Jan 29, 2015Powerful Pedal
Incorporating weight training into a cyclist’s regimen could mean the difference between hanging in or getting dropped from the pack.
By Ken Doyle
Ken Doyle, ATC, CSCS, CPT, is an exercise physiologist and U.S. Cycling Federation coach. He coaches athletes at all levels and has competed in mountain and road bike races, as well as triathlons, for more than 20 years. He is co-author of Weight Training For Cyclists: A Total Body Program for Power & Endurance, and can be reached at: [email protected].
More and more cyclists are figuring out that simply piling on the training miles isn’t going to make them reach their potential as a competitive racer. Just like a runner who only runs, cycling alone cannot completely develop all of the muscle groups necessary for optimum performance–but strength training can.
Research shows that resistance training off the bike improves power and endurance on it, allowing riders to initiate sprints and answer attacks better than before. In a weightroom, riders can train their muscles to be more explosive during the off-season, and that carries over to their performance when they begin preseason drills on the bike.
In recent years, there has also been a wellspring of data on the specific benefits of adding weight training to endurance athletes’ training programs. One of the ways weight training improves endurance is by increasing the time needed to reach total exhaustion. A stronger muscle uses a smaller amount of its total strength at a sub-maximal level, thus increasing the muscle’s ability to work at the maximal level when needed.
In addition, athletes who perform strength training as part of their exercise program have the potential to increase their muscles’ lactate threshold and anaerobic power, thus improving exercise efficiency. In a nutshell, weight training improves the strength of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which allows them to shoulder most of the work while sparing quick-fatiguing fast-twitch fibers. Fast-twitch fibers produce the most lactate during exercise, which often limits a cyclist’s ability to continue riding hard. If riders can lower blood lactate levels, they will perform better for longer.
Weight training has a few other added benefits for cyclists as well. It can balance out uneven strength ratios in the legs, giving riders a more efficient pedal stroke. It helps prevent overuse injuries, and in the event that a rider is involved in a crash, a stronger athlete will recover faster.
TOTAL BODY WORKOUT
Maximizing the results of strength training for any sport starts with nailing down exactly which muscle groups need to be trained. Fortunately, exercise scientists have used video cameras and computers to analyze the complex joint movements involved in cycling to help us figure this out.
The main focus should be on the lower body muscle groups that generate the force applied to the pedals, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals. Riders should also target the trunk. Cyclists need to have strong lower backs and abdominals, which allow them to stay in a more aerodynamic position for longer. Combined, the lower body and trunk are often labeled the “power zone,” and the majority of exercises performed in a strength program should focus on developing the muscular endurance, strength, and power of this area.
As important as strong lower body muscles are, the upper body is responsible for controlling the bicycle when sprinting or climbing. Without strength from the waistline up, a rider would be out of control on the bike, losing power every time he or she turned the pedals. Upper body weight training completes a well-rounded strength program, leaving cyclists with no weak muscle groups.
When strengthening any portion of the body, it’s important to keep the regimen sport-specific. Exercise choices should be consistent with the mechanics of pedaling, and performed in a range of motion similar to that of a pedal stroke. Additionally, emphasis should be placed on the concentric (muscle shortening) phase of the contraction, rather than the eccentric (muscle lengthening) phase to be consistent with the mechanics of cycling. The “slow lower” theory of weight training does not apply well to cyclists. Here’s a closer look at which muscles should be targeted in the lower body, trunk, and upper body:
Lower body: A pedal stroke involves a complex interaction of all of the lower body muscle groups. During the downward portion of the stroke, the hip and knee are both extending, while the ankle is in slight dorsiflexion. On the upstroke, the hip and knee are both flexing, and the toes may point slightly downward.
The major muscles in the lower body responsible for these motions include the gluteus maximus, biceps femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus, rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, gastrocnemius, and the anterior tibalis. These are the muscles that control motion about the hips, knees, and ankles. Multi-joint exercises of the lower body, such as squats, leg presses, step-ups, and lunges all mimic movements used during the pedalstroke action. Extending the leg in an arc away from the body against resistance is not a motion ever performed in cycling, so leg extensions should not be included in a cyclist’s weight training program.
The quadriceps (rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius) tend to the get the most attention in various cycling weight training programs. Though the quads are very important in cycling, a great amount of cycling power comes from the hips, and assistance from the hamstrings and calf muscles is also paramount. It is very important to give equal attention to all of the muscle groups from the hips down.
