 km time trial, a greater cycling economy, and power output in the first 10% of the time trial … These results suggest that 5RM strength exercise bouts improve the performance in a subsequent 20 km time trial.”
Conclusion: Fitness Performance Professionals Recommend Strength Training for Cyclists
The recent research strongly suggests that strength training has a performance benefit in a myriad of different areas. In addition, strength training decreases injury, improves core stability, improves balance and coordination, and confidence.
Numerous authoritative and influential cycling professionals recommend resistance training for cyclists and other endurance athletes for these reasons and more.
Suchomel et al. summed it up well in their 2016 paper published in the Journal Sports Medicine:
“… sports scientists and practitioners could conclude that there may be no substitute for greater muscular strength as it underpins a vast number of attributes that are related to improving an individual’s performance across a wide range of both general and sport-specific skills while simultaneously reducing their risk of injury when performing these skills.”
Strength training is essential for virtual cycling performance improvement. But don’t take my word for it!
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!