skip navigation

Weight Training for Cyclists

Weight Training for Cyclists

by Karen Brems

As the racing season draws to a close, it is time to start planning your off season training. A good off season program is critical for building your fitness up over a period of years. It will lay the foundation for next season’s performance. This doesn’t mean you need to hammer all winter. The off season is also a time to add variety to your training and take a mental break from the more structured, high intensity riding you do during the season. Many cyclists including most (but not all) elite level racers include weight training in their off season program. When weight training for cycling, it is important to remember that you are a cyclist, not a weight lifter. Your goal in the gym should be to use weight training so you can ride faster, not just so you can lift more weight. Weight training alone will not make you a better cyclist. Lifting can increase the size and number of muscle fibers you have, however except for maybe match sprinting, cycling is basically an endurance event and your performance depends on supplying energy to those muscles over a long period of time. Most average cyclists can ride at 30 mph for 5-10 sec. without too much difficulty, especially if they have someone to motorpace them up to that speed (acceleration takes a tremendous amount of power). Your muscles have the strength to push the pedals to go that speed.  However, very few people can go 30 mph for an hour, or even for 5-10 min. To do that, you need a constant supply of oxygen and fuel to those muscle fibers and that takes a highly developed cardiovascular system.

There are as many different philosophies of weight training as there are different coaches. The following is based on my personal experience as well as the majority of advice I’ve gotten over the years. You can use it as a starting point, but everyone has to figure out for themselves what works best for them. Improper weight training is a very good way to injure yourself. Always lift with proper technique. If you don't know proper technique, ask the staff at your gym. That’s what they are there for. Always build up gradually in weight. You can use your first set as sort of a warm up set. Never start the session with a weight you haven’t lifted before. You should always do a warm-up of at least 5-10 min. of light cardiovascular activity (enough to break a sweat) before starting your lifting session. This can be riding the stationary bikes, the Nordic Track machine, a rowing machine or whatever you like. You can also ride your bike to the gym. Same goes for after your weight workout: always do a cool down of 5-10 min. followed by 5-10 min. of good stretching.  When doing any leg exercises,  never bend your knees more than 90 degrees. This can put extra strain on your ligaments and tendons. You don’t bend your knees more than 90 degrees during the power phase of your pedal stroke so that is the range of motion you are trying to strengthen. When lifting very heavy weights, it is a good idea to have a spotter. When doing squats, you should use a weight belt to save your back.

Weight training programs are generally divided into phases. The length of each phase depends on the total amount of time you want to devote to weight training. High intensity riding and heavy weight training are not compatible. Your performance on the bike will probably decrease while you are lifting. You have to be able to accept that and realize that your real gains will come when you back off on the weights. Many weight programs are based on the amount of weight you can lift once or your “1 rep max.” (1 RM).  Each phase is characterized by a specific number of sets and reps with a percentage of your 1 RM. Determining your 1 RM can be difficult and dangerous in terms of potential for injury. You basically have to devote an entire workout to determining your 1 RM on various exercises and you have to estimate somewhat anyway because if you try too many different weights, you will just get tired and your 1 RM won’t be accurate anyway. You will also have to fail at some point, so having a spotter is very important. You can test your 1 RM once a month or so to see how much strength you have gained. You will be able to see this fairly clearly anyway though just by how much you can lift at a specific number of reps. To figure out percentages based on a 1 RM, you also need to know the weight of the machine itself, such as the weight of the sled in the incline leg press. As a substitute for determining your 1 RM, you can just pick the weight to make the reps work out. The last rep of each set should take you to “momentary muscle failure” where you simply can’t lift the weight any more. With a spotter, you may be able to get an extra rep or 2. It is these last few reps of each set where you are making the real gains in strength.

As far as how many different exercises you do, it depends on how much time you want to spend in the gym. You should be able to do a pretty complete workout in 1 - 1 1/2 hours. If you have more time than that, you are better off spending it riding! The emphasis should be on lower body exercises. A fairly complete lower body program covering all the major muscle groups involved in cycling would include: leg press, leg curls, leg extensions (upper 45 degrees only),  calf machines (seated and standing) and squats. Good back exercises are back extensions and dead lifts (Be careful with these - they can strain your back too much - have someone critique your technique.). You should do some upper body lifting to help your stability on the bike as well as your sprint. It is also necessary for any track events requiring a standing start. How much upper body lifting you do somewhat depends on how much bulk you want to add to your upper body. Personally, I do very little upper body lifting: basically just one pushing exercise (bench press, chest press or dips) and one pulling exercise (bent over rows, seated rows or chin-ups). Latissumus pull downs are also a good exercise. I also swim in the off season to work on upper body strength.  You can also do upper body circuit training once a week.  This is a good way to develop strength without adding much bulk. You should include abdominal exercises every session such as crunches, leg lifts, knee lifts or abdominal machines.

