The benefits (or not!) of weight training
Does weight training help cyclists? The short answer is maybe, or yes, depending on how it's done and at what stage of a rider's development it's done and what sort of cyclist is training.
Weight training. Do it? Don't do it? Some coaches say yes, some say no, some say maybe. Confused? You should be! No-one seems certain. What does strength and power mean in the context of cycling and how can you improve it?
Before you bother to read this and do your own research, it helps to know if you're strength-limited. How do you find out? If you're a healthy active adult male and you're training for road endurance or track endurance cycling, you're probably not strength-limited. If you're a junior, female or masters cyclist you may be low on muscle and strength work may be helpful. Will it help to be stronger? Maybe. It's a grey area for many endurance athletes. If you want to improve your sprint strength training and power training can help. What form this takes is the interesting part of course.
If you're an older adult or a female or recovering from injury or illness it's quite possible that you're limited by strength and power, and if you're a track sprinter it's a given that you can't be too strong or too powerful and you need to be in the gym.
What is meant by strength and power and how can strength and power training help?
In short, strength is how much you can move and power is how fast you can do it. It's pretty simple. Strength is measured on a bike as torque (turning force) and power as watts.
What do we mean as cyclists when we talk about strength? Is it how much you can squat 1 time (a 1 rep max or 1RM)? Is it how big a gear you can push up a steep hill from a standing start? Is it how much you can deadlift? What matters to you? What will help you as a cyclist?
We care, fundamentally, about pushing down on a lever one leg at a time in a triple extension (hip, knee and on a bike to a lesser extent ankle) motion. We need a solid platform to push from, so our hips and core must be strong enough to provide stability. We may need to push this lever very hard indeed 40 times very very quickly if we're sprinting for a flying 200 on 8 metres of rollout, we may need to push it around 5,000 times an hour, but very gently (compared to our sprint) if we're road riding, although at times we may need to push pretty hard to contest sprints, get over steep pinches, complete short bridging efforts and so on.
It seems obvious that we need to be strong and powerful to ride well. That's certainly true. How best do we achieve this and how strong and powerful do we need to be?
Firstly, any untrained human will benefit from just about any sort of training. If you're untrained regular swimming will improve your time up the local mountain on the bike. It's only as we get away from that basic untrained state that picking the type of training becomes important. Swimming won't make Chris Hoy or Lance Armstrong go any faster on its own, they need to do things specific to their types of cycling to get better. This is an important principle - it's called specificity. It means that you get better at what you train once you're past the initial "everything works" stage of athletic development. Essentially this means that to ride faster you need to train by riding. Other exercises may assist and they're called cross-training. Strength and power work in the gym is cross-training for cyclists.
How strong do you need to be? How Powerful? For a road, mountain or track enduro rider you have a balancing act to play with. You need to be strong enough to complete your target events critical points (sprints, steep hills etc) without spending too much time training for strength and power that it takes away your ability to complete the event. For a track sprinter you need to be as strong and powerful as humanly possible and who cares about riding 100 kilometers?! The body responds differently to strength and endurance training, in some ways they oppose each other, finding the right balance for endurance cyclists is a challenge which is best sorted out on an individual basis. The short answer is there is no single right answer for endurance cyclists.
How can you get stronger?
You get stronger and more powerful by using your body to move bigger loads and move them faster and then allowing it to recover and super-compensate. Seems pretty simple. You use progressive overload to strengthen muscles, bones and tendons and develop power. This is applying Hans Seyle's general adaptation syndrome and it's the basis of all training programs. The body adapts to the stress of sitting on the couch eating chips by getting fat! Remember earlier when we talked about specificity? Now we need to remember what we're trying to do. If we want to get stronger to push pedals harder and more powerful to push them faster, we need to do exactly that. We need to push our pedals harder and faster. The human body gets better at what it's doing. It's very very specific at doing it.
In order to get stronger, it's generally accepted in strength training circles that you need to do things that are very hard, the sort of thing you can only do a few times before you can't do any more. In order to get more powerful, you need to do things quickly. In strength training terms you need to be doing exercises that you can't do more than 3 to 5 of to get the optimum strength gains (3 to 5 RM efforts). Bodybuilders do things differently and they do lots of medium intensity repetitions (sets of 12 or more), but their goals are different and they're a little whacky anyway. Basically, to get strong you have to do very hard things. You have to do hard and specific things to get the most useful gains.
Here's some good strength exercises that are relevant to cyclists:
- Big gear standing start hill sprints.
- Big gear standing starts
Here's some good power exercises that are relevant to cyclists :
- Downhill sprints
- Accelerations from behind leadouts (motorpacing etc)
- Sprinting up and down short hills
That's not much, really. If you're a roady or an MTB rider these strength and power exercises are very specific and probably all you ever need to do. You need to do them as hard as you possibly can such that after 5-10 seconds you can't do any more. There's only so much you can do on a bike. It's all pedaling and you're a bit limited in doing low repetition work on a bike unless you have something like the AIS's 'wombat' ergo trainer. Low reps on a bike to failure or very close to it means you're likely to fall over! We do them on fluid resistance ergos for sprinters but a wombat or similar would be better. Most roadies and MTB riders don't need to go further than the above few exercises and unless you're really keen or can't get enough out of on the bike training, stay out of the gym. Go ride your bike!
What do we do in the gym to help?
Lifting weights in the gym is not pedaling. That needs to be made very clear. It is not specific enough to, on its own, increase strength and power on the bike. Strength training in a gym is cross-training. We can do a couple of things in the gym that are very hard, unsafe or impractical to do on the bike. We can overload our muscles more and make them grow stronger, ideally with myofibrillar hypertrophy. The bodybuilders are after sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which we don't want, that's why they do things differently and why most stuff in most gyms is close to useless for cyclists. Stay away from the abdominizer 5000 and the leg extension machines. They're for the bodybuilders, not for athetes trying to get usefully strong.
We can't make ourselves into better pedalers in the gym. We can make the muscles we use for pedaling stronger though. We do that by doing low rep, high resistance full body exercises. The squat is the cornerstone of the sprint cyclists's gym training. Forget the old wives tales about squats being bad for your knees and back, find a proper weight training coach, not some kid at the local chainstore gym, and learn to do below parallel squats properly. Learn the deadlift. Learn and do some of the Olympic lifts for developing power, in particular power cleans and snatches if you have the time to learn the snatch properly, and a good enough teacher to teach it to you. Find a gym that lets you drop weights, has olympic bars and bumperplates and that has a squat rack and a lifting platform and chalk. That's a sign that it's a gym that's interested in developing athletic strength and power, not in draining the wallets of its customers. The crossfit people are worth looking up if you can't find anything local that isn't a real gym. Crossfit is a bit of a cult, they're not scientology though and their gyms will allow you do to the sorts of things that help develop real athletic muscle gains and they know how to teach the useful lifts.
Strength developed in the gym using squats, deadlifts and some of the olympic lifts will be useful to you as a cyclist if you also do the on the bike exercises we described above. It's also very useful to do some pullups, chinups and overhead presses (standing!) and a bit of benchpress (because it's fun and you want to!). Two things happen when you train these lifts. Your muscles learn the exercise and they get stronger and more powerful. They learn before they get stronger. It will take time to get useful muscular gains from myofibrillar hypertrophy that you can then train on the bike. On the bike you're teaching the body to use the muscle you've built up in the gym. Core stuff on wobbleboards and swiss balls and all that other faddy mumbo jumbo won't help much, if you can deadlift your bodyweight and do 10 chinups and overhead presses your core is strong enough.