Strength is king. This is generally the mantra of any strength and conditioning coach when it comes to training their athletes in the gym. Cycling – both in sprint and endurance form – falls squarely within this category.
Although the legs are used extensively for cycling, they don’t necessarily become stronger from cycling. They essentially become better at the specific demands of cycling, but that can have very little carryover to other lower body movements and exercises.
Lance Armstrong (hear me out!) famously said that running a marathon was the hardest physical activity he had done – harder than any of the grueling cycling events that he competed in.
So one of the key benefits of being stronger is that, in general, increased strength improves sports performance no matter what the sport.
The other key benefit of being stronger is that it correlates with a decreased chance of injury.
So tying the idea of strength and conditioning more specifically into improving cycling performance, here are some of the main advantages to off-bike training in the gym:
You can implement an array of single side exercises
Obviously each leg works individually during cycling, so the gym is a great place to have a structured approach to single leg training as it is very rare to see equal strength levels in both legs and between the various lower body muscles.
Varieties of split squats, single leg deadlifts, step ups and sled pulling and pushing exercises will constitute a vast majority of the lower body work, especially in the initial programming when strength deficiencies between the legs will be more pronounced.
You can improve maximal strength and power
Endurance athletes in particular are likely to spend little time improving their maximal strength, but it can be extremely beneficial to performance. Cyclists of all mediums still need to produce bursts of speed, which is where being stronger and more powerful plays a big part. Strength also invariably improves endurance.
Squats, deadlifts, pull ups and incline bench press are exercises where phases of maximal strength work (1-5 reps) could be done in the gym. Even though single side exercises will feature heavily in any cyclists’ programs, performing these dual side movements (provided you are capable) allows for greater overload on the nervous and muscular system. For those who are proficient, various versions of the olympic lifts can also be incorporated to help improve power output.
It should be noted that improving maximal strength and power can be done without putting on excess muscle, an important consideration for cyclists who need to maintain a certain weight.
You can dedicate time to train the upper body and core
Upper body and core strength may not seem as vital as lower body strength, but it still plays a crucial role in overall control of the bike, especially when turning at speed where the body can encounter high levels of force. Because the torso and spine remain largely flexed during cycling, training the upper back and shoulder retractors is extremely important to reduce the risk of overuse injuries. Great exercises include cable face pulls for shoulder retraction and the renegade row for the upper back and multiple areas of the core.
You can implement strongman style training for conditioning, rehab and knee stability
One of the best additions to performance training in the last decade has been strongman style exercises. The most beneficial for muscular strength and structural balance in cycling would undoubtedly be backward sled drags and farmers walks. Sled drags are fantastic at training the concentric portion of full knee lockout, targeting the ‘teardrop’ VMO muscle of the inner quadricep, a crucial muscle for overall knee health. Farmers walks or loaded carries test core strength, shoulder stability and lower back strength all whilst each leg is moving individually. Both of these exercises can be performed by relative beginners through to experienced lifters, and are also great exercises in the rehab setting or for those who suffer joint pain. This is because they overload the muscle without excessively overloading the joint.
The second benefit of strongman style training is its effect on overall conditioning. Combining the above with other strongman exercises – tyre flips, prowler pushes, rope drags, log presses – is one of the best ways to improve conditioning off the bike that can be easily transferred to the conditioning required for cycling.
You can train through a full range of motion
Overuse injuries make up a large proportion of injuries in monotonous aerobic sports – the lumbar and knee being the most prevalent injuries in cycling. Cycling is essentially a repeated concentric contraction through a modified range of motion and with a flexed spine. Exposing the muscles of the lower body to a full range of motion helps to overcome the issues that come with cycling. Hip, lower back and thoracic extension (the posterior chain) and full knee flexion / extension are very important movements to train in the gym.
You can work on improving overall structural balance
Having balanced strength qualities will help any cyclist maintain a smoother cycling pattern, and will allow for the right muscles to be working when they meet the specific demands of any race. Generally speaking the quadriceps should have more endurance than the hamstrings and glutes. For easier portions of the race, the quadriceps will be heavily involved. But when more demanding parts of the race are met – inclines or sprints when it comes to cycling – the glutes and hamstrings play a bigger part.
If the quadriceps are lacking strength, then the hamstrings and glutes will likely have to compensate for the easier parts of the race and thus will be more fatigued when they are really needed.
All in all, if you are serious about improving your cycling performance then a structured strength training program of 2-4 weekly sessions is a must.