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.

Strength-training
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!

  • Tom Sharp

    It makes sense for people of all cycling abilities to do some form of strength training, not just for increased performance but general health and wellbeing. And by strength training, I don’t mean pumping iron to look like Arnie. Learning how to perform compound lifts properly, particularly a good squat (parallel or lower), deadlift, powerclean or even benchpress seems like a great idea. These lifts employ a huge number of muscle groups and as well as building strength, if done properly with accompanying mobility work will dramatically increase hip and thoracic spine mobility which is key for comfy and efficient riding. The key to everything is good form! You also get the additional benefits of increased bone density, injury prevention and increased recovery, and improved hormone responses which in the long run reduce the risk of diabetes and cancers. I began strength training after a ligament tear in a crash, and have now managed to regain full stability in my knee. The improved core and leg strength combined with increased mobility has completely smoothed my pedalling style, and vanquished constant niggling injuries. Don’t be afraid of the barbells people!

  • David chadderton

    Beware of injuring yourself with weight training, as I did. Step ups onto a 265 mm high box while carrying up to 40 kg in weight found out a weakness in my left gluteus and led to a muscle tear while bending to put the dog into the car on a later day. Put me off the bike for 3 weeks so was counter- productive for this 70 year-young rider. I know exactly what I am never going to do again! Cast iron is not this cyclists’ material any more; I resolve to keep on lifting aluminium and stainless steel up hills and sprinting on a big gear only thanks. Riding is the ONLY sensible and useful activity for me. I’ll leave heavy weights to the professional track sprinters. Do TdF racers lift weights? I reckon they are too weedy to have done any. Reg Harris wrote that he never lifted a weight. Pedal on for me thanks.

    • Swede

      @Dave. Lance Armstrong weight trained for 8-10 weeks in the off-season. Maybe not PC using Lance but he was an excellent cyclist.
      Weight training IMO is not necessary to improve as a cyclist, but used wisely it can be valuable as part of a structured and reasoned training programme. Weight training should never be done in preference to cycle training. Think of it like interval training/HIT, extremely potent but should be done with full knowledge of what is to be done and why you are doing it. Weight training is fo me ‘base training’, but for the interval training/HIT that will be done pre-season and at intervals throughout the season. There are also the benefits to injury prevention and increasing muscle glycogen storage.

      • David chadderton

        Thank you. Done that. I’m only lifting aluminium and stainless steel up hills and the velodrome banking into the future since my weights-induced muscle tear thanks.

  • Swede

    I feel that when a cyclist understands what physiological changes occur when weight training, then they can transfer these changes to help increase performance on the bike that may not be acheivable on the bike alone. An example would be that if correct weight training increased time to exhaustion at VO2 Max then a cyclist would theoretically be able to perform more VO2 Max intervals during a training session. Ergo more cardiovascular benefit. As said in this article weight training does not significantly improve the cardiovascular system, but in theory it does have the opportunity to help a rider train it beyond their normal capabilities.