Effectively Implementing Strength Training for Cycling During Race Season and Off-Season

AI strength training for cycling

Every individual athlete is going to have unique needs and this pertains not only to training on the bike but to training off the bike as well. Strength training for cycling is extremely common these days within a well coached training program, but on a limited training schedule it can be hard to know how to implement the best training for your individual goals. My goal for this training article is to help eliminate some confusion and point athletes in the right direction to get the most out of a strength training for cycling program. There are a lot of little nuances to strength training that go beyond reps and sets, such as how many days of the week you should lift, different phases of strength training, how strength training might differ in the off season to the pre season and into race season.


Goals of Strength Training for Cycling


Goals for strength training can vary widely from one athlete to another. Common goals for strength training include: build power on the bike and improve your sprint or anaerobic capacity, maintain/build muscle mass, increase bone density, improve joint and tendon strength, prevent injury, and increase mobility. However, building sprint power is going to lead you to a much different program than increasing mobility, so it is important to know what you are training for. 


Phases of Strength Training


When planning out strength training for cycling, I will usually put athletes through 3 or 4 different lifting phases depending on what their goals are with gym work. 


Anatomical Adaptation


The first phase I call the Anatomical Adaptation (AA) phase. During this phase, athletes are encouraged to work in high rep ranges with fairly low intensity, 3x15 is pretty standard. The intention of this phase is to allow the body to adapt to the demands of lifting, such as to be able to move into the next phase with confidence in technique and injury prevention. This phase’s length is dependent on the athlete and their strength training history. Someone new might spend 4 weeks in this phase, whereas an athlete with a lifting background might only find themselves here for 2 weeks.  



The next phase of strength training for cycling is the Hypertrophy Phase. The goal of this phase is to increase muscle mass through time under tension. Hypertrophy is most effective in moderate rep ranges where total lifting volume is emphasized. Intensity can vary quite a bit as well, with common intensities in the 50%1RM-70%1RM range. For those that don’t know their 1 rep max or don’t know how to decipher what that means for them, I use a simple 1-10 rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale to determine intensity. An example lift could be: 3x10 low bar back squat at an RPE of 6/10. The length of this phase again will be athlete dependent, but I would recommend a minimum of 4 weeks and ideally 8+ weeks to elicit change and adaptation.



When it comes to strength, muscle mass is necessary but not sufficient. The Hypertrophy Phase is all about building muscle, which does come with some improvement in strength, however the Strength Phase has the sole intention of increasing strength, specifically rate of force development. This is typically the phase where you will see the most improvement in sprint power on the bike, as this phase trains the neuromuscular system to contract the muscle harder. Rep ranges are quite low and intensity is all the way up. An example lift here could be: 3x5 single leg press at an RPE of 9/10. 4-8 weeks are typically recommended for a Strength Phase depending on what the athletes’ goals are. 



The final phase of strength training for cycling is the Power Phase and for a lot of athletes, this phase actually never comes, typically because it does not align with their goals. If the Power Phase doesn’t align with your goals, at this point you might repeat a Hypertrophy and Strength phase or simply move into strength maintenance and lower the focus in the gym. If however, you are looking to improve your sprint on the bike, working through a Power Phase may be impactful for you. The Power Phase typically works in similar rep ranges as the Strength Phase but the focus is not just on force production but on power as well. Power is a function of force and speed, so the Power Phase incorporates a speed component into the programming. Weight is decreased from the Strength Phase and the speed of the lift itself is greatly emphasized. Technique is also an important focus, as the risk of injury increases with this increase in power. An example lift here could be: 3x3 Hang Clean. This phase is typically a bit shorter, 3-4 weeks long. 

Yearlong Strength Training for Cycling 


With the phases of programming strength training uncovered, it’s time to take a step back and look at how strength training for cycling might fit into a comprehensive training plan. Just like how cycling training doesn’t look the same year round, neither should your weight training. With strength training there is a time to build, a time to maintain and even a time to regress. 


Macro Approach


Let’s start by looking through a macroscopic lens, the whole calendar year. Having a regimented training plan is all about keeping your priorities in order. Cycling is your primary sport and strength training is a secondary sport, so treat it as such. You don’t want your strength training hindering your cycling training and vice versa. It makes the most sense to prioritize strength training coming off a rest break in the off season. After just getting on the bike when volume and intensity are quite low is a great time to start the Anatomical Adaptation Phase and start to cycle through the strength training phases. Work about 20 weeks backwards from your first race block. If you are starting to race in March, start strength training in October. If you’re somewhere in the Southwest where they start in January, then August would be a proper starting month. 


Micro Approach


Let’s break things down a bit more granularly, a timeline as long as a week. How many days a week should you do strength training? Well, 2 days is much better than 1 day, however, 3 days a week is marginally better than 2 days. So I suppose the answer is…it depends. 2 days a week is a great place to start and you’ll make a lot of gains there. If lifting is a big focus for you, you might find 2 days isn’t sufficient stimulus and 3 days are required, but I find cyclists usually don’t have the allocation of energy to get there. 1 day per week is great for maintenance. When programming a week, I prefer to give strength training its own day on the calendar, typically followed by a rest day or at least an easy endurance day. As the season approaches, double days may become necessary to get sufficient riding volume in but continue to build in the gym. I would recommend having at least 5 hours in between a riding and strength training session due to the interference effect (more about that can be found here: interference effect). During race season or even when training intensity is high, think about decreasing weight training to 1 day a week for maintenance or totally foregoing it altogether based on your training goals. 


Coming Full Circle


I understand that this is a lot of information to process and a lot of the answers that come with strength training for cycling are oftentimes “it depends” but hopefully there were some takeaways that you are able to apply to your own training program. Be smart about it, create specific goals and utilize the gym to help meet those goals. Cyclists are often Type A personalities, no offense, and want to take everything to the maximum…don’t do this with gym work, as a little bit goes a long way. Think about what makes the most sense from a fatigue management standpoint as well, because it might not make the most sense to program a strength training session the same day as your VO2 intervals. Strength training should have periodization just like cycling training does, a season for everything. 


If you want to discuss what performance gains you should expect from strength training for cycling hit me up here. 


Taylor Warren has raced at the elite level since 2014 and graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Exercise Physiology from Colorado State University in 2015. Taylor continues to race at the elite level with CS Velo Racing, gaining experience and wisdom to help impart to the athletes he works with. Taylor is also a student of the game, with a passion for human performance and physiology, he is able to combine his race experience with an understanding of how the human body responds to training to deliver the best possible coaching experience. Taylor believes in a practical, holistic approach to coaching and training that values the athlete’s lifestyle and understands how to make the process approachable and enjoyable.

Learn more about Taylor and Source Endurance here.