To lift or not to strength train, that’s NOT the question.
It’s that time of the year for serious road cyclists. Your season ended, everyone is planning their off season break or just ramping back into winter training and cross training. As you sit down and make the big plan for the winter, pondering the age old question “how do I get faster for next year,” you and your coach should be thinking about your gym program. Part of that equation to balance training stress scores, chronic training load, and rest should be a strength training program.
Strength training increases bone density.
There’s a multitude of reasons to do a gym program. Cyclists have notoriously low bone density. Gym and plyo have been proven to help maintain bone density. Especially in women where Osteoporosis is more prevalent, a gym program can prevent the disease.
Bone health is great but we all know that as a serious cyclist you are really only thinking about speed and efficiency. You’ve skipped a strength training program because you don’t want to “bulk up” and you don’t see yourself as a sprinter so what’s the point right? The data says that type of thinking is wrong. A well planned gym program can increase your speed, power, and efficiency, even at threshold without adding any weight.
Strength training increases endurance capacity.
In the study “Effects of strength training on endurance capacity in top level endurance athletes” highly trained athletes with an average V02 max of 70ml/kg/min with a strength and endurance training together saw improvement in 30 minute and 5 minute time trials. Other results of this study show that time to exhaustion at 100% of V02 max increased by 12-40% in these participants.
These findings are easy to see increases in performance in cyclists that have strength training in their programs but the proposed mechanisms for the increase in power is really what makes me a believer applying strength training to my athletes programs.
This study states “the likely candidates for the observed improvement in long term endurance capacity comprise an increased proportion of type IIA muscle fibers” type IIA muscle fibers are fatigue resistant yet capable of producing high contractile forces. Going over fiber types, type I fibers are fatigue resistant but not capable of producing as high contractile forces as type II muscles, muscles used to sprint. Type II fibers are broken down into two categories, type IIA and type IIB. Type IIA are capable of high contractile forces yet are more fatigue resistant than type IIB. Lifting weights and riding create more Type IIA fibers which are key to winning races.
Other adaptations that lead to more power on the bike by combining strength and endurance training are improved neural function, maximal muscle strength (MVC) Rate of Force Development (RFD) and increase V02 economy observed as a lower V02 at a certain power. Here’s a small chart from the study to clear these up a bit.
Another aspect of lifting results noted in the study is a distinct LACK of hypertrophy. These athletes that did more gym with endurance riding saw more strength and type IIA fibers but that did not change their weight or size of their muscles.
Strength training should start out easy so your body can adapt.
The practical application of this write up is to create a gym program that’s right for you. Start out easy with an adaptation phase. If you are new to gym workouts I would recommend a session with a personal trainer to lean to lift with the correct form and stay safe.
Everyone is different and will have different workouts based on their imbalances and strengths. I generally start out athletes less experienced in the gym with plyo work and move into weights though the winter. Other athletes fall in love with the weight room and I have to follow their lifting closely to prevent them accumulating too much fatigue on top of their riding schedule.
Another coach with Source Endurance, Mitch Sides, just started the conversation on specific lifting programs with the SE team last week. He had the idea of a “bare minimum to start” sort of program. Some athletes love to lift, some don’t, and Mitch’s idea was to apply three simple lifts as a “minimum” to see some of these gains the study has outlined. His idea is great to get started, once a week, 3 sets, squats, deadlifts, bench press. Very simple, very quick, very practical.
You can start anywhere with gym, plyometrics with no free weights, going into a short plan and increasing the weights as you go. Depending on the clients access to a gym I usually apply a more in depth, periodized, full body, weight plan to most athletes to get the highest gain possible as described by the study above. With the periodization you should start light and work into more lifts and heavier weights as you are more comfortable, talk to your coach and make sure you have a system for tracking all the fatigue that comes with lifting.
Zack Allison’s affinity for cycling started when he was 14 racing on the East Coast and his enjoyment of the sport lead him to pursue his BSEd in Exercise Science from Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, Colorado. He currently races for Elevate Pro Cycling, a UCI continental men’s road team, and owns the Source Endurance Training Center of the Rockies. Growing up in the sport with many great mentors, he loves to pay it forward, using a combination of education and race experience. You can often find him zooming around on Fort Collin’s many gravel roads or on its countless mountain bike trails. Learn more about Zack.