There’s little doubt that weight training plays a crucial role in the strength and conditioning of Olympic sprint track cyclists’ who are known so well for their incredibly huge legs.
But its less well established what role a weight training program can play in improving performance of the average Tour de France cyclist. After all, having massive legs doesn’t help when climbing up mountain passes.
Weight Training for Cycling
The last decade has seen a surge of literature published on the role of weight training in the strength, conditioning and performance of elite-level cyclists’1. The consensus in the literature is weight training can improve the performance of the typical elite-level cyclist, but only when performed with exercises specific to cycling and that focus on strength development as opposed to muscle hypertrophy. One thing is for sure, your average bodybuilding weight training program won’t cut it for cyclists.
“...results of the present study suggest that a substantial increase in leg muscle strength can be achieved with little or no increase in body weight, which is highly relevant for athletes competing in sports in which low BM is important for performance (e.g. uphill cycling or running).“2
This article will provide an overview of a sample weight training program that can be used by both competitive and recreational cyclists alike to improve performance and strength over the course of a competitive season. The sample program includes a strength development stage; designed for use during the preparatory (or base training) period of a competitive season, and a strength maintenance stage; designed for use during the competition period of a season.
Effects of Weight Training on Cycling Performance
When compared with elite cyclists' who performed no weight training, the program outlined in this article was recently shown to significantly improve:
- Isometric half squat performance
- Lean lower body mass
- Peak power output over 30-sec
- Functional threshold power or Wmax
- Power output at 4 mmol/L lactate
- Mean power output during 40-min all-out time trial
- Ealier occurrence of peak torque during the pedal stroke
What's important to highlight is that these improvements span across both anaerobic and aerobic performance. So when performed correctly, weight training should help improve a cyclists performance in sprint situations as well as during mountainous terrain or long rides. These findings were published in 2015 in the February issue of the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports; one of the leading sports science journals in the world.
Principles of Weight Training for Cycling
Most studies showing a significant performance improvement when applying a weight training program to cycling have used exercises that incorporate movements with a knee angle between 900 and close to full extension. This angle mimics the limbs natural range of motion during cycling. Additionally, during cycling, power is applied by each leg in a unilateral manner (i.e. one leg at a time). As such, it’s makes sense that a weight training program specific for cyclists’ should incorporate leg exercises that are unilateral.
To be effective, a cycling-specific weight training program needs to focus on the key leg muscles utilised during the full pedal stroke. The pedal stroke can be broken into three key phases: downstroke, transition phase (bottom dead center of pedal stroke), and upstroke. Each of the phases recruit different muscle as highlighted below.
M. Gluteus Maximus
Triceps surae (calf)
M. Rectus Femoris
Dr Rønnestad from Lillehammer University, Norway, is among the leading researchers in the world on cycling-specific weight training. His research group has published several studies that have successfully employed exercises focusing on the above leg muscles to improve several measures of performance1-4. In their studies, a mix of the following four basic exercises have been used.
It’s worth highlighting that the half squat and calf raise exercises shown above can be performed with a free-standing barbell as well. In study settings, researchers tend to use machines because they offer greater stability for test subjects and therefore minimise the risk of injury.
Other leg exercises that can be incorporated into a cycling-specific weight training program include lunges (with barbells or dumbbells), deadlifts, one-legged squats, or one-legged calf raises.
Repetition Range & Number of Sets
As with any weight training program designed for endurance sports, the focus is primarily on improving strength (as opposed to muscle mass)3. For this reason, recommended repetitions are typically lower than used in bodybuilding regimes. For example, recommended rep range is between 3-8, whereas in bodybuilding, a more common range is 8-12. It is widely accepted that 3-8 reps is the preferred range for strength development5.
As far as sets per exercise are concerned, 2-3 sets is the standard recommendation123. However, within these general guidelines, reps and sets vary according to the phase or period of preparation/competition. For example, in the early phases of strength training, recommended rep ranges are higher, while when nearing competition phase, rep range is lower.
