Why Lift? Strength Training For Cycling

Let’s cut straight to the point. Weightlifting, especially heavy lifting, does NOT have a measurable effect on aerobic fitness in trained athletes.  It simply doesn’t improve the body’s Maximum ventalary ability (VO2max) or the body’s ability to deal with Lactic acid (Aerobic threshold). SO WHY LIFT?!

As cyclists, we pedal circles. Crank turns, the chain transfers force to the rear wheel, and the bike goes forward. Simple, right? If you have ever done a quick google search about “cyclist training” you probably know that performing well when in the saddle is MOSTLY an aerobic activity. So what gives? Why would I want to do a non-aerobic activity when I could spend that time building my aerobic base, cross training with running, or something else? Ok, I’ll admit this got me for a long time too. I have been racing and training to be the fastest I can possibly be for 8 years and I have not spent an off season really committed to the time in the gym until this year.

“BUT I’M A ROAD CYCLIST, ISN’T POWER TO WEIGHT, IMPORTANT?!”

There is a lot of confusion about the difference between strength training, and muscle building lifting. Although both can be accomplished in the gym, the content of your training will look pretty different There is a lot of confusion about the difference between strength training and muscle building lifting. Although both can be accomplished in the gym, the content of your training will look pretty different between the two. BodyBuilders accomplish muscle growth by maximizing hypertrophy, or what the gym bros refer to as “the pump”. Body Builders look for a sweet spot of 10-15 repetitions with maximal muscle contraction - think 1 second up, 1 second paused at a given lift’s peak, and 1 full second down.  This body building style of lifting causes a lot of muscle damage, resulting in faster increase in muscle size. When you body build, you teach your body how to get bigger, not stronger. Basically, it’s great for hitting the beach, but offers less significant increases in strength and isn’t what cyclists need to focus on.

Enter #stronglifts.

Lifting heavier weight for fewer reps (1-5 repetitions), builds STRENGTH and POWER without adding extra muscle mass that in most cases is not ideal for a cyclist. How many watts you can make per KG of body weight is a common way of assessing how you will stack up against your competition in a race. Improving Strength to weight ratio would logically have an affect on your power output. So, by extension, by building our body’s ability to output maximal power efforts via major weightlifting movements (deadlift, squat, and some form of a push press), we build our body’s ability to push out maximal power at a moment’s notice.

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WHAT DOES THE SCIENCE SAY?

Check out this study for all the details, but to summarize, there was strong evidence showing improvement in 1RM, in previously TRAINED athletes, without any additional aerobic training outside of the lifting protocol, improved cycling economy, and time to exhaustion at a pretest level WITHOUT improving Vo2 max or wattage at lactate threshold. The authors suggest that:

“Human muscle fatigue is according to Gandevia (5) not only dependent on peripheral factors at the muscle level but also dependent on the central nervous systems’ ability to adequately drive the motor neurons. So, if fewer motor units need to be recruited at the same time at a given intensity, a longer time to onset of muscle fatigue and thus a longer time to exhaustion at that specific intensity may be expected”

Translation? Weightlifting builds power - your body’s ability to absolutely DRIVE and EXPLODE at a moment’s notice. Sound familiar to sprints? It is! I would advocate EVERY cyclist, from the 60 kg climber to the brawny track sprinter who can routinely put out 2000 watts, should be lifting in the off-season and year round.  When applied correctly, 2-3 trips the the gym per week through the winter base season, will have a pretty significant benefit to your ability to pedal harder, for both short sprints, AND 3 hour rides, with little to no weight gain. Still sound too good to be true? Read on, and I’ll give you my top 5 reasons every cyclist concerned with performance, should strength train.

TOP 5 REASONS TO LIFT FOR CYCLISTS

IMPROVE CYCLING ECONOMY/TIME TO EXHAUSTION

This is the big one. Cycling economy and Time to Exhaustion are the two primary reasons lifting helps make cyclists faster without actually improving FTP or VO2 max. The Neuromuscular strain you can dose by lifting at your MAX WEIGHT can only happen in the weight room. In just 8 weeks of training, cycling economy improved an average of 5%. Essentially your body gets 5% more efficient at using the motor units(muscles) it already has because your nervous system will be able to send a strong signal for longer without fatiguing. 

IMPROVE PMAX

Pmax, or the maximum force you can generate for a full revolution of the crank, is directly related to putting power through the pedals. By strengthening your kinetic chain through maximum strength lifts, you will be able to create more force, and deliver it more efficiently to the pedals= MORE SPEED! When you see that 1 lap to go in the crit, or the 1km banner in a road race if you aren’t by yourself, you are going to need to know how to kick HARD, or you will never find that top step!

PREVENT INJURY/TRAINING LONGEVITY

Cyclists spend hours in bent over to the bars and let’s be frank, it’s not the most ergonomic of positions! We might be able to pedal for hours and hours but there are all sorts of stabilizer muscles and tendons that need attention off the bike so we can maintain good form and avoid an overuse injury. Mastering the squat and the deadlift will force you to improve your flexibility, body awareness, and improve the strength of your posterior chain (Glutes, hammies, and erector muscles). Less injuries means more time training and more time you have to keep improving over the long haul.

HORMONE BENEFIT

Think Testosterone. By performing multi joint movements like squat and deadlift, the body’s natural reaction muscle damage and nervous system stimulation is to produce a hormone response. More T, and natural growth hormone means faster recovery, an better quality of training year round!

INCREASE CORE STRENGTH 

Simply put, lifting heavy things is hard! You can really challenge your body’s core and spinal erector muscles when lifting weights that you just can’t do on a bike.  Better core strength, means you will be able to hold that low aero position longer, SNAP harder in a sprint, and your body will fatigue slower in all out efforts too. 

A stronger core your body will continue to work optimally when you start to fatigue. Remember the last time you tried to go on a long endurance ride and in the 3rd hour you start getting a little squirmy in the saddle. You find yourself standing more, rocking more, feeling the need to stretch out a bit? That’s because even if your legs aren’t yet fatigued, all of the other supporting muscles of your torso can’t keep up with your lower body, and you should probably be addressing this issue off the bike.

“OK! I’M CONVINCED….WHERE DO I START WITH LIFTING?!”

FORM FIRST FORM FIRST FORM FIRST!

It is highly recommended you work with a lifting coach, or personal trainer if you have never lifted weights. Youtube has a lot of information out there as well. The point of lifting heavy weights is to get stronger, not get injured. If you spend 6-8 sessions doing focusing on the quality of your posture when performing the deadlift and squat you should be ready to go.  

For my athletes, if it is their first time lifting or haven’t lifted in a long time, I stick to about a month of adaptation workouts, to help them get used to working in the gym again and from there, these are two resources I really like:

https://startingstrength.com/get-started/programs

https://saynotobroscience.com/gzclp-infographic/

Both of these Schema are great getting used to handling heavier weights will allow you to safely learn the movements and add weight gradually. 

In Summary, Lifting works, and everyone who wants to really turn their body into an athletic watt crushing machine should include it in their training diet.  8 weeks of basic and consistent gym work will be a great addition to your winter training plan. Want to talk more? Fill out the form below and let’s have a conversation about getting faster!

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