The first phase is a transition phase. This will last about 3 weeks and is characterized by high repetitions with very low weight. The purpose of this phase is just to get your body used to lifting. You may have very strong quads from riding, but you still need to strengthen the supporting muscles and tendons before you can start squatting heavy weight. You will very likely get very sore at the beginning of this phase. A workout would consist of 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps of each exercise.  You can also incorporate circuit training into this phase. In circuit training, pick 8-10 machines (you don’t have time to load and unload plates) and spend 30-40 sec. on each machine and 20-30 sec. between machines. Rest 4-5 min. between circuits. This is a good way to work your upper body, back and abdominal muscles.

The next phase is the hypertrophy phase. This will last 4-5 weeks and its purpose is to provide a high volume of lifting with moderate to moderately heavy weights. Workouts consist of  3-4 sets of 8-12 reps at 65-75% of your 1 RM. One thing to note, is that each phase is really a gradual progression to the next phase. For example, you might do 20 reps of a very light weight the first time you go to the gym. After a week, you would add some weight and do 18 reps. The 3rd week you drop to 15. Then you start your hypertrophy phase with 12 reps and add a set. Whenever you decrease reps, you increase weight. Once you can do 12 reps at a particular weight, increase it and start with 8 reps.

The next phase is the strength phase. Here you increase the number of sets, increase weight and decrease reps. A workout would be 4-6 sets of 4-6 reps of  80-85% of your 1 RM. Lifting heavy weights can cause injury and a warm-up set of 10 reps is a good idea here. Personally, I only go to really heavy weights on exercises involving more than one major muscle group and that are more specific to cycling such as leg press and squats.

The last phase is the power phase. Some research has shown that strength gains are speed specific. In other words, to really gain strength for cycling, you have to simulate those muscle contraction speeds in the gym. In the power phase, the emphasis is on lifting a moderate amount of weight as fast as you can - aim for 1 sec. per contraction. You might do 3-4 sets of 10-20 reps at 50-60% of your 1 RM. The idea here is that you are transferring the gains you have made in the previous phases to your cycling. One might then ask, if strength is speed specific, why do all the other phases? The answer is that high speed weight training puts a lot of strain on your muscles and you need to build up the strength to handle it in the other phases. This is also a good time to add plyometrics or jumping exercises to your program.  You can also add lunges, telemark squats or squat jumps.

The number of days per week you lift depends on your schedule. You can make significant gains with only twice a week in the gym. Track riders  lift up to 4 days a week: twice for upper body, twice for lower body. Contrary to popular belief, lifting weight will not make you gain significant weight, especially not for women. Eating more and riding less (which is what most people end up doing in the off season, especially around the holidays) is what will make you gain weight. Muscle does weigh more than fat, and you can put on a couple of pounds of muscle through weight training, but no more than that. Your increased strength to weight ratio will more than make up for it.

If you have the time, adding a maintenance phase can be a good idea. Here you basically just lift once a week with moderate weights and reps and 1-2 sets is plenty. The goal is just to maintain the gains you have already achieved. The longer you can keep this up, the less you will be starting from scratch next year. It is difficult to lift once the race season is in full swing, however. If you do a long easy ride once a week, you can do your lifting on this day. Don’t lift on or the day before doing hard training on the bike. Another option is to do strength work on the bike. You can do a workout once a week where you do hill repeats in as big a gear as you can handle. You should be at 45-50 rpm for 3-5 min. Do 4-6 repeats with 2-4 min. rest. You should keep your heart rate below threshold here as the emphasis is on muscular, not cardiovascular conditioning.  You can also do “power sprints”. Start from almost a dead stop (less than 5 mph) in a big gear (53x12 or 53x13) and sprint as hard as you can for 15-20 sec. Do 6-10 repeats with full recovery in between.  You can also do one of these workouts once a week in the off-season as a supplement to your gym training. For example, you could do 2 heavy leg workouts a week in the gym and one day of upper body circuit training and a strength workout on the bike.