Trunk: The trunk, or core, is working during the entire cycling motion. The relationship that the abdominals, cervical spine, thoracic spine, lumbar spine, pelvic girdle, hip joints, and all of the muscles that attach to those specific areas have with each other determines how efficiently a rider performs. When the core is strong and aligned properly, the body can manage the physical forces presented without undue stress to any one portion of the anatomy. When the core is weak and misaligned, the body must make adjustments in order to compensate, wasting a tremendous amount of energy and creating muscle imbalances.
A 2007 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at the relationship of core stability and pedaling mechanics. Researchers found that a core-fatiguing workout altered the mechanics of the lower body during cycling, increasing the risk of overuse injury from misalignment. The results of the research suggest that improvements in core strength could promote greater torso stability while in the saddle.
Each of the abdominal muscles–the rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques, and transverse abdominus–provides proper stabilization of the spine and pelvis, helping limit the loss of power generated from the lower body. In addition, strong abdominals reduce the risk of developing lower back injuries and help improve breathing.
Finally, the spinal erectors of the lower back work very hard to support the trunk and upper body by contracting eccentrically throughout the activity. In the aerodynamic position, these same erectors must work even harder to bring stabilization to the cycling position.
There are many great core strengthening exercises that cover all of these areas. Some examples I use regularly with cyclists are various planks, mountain climbers, bird dogs, various crunches, and stability ball work.
Upper body: The upper body is used in several different ways in cycling. When a rider needs to get out of the saddle to power up a climb, sprint, or steer during a technical descent, he or she will need to have good upper body strength. Every muscle, from the pectoralis to the small forearm muscles, is utilized in these situations.
In addition to controlling the bike, the upper body also acts as a shock absorber. The type of muscle contraction in the triceps that absorbs bumps is eccentric, and this action is easily simulated with isotonic weight training exercises, which will allow the rider more comfortable and safer riding. Examples of specific upper body exercises include pushups, pull-ups, rows, external rotations, and triceps extensions.
It’s important to note here that when the topic of strengthening the upper body comes up among cyclists, there are always some who hesitate for fear of adding weight to the top half of their bodies. They worry that this increased muscle mass will hinder their climbing ability, so they ignore the potential benefits of a balanced physique. These riders need to learn that it is possible to increase upper body strength without adding unwanted pounds. A properly designed program will increase strength without bulk.
The following periodization program is a general plan for a cyclist’s year-round weight training program, based on a competitive racing season that runs from May through September. (West coast racers who begin racing as early as February will need to adjust this schedule accordingly.)
In the off-season (transition, hypertrophy, and strength phases), cyclists should work on building a good base of strength before focusing on power and muscular endurance during the preseason. This work gets the rider ready by targeting cycling-specific energy systems. During the competitive season, the goal is to maintain strength, so weight training is kept to a minimum as the rider concentrates on racing. Here’s the breakdown:
Transition: From September through October, the emphasis is on recovering from the racing season and adjusting to weight training. This is a good time to do some off-the-bike activities and cross training. I suggest only two weight workouts per week during this phase, so there is lots of downtime to do other activities.
Hypertrophy: November through December is the time to start building muscle. Although the term hypertrophy refers to an enlargement in muscle fibers, this is not a bodybuilding program. This phase centers on improving body composition by increasing lean body mass and decreasing fat, while addressing weaknesses. This is an important time to be dedicated to the program, and I suggest progressing to three, then four workouts per week.
Strength: In January and February, cyclists should begin to develop cycling-specific strength by utilizing multi-joint exercises. These should prepare them for the explosive exercises in the next phase. Intensity and resistance levels should be low. During this phase, workouts continue to occur three to four days per week.
Paying close attention to rest intervals between workouts is important at this phase because training volume is very high. Many riders will be increasing their on-the-bike mileage during this time, so it’s paramount not to combine hard riding days with hard lifting days.
Power: The power phase is the point at which training will become specific to the needs of explosive activity. I consider this four-week phase in March to be the key to success.
The rider should be feeling very strong at this point, and ready to do some explosive training. The number of workouts per week in this phase decreases to three, and the number of exercises per session should also decrease–less reps and higher loads. This allows for an increased number of bike workouts, while emphasizing quality over quantity in weight training.
Riders should not skip this phase, as it is very important to develop the ability to exert force against resistance at the speeds characteristic of cycling. To develop more power in the body, cyclists must perform explosive exercises. This type of training stimulates adaptations in the body that will respond with strength more quickly when you need it.
