The benefits of strength training for cyclists are many for performance and general health. By taking a more careful and calculated approach, your gains will be greater!
We know more and more about the positive impact of strength and resistance training on athletic performance. With this comes an emphasis upon determining the most effective methods to optimize functional gains. A basic strengthening program will make you a better cyclist, but it will only take you so far.
As this recent post suggests, cycling Sprint Training decreases normal age-related muscle loss in masters athletes. Focused strength training is the benchmark modality for improving strength and increasing muscle mass across all populations, however.
To optimize your potential requires careful monitoring, strategic planning, and critical thinking. Knowledge of how strength affects your cycling is as necessary as how and when you do it. The following study approaches the topic of strength training from a different angle. A direction you will want to be familiar with if your goal is to be the best cyclist you can be.
Study Number One
In a study recently published in the journal Biology of Sport, German researchers took a different approach in answering the question of strength training’s effect upon cycling performance. One of the few, if not the only study of its kind to measure the relationship between cycling performance indicators following a long-term strength and conditioning training program.
Thirty competitive cyclists of the amateur and sub-elite level were selected to participate in a year-long strength training program. The athletes performed heavy strength training one to two times a week.
In addition, the cyclists continued similar team monitored training 4 to 6 days per week. The cycling training program focused upon endurance capacity (steady-state medium intensity) to start, then progressed to lactate threshold and neuromuscular capacity (high-intensity max intervals).
30 Competitive Cyclists Engaged in Strength and Conditioning
The strengthening program targeted the critical cycling muscles and mimicked the pedaling motion. Coaches instructed athletes to approach each repetition with a rapid explosive effort up (the concentric contraction phase) and slow and controlled on the way down (the eccentric contraction phase).
You can learn more about these and more essential strength training terms in a previous ZOM post on the subject here.
Exercises performed included the barbell squat, leg press, seated leg curl, one-legged press, and several others, in addition to core stability movements. The cyclists performed between 3 and 5 sets, and the number of repetitions depended on the amount of weight. The training intensity load was periodized and planned according to season and performance goals.
Performance Improvements Across the Board
The observers measured functional and lactate threshold power (FTP and LTP), maximal strength (1RM), and body composition before and after the one-year strength and conditioning program. There were significant improvements across the board in all cycling performance indicators and strength performance assessments.
The study is somewhat unique in that it measured the effects of a long-term strengthening program on cycling performance. The positive improvements are not. The results are consistent with many previous studies that confirm the beneficial impacts of combining strength and conditioning in a training program.
That Is Only a Part of the Story
The researchers observed that in addition to getting stronger and more fit, the cyclists also gained weight (~.4kg). In fact, there was a period during the year-long training program when increased maximal strength was correlated with functional power as expressed as total (absolute) power. When calculated for power to weight (W/kg), however, the improvements were minimal.
Functional Training Windows Will Open Doors for Cyclists
The authors used this finding to develop what they described as Endurance Functional Adaptive Windows (EFAWs). The researchers divided the year-long training program into three different strength adaptive zones.
In the first phase, termed the functional gain zone, increasing maximal strength from low levels outweighed the increase in weight, and there were improvements in total power and power to weight. The authors attributed the positive effect to neuronal adaptations with less emphasis on muscular changes. Simply put, the muscle was learning how to contract more effectively and not necessarily getting larger simultaneously.
There is a shift to emphasizing body composition changes in the second phase, called the functional loss zone. The larger muscle produces more power but also increases body weight. Total power continues to improve, albeit at a decreased rate, but the power to weight progressively plateaus or worsens.
The third phase, described as the non-functional zone, begins when the total power increase no longer counteracts the increase in muscle mass, and the power to weight ratio declines. In effect, the gain in strength and body composition has produced a decline in cycling function for some cycling subsets.
The Cycling Specific Implications Are Profound
The implications of this determination are significant and valuable when planning a cyclist’s long-term strength and conditioning training plan. Performance weighs heavily on total power and less upon the power to weight ratio for a sprinter or time-trialist. Strength training through the initial two phases is justified for these athletes, and they realize the benefits.
If you are a climber or compete on courses where the power to weight ratio is a major factor, any decline in function is significant. In this case, engaging in a short-term strengthening program will produce a more positive outcome.
There is No One Size Fits All
The key takeaway is that it is essential to identify the interrelationship between performance variables and monitor an athlete’s changes. Each athlete has different and unique characteristics and personal goals, performance schedule, and individualized rate of performance enhancement.
To effectively harness the positive effect of strength training, the athlete and their professional performance team must carefully monitor the data. When an increase in raw strength, power, and body composition no longer produce the desired performance improvements, the training plan will require adjustment. Consistent feedback is necessary to periodize the training stimulus to match performance and goals.
Study Number Two
If you aren’t a competitive cyclist and your goal isn’t to squeeze out every drop from your minimal gains sponge, the following research may be for you. Chances are you don’t do weights because you don’t think it is necessary as a recreational rider.
You should, and I have outlined many of the reasons why in this previous ZOM post.
Or, perhaps, your goals include riding to maintain a healthy weight, and you believe that the only way to do that is through cardio exercise. The following study is about to blow your mind.
Strength Training Burns Body Fat As Much as Aerobic Exercise, like moderate Cycling, Does
In an unrelated study on the topic, researchers from Sydney analyzed over 11 thousand records to determine the effect of strength training on body fat percentage. It is a widely held belief that resistance training is the standard for increasing lean muscle mass. Anecdotally, however, many athletes will deny a similar effect on the loss of body fat.
The study published recently in the journal Sports Medicine showed that individuals who engaged in a resistance training program alone lost on average 1.4% of their total body fat. The finding is similar to results found in studies of athletes who performed cardiovascular exercise during the same period and length of time.
The belief that you must consciously diet or go for a long ride to trim body fat is not necessarily the case. The link between strength training and fat loss was unclear before this study of over 3,000 participants who had little previous weight training experience.
Of course, the best way to approach your fitness and wellness goals is to stick to a complete fitness and nutrition routine. You don’t have to avoid strength training or only perform aerobic exercise to lose fat, however.
Muscle Weighs More Than Fat
You may have picked up on the potential contradiction between the two studies. I told you that strength training becomes less effective in specific scenarios due to increased body mass. If strength training decreases body fat, then how can that be?
The answer is the exact reason why most recreational athletes or those focused upon their weight avoid weight training. If you use a scale as the sole judge of your fitness status, you will be disappointed when you start a strength training program. Chances are you will gain weight, where if you had cycled for the same amount of time, your weight would be lower.
When you strength train, you will gain heavier muscle and lose less dense body fat, and your weight will go up. Whereas, when we only perform aerobic exercise, we gain less muscle and lose body fat, and the scale shows it.
You may weigh less, but you will not be as strong. Or as fit!
By adding strength training to your program you WILL become a better cyclist. If you approach your strength program with the attention for data detail that you do your cycling training plan, the benefits will be great.
Will this new research change the way you approach your strength training plan throughout the year? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
For more great strength and conditioning research, exercise programs, and other helpful topics check out the Strength & Conditioning page on The ZOM!
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, http://www.TheDIRTDadFund.com. 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.