Strength training has long gotten a bad rap among cyclists. Many think it's either unnecessary or counterproductive. "I can build all the strength I need from cycling alone," some say. Or, "won't adding muscle mass slow me down?"
Science says otherwise. An August 2014 article in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports discusses several perks: Strength training boosts endurance, its authors write, by facilitating "economy of movement, delaying fatigue, improving anaerobic capacity and enhancing maximal speed."
Why? "You're not going to fatigue as quickly because you have more muscle fibers to kick in," says David Ertl, an elite coach with the Peaks Coaching Group. "And of course, there are periods when you have bursts of power, like a sprint or a tack up a hill, where you need a lot of strength."
But the key to unlocking the benefits of strength training is training correctly. Cyclists should focus on heavy lifts, or "high weights, low reps" in Ertl's words.
The ideal frequency of training depends on the season. During the winter, when cyclists aren't competing, Ertl recommends a couple of sessions per week. In warmer racing months, you can get by with a weekly maintenance session.
Whenever you're training, you should prioritize the muscles most crucial to pedaling: the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings and hip flexors. (The calves are also important, but cycling strengthens them enough.)
Core strength is also critical. "Pushing on the pedals tends to push your body backward," says Ertl. "So, to stabilize, you pull on your handlebars. All of that force from your legs up through to your arms gets transmitted through your core." Essentially, your core stabilizes you, especially when cycling uphill.
Ertl recommends these strength-training exercises that target the muscles involved in cycling and largely replicate pedaling movements.
The squat suits cyclists for a couple of reasons. For starters, it engages the glutes and quads, which do the most pedaling work. And as Ertl points out, "coming out of the squat position mimics the downward pedal stroke."
- Stand in front of a squat rack with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly out.
- Position the bar across the top of your upper back, gripping it with your hands just outside your shoulders.
- Keeping your back straight, bend your knees until your legs form a 90-degree angle. Make sure your knees stay in line with your toes.
- Pushing your heels into the floor, stand back up.
A variation on the squat, this exercise involves sitting on a box or bench. The supporting element keeps your lowered thighs parallel to the floor. "That's basically the position that your thighs are in when you're coming in over the top of the pedal stroke," says Ertl.
- Select a box or bench of appropriate height. (Your butt should touch it when your thighs are parallel to the floor.)
- With the box behind you, follow squat steps one through three.
- When your glutes touch the box, sit down lightly.
- Without bouncing, push your heels into the floor and stand back up.
Cyclists with back problems may substitute leg presses for squats.
- Seated on a leg press machine, place your feet shoulder-width apart on the platform in front of you.
- Unlatch the safeties at your sides as you extend your legs.
- Retract your legs until they form a 90-degree angle.
- Pushing through your heels, extend your legs without locking your knees.
- Relatch the safeties.
The lunge is another exercise that works your quads.
- Stand holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides.
- Step forward with one leg into a kneeling position, keeping your back vertical.
- Bring your rear knee close to the floor, but don't let your front knee move beyond your toes.
- Pushing down through your front heel, stand up to bring your back leg along your front leg.
- Repeat with the opposite leg.
This exercise mimics the pedaling motion, as Joe Friel, former chairman of the USA Triathlon National Coaching Commission, notes in The Cyclist Training Bible. "You're trying to replicate the position your legs have on the bike when one pedal is at 6 o'clock and the other is at 12 o'clock," he writes.
- Select a sturdy box or bench of appropriate height. (When you step on it, your leg should form a 90-degree angle.)
- Hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides.
- Step onto the box with one leg.
- Pressing through your elevated heel, lift your other leg onto the box, keeping your gaze forward.
- Step down with the first leg and then the second, returning to the starting position.
- After completing all repetitions with the first leg, do the exercise again with the leg order reversed.
You can also do step-ups with a barbell across the back of your shoulders.
Leg curls engage your hamstrings and mimic the bottom of a pedal stroke. When your pedaling foot approaches the 6 o'clock position, you should pull it back as if wiping mud from your shoe, Ertl says.
- Sit on a leg curl machine with your back on the pad behind you.
- Position the padded lever above your heels and below your calves.
- Position the lap pad against your thighs, just above your knees.
- Pull back with your lower legs as far as possible.
- Pause, then slowly return to the starting position.
Note: Some leg curl machines are designed so that you lie prone instead of sitting.
Ertl recommends planks over sit-ups and crunches because the up-and-down motion of the latter two isn't present in cycling. He says that riders only need "to stabilize in a static position, and that's what planks do."
- Hold body parallel to the floor, face down, supporting yourself with your forearms and toes, elbows under shoulders.
- Maintain position for 10 to 60 seconds.
Though often referred to as a single unit, the abs are actually four different muscle groups. Front planks develop the rectus abdominis (the deepest abdominal muscle) and the transverse abdominis (where the coveted six-pack emerges). Side planks target the internal and external obliques, or the side abdominal muscles.
- Lie on one side, with your upper leg directly on top of your lower leg. Support yourself with your lower forearm on the ground, positioned perpendicular to your body.
- Raise your hips until your body forms a diagonal line.
- Place your upper hand on your upper hip. (For increased intensity, extend your hand and arm so that they point toward the ceiling.)
- Hold for 10 to 60 seconds.
- Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.