Thursday, August 25, 2016

Kettlebell Max™: Dynamic Strength Training for Cyclists

By PCG Elite Coach Charles Gary Hoffman

In 2006, I hired my first cycling coach, a former collegiate and professional champion, who lived in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. In my first prescribed training cycle, I noticed strength training was on my schedule every Monday. I didn't belong to a gym, didn't have any weights at home, and the idea of strength training for cyclists seemed ridiculous to me. I had been road cycling and racing for over 25 years; how could a road cyclist improve his or her performance by lifting weights? It didn't seem to make sense.

Around that same time, I attended a cycling webinar conducted by a well-known and respected cyclist, researcher, and scientist. It was of his opinion that strength was irrelevant for endurance cyclists(!). That didn't make any sense either.

I listened to my coach, joined a gym, and began to follow a consistent pattern of strength training, once a week during the racing season, more in the off-season. Later that same year, I won my state Masters Championship 60-mile road race, handily winning the field Sprint.

After I became a power based cycling coach in 2007 with Hunter Allen, and later an NASM certified personal trainer, I became fascinated with the concept of strength training for cyclists and in particular for aging cyclists, which I define as anyone over age 35 to 40.

NASM defines strength as “the body's ability to provide internal tension and exert force against external resistance.” In the NASM OPT model, there are various forms and phases of strength development: 1) stabilization strength, 2) strength endurance, 3) maximal strength, 4) speed strength, and 5) power (i.e. explosive power). Muscular strength adaptation requires training using different exercise parameters to adapt progressively and ultimately to the specificity of the event or sport. In the physics of power, Power = force X speed, therefore force (the ability to apply tension to the pedals at speed) is an integral component of power. Our Kettlebell Max™ training system is designed to develop strength dynamically targeting the NASM phase 5, so that the cyclist will increase strength, but more importantly, explosive power on the bike.

Here are some discoveries that I made in my own personal training and working with my coached athletes over the last 5 years:

  1. Sarcopenia is the degenerative loss of muscle (mass, quality, and strength) associated with aging. Many studies cite muscle loss beginning over age 30 at a rate of 0.5% to 3.0% and at a substantially accelerating rate over age 50. This is true not only for sedentary adults but athletes as well. If you don't believe this, check out the podium shots of Masters cycling athletes at age 50, 60 and above. 
  2. Traditional strength training can offset muscle loss and in fact lead to muscle gain regardless of age. Strength training (and specific strength training on the bike) combined with nutritional timing post exercise and especially daily protein targets (of between 80% – 90% PRO grams/lbs. body weight), can help feed, nourish, and grow the muscles of cycling athletes. 
  3. There is a progression of strength training exercises which are more dynamic, and include more muscle groups and require more stabilization (which in turn burns more calories): a. Strength training machines, generally speaking, isolate only one muscle group. b. Free weights are much better and recruit more muscle groups than machines. c. While barbells are most often used in the 3 primary strength exercises ─ squats, deadlifts, and bench press ─ dumbbells require even more stabilization. d. Kettlebells require the most stabilization of any strength training exercises using weights.Because the primary weight of the bell is in the bell, outside of where the hand grips the bell handle, when swinging or moving a bell the weight and its relationship to the body is constantly and rapidly changing. This change requires maximum muscle recruitment (and maximum calorie burn ) across the entire body, but particularly the core, legs, and posterior chain, in order to stabilize during each exercise movement. 
  4. Strength training in a dynamic and explosive fashion can help to develop explosive strength on the bike while recruiting fast twitch type II muscle fibers, which in turn improves the ability to generate explosive power. This is especially true utilizing Kettlebells. In our Kettlebell Max™ training system, we use over 200 movements executed explosively, rotating through primary body parts in a HIIT or high-intensity interval training format. In addition to developing explosive strength, the system due to its format, naturally recruits testosterone and human growth hormone, and burns a maximum amount of calories in a minimal time frame (similar to HIIT hill intervals done on a bike). 
  5. In addition to leg strength, Kettlebell training will lead to dynamic strengthening of the core, upper back, and arms, and improve body composition, i.e. reduce the dangerous belly fat that is difficult for many amateur cyclists to remove. 

Since I introduced KB training in 2012, all of my coached athletes have seen significant improvements in: core strength, upper body strength, sprinting speed, acceleration, improving muscular strength, and body composition.

One athlete, Adam C., was preparing well for his 35+ national Masters Track competition, but was temporarily set back by a serious inflammation of asthma. For 30 days he wasn't able to train normally. Since he was training for about a year using our Kettlebell Max™ training system, I advised that he continue with that dynamic strength training, yet take longer breaks between his 4 minute sets. That, in addition to easy rides on his bike doing high-speed bursts of up to 150 RPMs, was all that he was able to do for 30 days prior to his championship events. He went on to win 3 national championships (!) in the sprint/speed events, which were his first national championship wins ever.

In July of 2015, one day after winning my Virginia state Masters criterium championship, I slid out on some loose gravel driving my moped, badly breaking my tibia and fibula in my right leg. Before my surgery, I told my doctor about my athletic goals and that I wanted to recover completely as soon as possible. He encouraged me to get back on my bike (trainer) as soon as possible and that in fact I could continue with my Kettlebell training if seated and on one leg (!). After surgery, which required a 12-inch titanium rod to be hammered into my tibia and a metal plate to my ankle bone, at 4 weeks of recovery my right leg wasn't strong enough to even pull my body weight up one stair step. However, after 6 weeks of rehab and physical therapy, and almost daily Kettlebell exercises (combined with fine tuning my diet), even though the muscle mass was greatly reduced in my right leg, my overall body fat composition was lowered to 7%; this was a figure I hadn’t seen since high school! Going forward, I became even more diligent about my strength training doing Kettlebells 3 – 4 times per week as a supplement to training on the bike. In May of 2016, 10 months after my surgery, I was able to win the field Sprint for 3rd in my 65+ USA Masters national 60-mile road race in North Carolina, taking 1 second out of the field from 200 meters.

In addition to performance on the bike, most amateurs have as a priority their overall fitness and losing weight (body composition). It's healthy to have muscle and to look and feel good. As a rule of thumb, most track cyclists spend almost as much time in the gym as on the bike. One argument that cyclists have is that if you have muscle in your upper body (or too much muscle in your legs), that's extra weight that you have to carry uphill and it slows you down. But if you could have more muscle and reduce fat (i.e. improve your body composition) while reaching a lower weight, how is it that that wouldn't be better? As cyclists we strive to have a greater power to weight ratio.

We need upper body strength to sprint, accelerate, and climb out of the saddle, and significant core strength to impact our ability to apply force onto the pedals. In addition to all that, why not look good, get rid of your paunch, improve your sprint, improve your ability to accelerate, generally get faster on the bike, and possibly even gain a six-pack in return?

At Peaks Coaching Group, we plan on launching the Kettlebell Max™ dynamic training system for cyclists in the fall of 2016. If you're interested, please comment below.

Charles Gary Hoffman,

CFNS™ USA Cycling and PCG Elite Cycling Coach

[1] Kettlebells: Twice the Results in Half the Time, American Council on Exercise, ACE Fitness Matters, Jan/Fed 2010. In the results of this study, researchers found an average 20 calorie per minute burn, equivalent only to “cross country skiing uphill at a fast pace”.