Working specifically on strength will certainly give you a buff body for this summer’s beach holiday, but will it make you a better cyclist? Tom Goom and David Bradford sift through the claims and counter-claims
You’ll often hear it said that cycling alone is not sufficient training. Self-appointed experts preach that you need to back up your riding with a comprehensive programme of strength and conditioning workouts.
“Strength training is absolutely critical!” they rave. But are they right, or do they need to calm down?
First up, a reality check: you can get extremely fit solely by riding your bike, i.e. without bothering with any other form of exercise. Some top riders have achieved success at a high level doing just that. On the other hand, many pro riders do bother with strength training, which strongly suggests it might be worthwhile.
Most of us normal riders do not make our living by riding bikes; we have jobs and other responsibilities, and cycling has to be squeezed in as and when we have spare time. Trying to crowbar an additional form of training into your schedule may not be easy or even feasible — given that you don’t want to sacrifice riding time. After all, if a strength training session replaces a ride during a period in which your priority is building aerobic fitness, it’s unlikely to result in a net gain.
“Strength training improves efficiency but tends not to significantly improve cardiovascular fitness”
Complicating matters further, not everyone benefits equally from strength work. If you have a particular weakness that can be directly and effectively targeted, then you might yield significant gains; but if you are young, ‘naturally’ well-conditioned, powerful and efficient, with no serious weak spots, working on strength may be like nailing wooden struts onto a concrete bunker. OK, you may still benefit marginally, but it’s a question of putting priorities in order.
Hence, you need to ask yourself: can I fit in a strength session on top of my current training? If the answer is yes, then it’s worth giving the idea some serious thought, ideally working out a personalised plan in collaboration with a specialist physio or trainer.
Who benefits most?
Let’s begin with who benefits least. If you’re a recreational cyclist who does low to moderate weekly mileage, strength training is an optional extra but certainly not a must. Conversely, for competitive cyclists and those looking for ways to improve performance and reduce injury risk, it is a very valuable form of cross-training.
Research evidence also suggests that older cyclists are likely to benefit more than those in their physical prime. Furthermore, strength training is becoming more and more important in the treatment and rehabilitation of muscle and tendon injuries such as tendinopathy, often in favour of stretching and flexibility exercises. It has been shown to help re-strengthen damaged tissues while decreasing the likelihood of a recurrence of the injury.
What does the research say?
It’s hard to make firm conclusions based on the few good studies that have been conducted on strength training for cyclists. All studies to date have involved small numbers of participants, varied populations, different interventions and a big variety in outcome measures. There is a general trend towards an improvement in cycling efficiency and strength following resistance training, but it’s fair to say results are mixed.
This improvement in efficiency is similar to results seen in running where strength training has been found to improve running economy. Sunde et al. (2010) examined the effect of eight weeks of strength training on competitive cyclists. They reported increased rate of force development, increased work efficiency, increased cycling economy and increased time to exhaustion. They found no change in VO2 max, which again mirrors results of similar studies in running, i.e. strength training improves efficiency but doesn’t tend to significantly improve cardiovascular fitness.
While improvements have been found across ages, the groups that appear most likely to benefit are middle-aged and masters athletes. One study in particular showed some very promising results. Louis et al. (2011) studied the effect of three weeks of strength training on cycling efficiency on two groups — young athletes and masters-age athletes.
Both groups improved torque production and cycling efficiency but the older athletes improved significantly more. Younger athletes were found to be more efficient than masters-age athletes prior to training but this difference disappeared after three weeks of strength work.
The study states: “In masters, the strength training induced an enhancement in maximal and endurance torque production and cycling efficiency, thus reducing age-related differences in performance recorded before training… These results suggest that strength training added to endurance training might be a complementary strategy to preserve functional capacity and performance with ageing.”
In studies of non-cyclists, strength training has been found to have a host of benefits. It has been shown to be effective in treating a variety of sports-related injuries, to improve performance and reduce injury risk. In a recent systematic review and meta-analysis including over 26,000 participants, strength training was found to reduce overuse injuries by nearly 50 per cent (Lauersen et al. 2013).
Which muscle groups should I strengthen?
The cycling action consists of three phases: downstroke, upstroke and pushing to reach top dead centre of the crank cycle. The downstroke is powerful and propulsive. Upstroke is a recovery phase with more pulling action; pushing occurs towards the end to bring the foot forward to the centre to start the next downstroke. Several muscles are key to completing these three phases: quadriceps, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, calf muscles and anterior shin muscles (tibialis anterior).
What about the core
and upper body?
Muscles in the trunk, shoulders, arms and hands are important to stabilise the bike and provide a firm base from which leg muscles can produce power (So et al. 2005). Most research in cyclists has focused on strengthening the quads. Some have done this using just one exercise, such as the half-squat or resisted knee extension.
With multiple muscles contributing to the cycling action, it’s likely to be more effective with a more comprehensive programme that incorporates all major muscles involved. The main focus should be on lower limb, but strengthening the arms and trunk is likely to be of benefit as well. For optimal results, aim to train two to three days per week using moderate to heavy weights.
Verdict: Strength training has multiple benefits and can improve certain aspects of performance and reduce injury risk. That said, it isn’t a priority for everyone and you can get by without it. If you have the time and inclination, give it a go!