Recent research suggests that on-the-bike muscle strength building through max sprint cycling improves muscle strength as effectively as weight training.
Let’s face it. Cyclists can be a bit set in their ways. Stubborn, maybe, especially when nudged to sacrifice precious saddle time for the gym, despite what the so-called experts say about the benefits of strength training for performance and overall health.
More and more research has emerged endorsing the positive impact of strength and resistance training on cycling performance. The well-documented correlation between strength training and improved endurance justifies setting aside some gym time as a no-brainer.
Yet, the widely accepted and proven modality goes underutilized. If you’re of the “If I can’t do it on my bike, then I’m not doing it” crowd? Here is some research for you.
Sprint Cycling Improves Muscle Strength As Much as Resistance Training
A recent study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences challenges the convention that exercise type, resistance or aerobic training, dictates physiological outcomes. Previous studies support the belief that resistance training is most effective at improving strength, and aerobic training optimizes cardiovascular fitness.
However, according to the authors, they all overlooked an essential detail—the intensity and duration of the exercise are more significant than the type.
Their hypothesis explains that at a similar intensity and duration, exercise primarily used for aerobic training, like cycling, can increase muscle strength. Resistance training movements, such as the leg press, could be utilized to improve cardiorespiratory fitness. The scientists set out to compare the effects of equal durations of maximal intensity resistance and aerobic exercise on muscle strength and cardiorespiratory fitness.
The scientists divided the cohort of twenty-five men, each with at least 12 months of previous resistance training experience, into Cycle Ergometer (AT) and Leg Press (LP) groups. The AT subset participated in a five-week training program featuring four sets of 30-second max sprints. The researchers pushed the LP group to momentary failure during the program, highlighting four sets of 10-12 leg presses over the five-week protocol.
When the grueling and uncomfortable training block was through, the examiners put the remaining subjects to the test. The scientist chose a Knee Extension Ten Rep Max (10RM) for strength.
The researchers cleverly chose the knee extension to test the subjects to avoid the leaning effect—testing using the exercise that the subjects trained explicitly in the study. It prevented any learned benefit or physiological adaptation to the exercise movement or modality. In the case of cycling, it also may have had an unintended consequence.
The Knee Extension is an open-chain kinetic exercise, meaning the limb or body part moves freely through space as the quadriceps contracts to raise the lower leg. It’s in contrast to closed-chain kinetic activity, where the foot is stationary on a surface, prohibiting the free motion of the limb.
While there is some debate, the widely-held consensus is that cycling is an open-chain exercise because as you press the pedals, they move away. Although not stated by the researchers, the knee extension test may have a more significant practical carry-over for cyclists.
The study results suggest that five weeks of effort and duration-matched exercise, specifically max sprint training and leg press to failure, produce similar strength adaptations. The knee extension 10RM for the LP group improved by 22.9 percent and the AT group by 17.7 percent, and the examiners calculated the difference between groups to have no statistical significance.
The sample size was relatively small, and the long-term adaptations are undetermined. However, the study deserves consideration for comparing exercise types and matching effort and duration using a testing outcome independent of either intervention.
Is it an arrow in the quiver for the non-iron-pumping crowd? When it comes to building strength, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you go hard. Perhaps, and the following study will notch another.
Sprint Cycling Improves Muscle Strength and Prevents Age-Related Muscle Loss
According to a recent study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers looked into the benefits of maximal power cycling, also referred to as sprinting, on muscle mass, power, and cardiovascular function in adults over the age of 50.
The study aimed to determine the effectiveness of this type of exercise in improving overall health and fitness in older individuals.
The study observed 39 untrained healthy adults aged between 50 and 68 years. They underwent an eight-week training program consisting of a 15-minute training session three times per week. Each session included 15 to 30 max-effort 4-second sprints, with 30 seconds of rest in between, three times a week.
The researchers recorded the participants’ lean body mass, peak oxygen consumption, thigh muscle volume, and intermuscular fat volume before, during, and after the eight-week training program. The results showed that the sprint training protocol had significant positive effects.
- Thigh muscle volume increased by 3.7%.
- Total lean body mass increased by 1.5%.
- Maximum power increased by 12%.
- Peak oxygen consumption increased by 9.8%.
As we get older, our muscle mass and strength naturally decrease as a function of normal aging. The cause of this progressive decline is explained in part by a selective loss of type II fast-twitch muscle fibers.
The performance community widely believes that maximal power sprinting enhances type II fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment. By designing experiments studying the effect of sprint training on older individuals, the scientists prove the link between focused recruitment of type II fast-twitch muscle fibers and improvement in muscle mass and power.
The researchers of the previous study also suggest that comparative strength improvements resulted from a similar neuromuscular stimulus between cycling sprinting and explosive leg press to failure when effort and duration are the same.
Conclusion: Sprint Cycling Improves Muscle Strength Isn’t the End
Before you puff out your chests non-weight-lifting cyclists, please consider this. High-intensity sprint training may produce similar strength gains to hitting the weights in the gym, but it lacks a few key elements.
Bone mineral density (BMD) decreases as we age and is a significant risk factor for cyclists due to the lack of weight-bearing stress when riding. Resistance training provides a considerable stimulus for increased BMD and improved bone health.
Not to mention, to be the best all-around athlete and active individual we can be, it takes some variety. Cyclists are good at pedaling in circles, but once they step off the bike, the wheels come off.
When cycling, the leg muscles are the primary muscles used. While proper posture requires core strength, cycling alone doesn’t provide enough stimulus to strengthen those muscles. Additionally, untrained core muscles can quickly tire out while cycling, deteriorating form and power output.
What good is it if, after riding to the store to pick up a bag of groceries, you struggle to carry them up the stairs and lift them on a shelf?
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, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!