Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Strength Training for Cyclists

By Bill McLaughlin, PCG Elite Coach

Strength training has become a hot topic of discussion among trainers, coaches, scientists, and athletes themselves. But there have always been three core questions: Is strength training an aerobic exercise? In this context, is it cycling-compatible? If so, is it compatible during the same training period? To many, it doesn’t seem logical that a strength-training program (mainly an anaerobic activity) can improve cycling (mainly aerobic). Science says otherwise.

The primary energy system during cycling at a comfortable pace is the aerobic system. But when you start to push the pace or come to the end of a long ride or race, the anaerobic system is called into play. If you’ve worked your anaerobic system through strength training, you’ll be able to ride longer, harder, and faster before fatigue starts to set in.

These days it seems that there are as many strength training plans as there are people on the planet. Finding the right one for you and your particular type of riding is just as important as bike fit. I’d like to discuss here strength training for the transition phase, which prepares your body for heavier weights later on while giving you time to rest and recover.

Here at the end of the season is the time we rest and recover from the hard work of racing, training, and cycling in general. This phase is important, as it helps prevent both mental and physical burnout. However, this is by no means the time of year to put up the bike, sit on the couch, eat, and watch TV. It’s the time to look over the past season, see where you did well (met your goals), look over your limiters, and start setting goals for the upcoming season. Training isn’t done; we just need to shift our training. Yes, we should take about two weeks off the bike (perhaps shorter or longer, depending on your past training/racing load), but I advise my athletes to do some cross training with any type of aerobic exercise they enjoy (roller blading, hiking, swimming, etc.) to help maintain aerobic conditioning. During this period I also meet with them to review next season’s goals and lay out a rough ATP that may or may not include strength training.

At this time of year my focus toward strength training is to prep my athletes for the harder weight training ahead. This transition phase can last anywhere from two to four weeks, and the main purpose is to get started correctly with proper form and to ease into strength training without too much muscle soreness.

Most of the time I start this phase off with body weight exercises for the first week rather than going right into the weight room. Again, this gets you conditioned and makes sure that you have proper form. Typical body weight exercises are push-ups, pull-ups, crunches, leg raises, lunges, etc. But if an athlete finds that the upper body exercises are tough to do with body weight, we move into a weight room and find comparable exercises, such as bench presses for pushups and lat pull-downs for pull-ups.

After the initial week of body weight exercises, there are two different ways to proceed. The first is circuit training, where you do a set amount of exercises with a minimum of rest between (1 set of exercise A, then exercise B, then exercise C, and so on till all exercises are complete for the first set), then resting and starting another cycle. This type of training is not designed to focus on any particular body part but helps to keep the blood flowing and constantly changing. It creates a good cardio-respiratory benefit, but due to the limited rest and the varied exercises, the strength gains are minimal, and I really only recommend this during this transitional phase.

The other type of strength training that can be done during the transitional phase and also carry into the other phases of strength training is as follows: perform a set of a given exercise, rest one or two minutes, then follow with set number two, and so on for the prescribed amount of sets. There are generally no more than three sets in the transition phase, and light weights and higher repetitions (between 12 and 20) are utilized. You should combine both upper and lower body exercises. In this type of strength training, it’s best to get up and move around between sets so you’re recovered and able to put your best into the next set. This is different from circuit training, as circuit training is designed to have inadequate rest, focusing more on cardio than pure strength.

Transition Workout

The following workout is a typical transition weight workout to do following a week or so of body weight exercises. The body weight exercises are to help minimize soreness and prepare your body to handle weights. I have also included a link to ACE’s website that shows in detail the proper form to execute the exercises safely and correctly to achieve the maximum benefit from strength training. It’s short and to the point (a whole-body workout), and it’s really to be done for 3-6 weeks before moving on to the hypertrophy phase in your off-season weight training program.

I’ve also included an alternate circuit-training workout for those looking to maintain cardio fitness at the same time. Even if you elect to do the circuit workout, it is still greatly advised to move into the hypertrophy phase after 3-6 weeks. We still want to increase muscular strength, and that can’t be achieved to the fullest extent with circuit training alone due to the fact that the weights used just aren’t heavy enough. It’s really just a good general fitness routine, not a strengthening routine.

Ready? Here we go…

Warm Up: 15 minutes cardio and stretching.

Main Sets: 12-15 reps. Resistance 40-60% of 1 rep max. 1-2 sets. Follow this link to a 1 rep max calculator. (I don’t want you doing do 1 rep max tests, as these can be very dangerous and are not necessary for what we are trying to achieve as cyclists, but this will effectively put you in the ballpark). Then do the following 2-3 times per week:
  • Squats or leg press
  • Leg curls
  • Calf raises
  • Back extensions
  • Abdominal circuit (planks, side planks, leg raises)
  • Prone cobras
  • Bench press
  • One arm row
  • Shoulder press
  • Bicep curls
  • Dumbbell triceps extensions
This is a good link to review the exercises and see how they’re performed in the proper fashion.

Cool Down & Stretch

Circuit Workout

Alternatively, you could use a circuit workout in the transition phase. As I mentioned, circuit training is a good alternative to traditional weight training. In the transition phase, it can both prepare the body for heavy weights in the hypertrophy phase and help maintain aerobic conditioning.

If performed correctly, the following workout will take you to your maximum heart rate and push you close to your limit physically. The main objective of circuit training is to minimize rest between exercises. Do each exercise for 1 minute max or in a tabata fashion (see below for explanation). This is designed to be completed in 20 minutes, but if at the end you feel it wasn’t challenging enough, do it a second time. Choose light weights for max reps; you should just be able to finish the minute. Warm up first on a cardio machine at a nice steady pace for 5-10 minutes to help warm the muscles.

  • Bench press or pushups: 1 minute max
  • Squats: 1 minute max
  • Pull-ups or pull-down: 1 minute max
  • Spin bike, treadmill, or any type cardio exercise: 3 minutes
  • Military press/shoulder press: 1 minute max
  • Lunges: 1 minute max
  • Bicep curls: 1 minute max
  • Spin bike, treadmill, or any type cardio exercise: 3 minutes
  • Tricep extensions: 1 minute max
  • Step ups: 1 minute max
  • Leg curls: 1 minute max
  • Seated rows: 1 minute max
  • Plank: 1 minute
  • Spin bike, treadmill, or any type cardio exercise: 3 minutes
  • Stretch/cool down

You can change or modify the type of exercise depending on the equipment available to you, but try to hit all the muscle groups so you get a full-body workout. It may take you a few circuits to get the weight just right. Adjust the weights as you progress.  When you’re just able to finish the minute and not a second more, you know you’re at the correct weight.

The Tabata way: this workout is really quite simple. It’s four minutes per exercise and broken down in the following fashion: 20 seconds doing the exercise and 10 seconds resting continuously for the whole four minutes. You then proceed to the next exercise and repeat. You still do the 3 minute blocks of cardio mixed in, but not in Tabata; just at a good solid aerobic effort, then continue to the next Tabata exercise.

These workouts are designed to start you off on a good, solid, winter strength training program. Good luck in your off season training, as a good foundation in the off season can lead to an awesome race season next year!

Bill is a Peaks Coaching Group elite coach, a USAC Level 2 certified coach, and a certified personal fitness trainer. He can be contacted directly through or