article by A1 Coaching’s Aaron Buggle
People have questioned the use of strength training to improve cycling performance for decades.
So does strength training in the gym improve performance on the bike and should I use the gym this winter?
It’s a question that in my opinion has never clearly been clearly or correctly answered, and the information reaching the general public is extremely muddled at the best of times.
As a Sports Scientist and Coach, I will emphatically tell you that my advice, which is backed by evidence, is to strength train. It will improve your cycling performance when combined with winter training.
The style of training I am advocating is known as “concurrent” training.
Simply put, if you don’t have a strength-training component in your winter program, you are not optimizing your full potential as a rider.
My recommendation is to add two strength workouts per week, and it will, without question, increase your performance potential out on the road.
It is finally time for cyclists of all levels to embrace strength training, without the resounding question of “Is this actually helping me?” ringing in their ears.
“I tried it before and it didn’t work!”
The latest research is not the same old “high repetition, low weight” onslaught that has been recommended for years.
Bike riders who search for continuous improvement all too often follow the predominant training style that they see displayed around them by their peers.
Sports science is taking huge leaps forward, and I will stand by my belief that the scientific evidence is there for you to see, and it’s compelling. Don’t feel pressured to follow outdated precedents.
Riders also like to say: “I don’t have time to strength train in the gym – I’ll just do it on the bike.” In fact, it is far more time efficient to train strength in the gym.
The increase in force in the gym brings the adaptations around much faster, so essentially, training the strength component of your program in the gym will save you time in the long run. For the amateur cyclist with limited training hours, this time effective training is ideal, especially during the winter months, when daylight is limited, and every minute of training time needs to be optimized.
How can heavy weights improve my endurance?
Sounds counter-intuitive, right?
Performance in most cycling events is determined by the maximal sustained power output for a given distance, and the energy cost of maintaining that output – known as cycling economy.
Studies show a marked increase in cycling economy through various different physiological mechanisms. This is particularly true for athletes 35 and older, who have been shown to exhibit the largest gains from strength training.
Now for the science bit…
We all possess type I, type IIA, IIB and IIX muscle fibres, all of which exhibit very distinct functions.
Being endurance athletes, we rely heavily on our highly fatigue-resistant slow twitch muscle fibers, which are also known as oxidative fibers.
Research shows that adding the strength component to your endurance training (concurrent training) will make these fibers stronger and more resistant to fatigue.
This means that you can save your highly effective fast twitch fibers for later in your event when you really need them.
The same research also found an increase in type IIA fast-twitch muscle fibers relative to more easily exhausted type IIX muscle fibers.
This is a crucial adaptation; as type IIA are more fatigue-resistant than type-IIX, yet they are still very capable of producing large amounts of force and subsequent power – yielding double bang for your buck!
As a result of maximal strength training, you will be able to utilise your existing muscle more efficiently and effectively.
With strength training, not only can you recruit more muscle fibers, you can also send that neurological signal for them to contract faster, which is good news for your sprinting.
Recall the muscle fiber types; when you sprint, there is an order in which these fibers contract, from slow twitch to fast twitch.
Another result of our program at A1 Coaching, will be faster recruitment of type II fibers when you sprint.
This means that the rate at which you produce force is faster, and to relate this back to the bike, you may only reach the same maximal power in a sprint but you will do so in less time – essentially giving you more snap!
A taste of the program I’d advocate –
Components you should include –
What are dynamic movement and corrective movements?
Dynamic stretches are active movements of muscle through a full range of motion that elicit a stretch but are not held in the final position.
When you put your body through a series of stretches while in motion, it sends electrical signals from the brain to the muscle fibers and connective tissues in that location to prepare for the work ahead.
Many studies have shown that dynamic stretching can help increase power through activation prior to training or competition.
In contrast, stretching statically for 20- 30 seconds like the old days prior to intense exercise can actually decrease your performance.
Example exercise: Band Pull Aparts
A big issue we face as cyclists, particularly as we age, is poor trunk posture.
We spend such a large volume of time hunched over on the bike that our shoulders begin to rotate anteriorly, and this is heightened again if you work at a desk.
The key with Band Pull Aparts, is to focus on full scapula retraction, so really squeezing your shoulder blades together. This is a great postural exercise, that can also help alleviate pain and pressure that you may experience in that area when on or off the bike.
The main workout
This segment of our program focuses on how to generate huge force from a large number of muscles at once, rather than one group in isolation.
Example exercise: Heels Elevated Squat
The squat mimics the technique of a pedal stoke extremely well: huge force is produced in the glute and quad muscles concentrically as you drive the bar up with maximal effort.
Heels are elevated for three reasons – to enhance Vastus Medialis stimulation (the teardrop muscle located medially in the thigh that extends the knee) to help proper knee gliding, and it is also a great place to start if you haven’t yet acquired the functional mobility to squat parallel, while avoiding poor technique.
The third benefit is one for the “Theory of Specificity” advocate.! Having your heels elevated forces you to drive through the balls of your feet rather than your heels which closer replicates the technique of a pedal stroke.
The key with this exercise is to optimize the concentric phase of the movement; meaning you explosively push up as hard as you can from the bottom of the squat, giving it everything you’ve got.
Core finishing sequence
Core is often a misunderstood concept, and many of us don’t really understand it to its full meaning and potential.
Firstly, all “big moves” like squats and deadlifts, give your core a great workout.
However, having said that, these “big moves” will still not fully isolate your core on its own to the stage of exhaustion. We need to remember that the core will struggle greatly when and if we are very fatigued on the bike.
It subsequently makes sense then to finish off your strength training sessions with a core specific sequence of exercises while your core muscles are fatigued.
Example exercise: Knee Tucks
I very much favor the exercise ball for core exercises; and this exercise is very cycling-specific. It not only emphasises the core, but also encompasses a hip stability and upper body component.
Strength training works for cyclists. However, like everything exercise related, it needs to be done correctly, and your program needs to be adapted for your strengths and weaknesses.
All of the movements must be designed to increase your performance on the bike, so here are my “take home” points.
Unlock the power you didn’t know you had. It is time for cyclists to embrace weight training as part of their winter training schedules.
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