Power cleans and plyometrics are exercises that approach the development of power in different ways. The power clean increases power output of the muscles by directly simulating a sudden acceleration against resistance, while plyometric exercises pre-stretch the muscles prior to contraction to bring about a physiological response that increases the speed at which the muscles can apply maximum force.
The plyometric exercises I recommend for cyclists are bounding, single-leg hops, stadium hops, single-leg push-offs, and squat depth jumps. Riders should always perform an aerobic warmup for at least 10 minutes and stretch before beginning these exercises.
Muscular endurance: Throughout April, weights should be low and the reps high so that the overall intensity of the workouts is light. Again, it’s important not to skip this final phase, however tempting it might be, because it bridges strength training into the competitive season and helps prepare the body for the final phase.
Maintenance: During the racing season, it is important to maintain as much strength as possible, and this can be a challenge. I suggest scheduling two weight training sessions early in the week to allow for enough tapering before competition. Prior to major races, tapering for a week or more is a good idea. If the racing season is an especially long one, it is very important to put in the effort needed to maintain the overall strength gains made in the off-season.
A lot of riders have limited time to train, so it can be tricky to schedule weightroom work along with riding time. Circuit weight training may be a solution to this problem because with minimal rest between sets, this style of lifting does not take much time. Circuits can also be set up to focus on an individual rider’s particular area(s) of concern, and are a great total-body maintenance workout during the racing season.
THE RIGHT SCHEDULE
Should a cyclist lift before or after a ride? This is the question cycling coaches are asked most often by riders. Personal preference can play a large role in this decision, but there is some science out there to help provide guidance.
Researchers at the University of Victoria in British Columbia recently investigated whether aerobic training completed prior to strength training affected athletes’ strength training performance. Researchers compared three groups of riders–one that completed a high-intensity aerobic workout before lifting, one that completed a sub-maximal aerobic workout before lifting, and one that did no aerobic work before lifting–at varying rest intervals.
Both groups that performed aerobic workouts prior to their lifting workouts were affected greatly by the recovery time between sessions. The participants who rested for four or eight hours between workouts were able to lift significantly fewer repetitions when compared to the control group that did no aerobic work. However, no difference was seen between the three groups when there was 24 hours of recovery time between workouts.
This research suggests that if maximal strength gains are the goal, 24 hours between aerobic and strength training sessions is best. During the off-season and early preseason, this is easier to do since training rides are at a low intensity and don’t have a strong drain on the muscles. However, during the strength and power phases of weight training prior to racing, bike workouts become more intense. This is when scheduling separation between bike and weight workouts is very challenging, but doing so will pay off as the competitive season progresses.
Weight training alone will not make someone a better cyclist. But in combination with a periodized on-the-bike training program, it can provide a solid strength base that helps bring the cyclist closer to his or her full potential. The ability to push bigger gears for longer periods of time is what separates elite-level cyclists from the rest of the pack, and weight training is the key to fueling that ability.
Sidebar: STRETCHING BENEFITS
Cyclists tend to lose flexibility in their leg muscles because the activity of pedaling a bike does not require full range of motion of the hips or knees. Former Motorola team physician Massimo Testa, MD, cites a study that has shown how cyclists can increase their power by five percent merely by stretching their hamstrings–the added flexibility leads to better utilization of the quadriceps. If hamstrings are tight, they will work against the quads during the downstroke, preventing the leg from straightening efficiently. A joint that can easily move through its full range of motion will allow for greater application of force throughout that range of motion.
Current research shows that maximum flexibility gains are achieved when muscles are highly active metabolically and that stretching after activity is the best time to gain flexibility benefits. Additionally, stretching after aerobic training and between sets when doing strength workouts has been shown to improve muscle recovery. Static, dynamic, active, and self-myofascial release (SMFR) stretching techniques are all effective methods for increasing flexibility for the cyclist.
SMFR stretching is the process of using a foam roller, tennis ball, or other firm object to reduce chronic tension and relieve adhesions in the muscles. SMFR can be performed before a strength workout to prepare the muscles to work in their proper lengths, or right after a workout to help the muscles relax and aid with recovery.
Just as with the weight training exercises, stretching for cyclists can emphasize, but must not be limited to, the lower body. Stretches must center on undoing the potential muscle shortening that may occur due to the cycling position. The hip flexors and hamstrings are very important, but stretching the quads and calves must also be a consideration. The cycling position can lead to tight lumbar and posterior cervical muscles as well.
A general full-body flexibility program should be followed. This may sound like a tremendous undertaking in an already heavy workout schedule, but an effective total body flexibility program can be performed in about 15 minutes.