The table below shows an example of an extensive 25-week weight training program used successfully by elite cyclists to improve multiple performance measures. The program encompasses both a preparatory and competition phase.
It’s important to note the regime used during competition period. Because of the heavy demands of competition for elite cyclists’, weight training during the competitive season is typically at a reduced volume, with the focus being to maintain strength gains accrued during the preparatory period, rather than to increase strength any further.
As such, in the program above, the number of sets and reps are reduced. Reps are kept low so as to still provide sufficient stimulus for strength maintenance. Lastly, the frequency of weight training is also reduced during the competition phase. It is recommended to weight train only once during each 7-10 period1. The other factor to note is that each set should be performed to failure, as was the practice in the above study.
“During the competitive season or in training periods, development of strength is not prioritised, approximately one strength training session per week (low volume) with high intensity seems to maintain the previous strength training adaptations.”1
Rest Between Sets and Speed of Repetition
The other important aspect of a weight training program specific for endurance cyclists is the rest between sets and the speed of each concentric and eccentric contraction. The study highlighted above provided 2-min rest periods between each set. This longer rest period is designed to allow creatine/phosphate stores to replete; the major energy system taxed during sets with less than 8 reps.
Concerning rep speed, athletes are recommended to focus on an explosive/quick concentric contraction (with duration ~1-sec) and a slow and controlled eccentric contraction (lasting 2 to 3-secs).
There is evidence that simply intending/attempting to lift explosively (or with a high velocity) during the concentric phase is conducive to greater strength gains6. Even though when lifting heavy weights (in the range of 4-5RM) it is hard to lift with a high velocity, it seems the intentional velocity is more important than the actual velocity7.
“Athletes are advised to build up maximal strength in the important muscles during the preparatory period. Two strength training sessions per week, designed as a daily undulating periodized program” is typically enough to achieve a sufficient increase in strength during a 12-week period. Athletes are advised to perform between 4RM and 10RM and 2-3 sets with approximately 2-3 min of rest between sets.” 1
In closing, it is important to highlight that there is ample scientific evidence to warrant recommendation that competitive cyclists' should employ weight training to improve strength and performance.
However, it is important that endurance cyclists’ utilise a weight training program specific to the demands of cycling rather than conventional bodybuilding-style programs. Cyclists’ looking to peak at certain times of the season or for a certain race should focus on a 10-12 week preparatory phase, where the focus is to increase strength. This should be followed by a maintenance phase (with reduced volume and frequency) during competition to maintain strength gains. The following points summarise the key facets of a successful weight training program for endurance cyclists.
- Using cycling specific exercises (knee flexion between 900 and close to full extension)
- Include one-legged exercises
- Use a rep range of 3-8RM
- Reduce repetition number throughout course of preparatory phase
- 2-3mins rest between sets
- 2-3 sets per exercise
- Train 2x per week during preparatory phase
- Train once every 7-10 days during competition phase
- Train with reduced volume, but high intensity during competition phase
- Use explosive, high velocity movements during concentric phase
- Use slow controlled movements during eccentric phase
- Rønnestad BR & Mujika I. Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2014;24:603-612.
- Rønnestad BR, et al. Effect of heavy strength training on thigh muscle cross-sectional area, performance determinants, and performance in well-trained cyclists. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2010;108(5):965-975.
- Rønnestad BR, et al. Strength training improves performance and pedalling characteristics in elite cyclists. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2015;25:e89-e98.
- Rønnestad BR, et al. In-season strength maintenance training increases well-trained cyclists’ performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2010;110:1269–1282.
- Cormie P, et al. Developing maximal neuromuscular power: part 2-training considerations for improving maximal power production. Sports Med. 2011;41(2):125-146.
- Behm DG & Sale DG. Velocity specificity of resistance training. Sports Medicine. 1993;15(6):374-88.
- Heggelund J, et al. Maximal strength training improves work economy, rate of force development and maximal strength more than conventional strength training. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2013;113:1565-1573.