Beware Jumping Into Heavy Weights
TOOLBOX: I’m talking to those of you who are cyclists, riding 6+ hours a week for the majority of the calendar year, and who are over the age of 40, and whom do not participate in regular strength training throughout the year, but rather pick it up solely in the fall and winter.
As Halloween comes around and we start to plan our strength training for the fall and winter, we need to take a good hard look at what the best practices are for you, your health, your longevity, and keeping you sharp and active.
Strength training is an incredibly important part of your training regimen for a number of reasons, from keeping your bone density in the normal range and away from osteoporosis, to maintaining lean muscle mass that allows you to stay healthy and active. But strength training, if done without 2 prime considerations, can also INCREASE your risk of injury.
I’m referring to the programs out there that offer heavy loading after a “priming 2-3 weeks” of lighter weights, and who then move into heavy loads (RPE 8, 9, 10) gradually increasing the weight 5-10 pounds every week, and keeping the RPE’s high.
While our ego absolutely loves this approach, and we get that “great workout feel” and perhaps soreness the next few days, these programs can do serious damage to your spine.
Heavy Weights and Back Injury
I speak from the experiences I’ve had working with a growing number of cyclists who have injured their backs due to these programs. Many of them don’t even realize that it was the culprit.
“I’ve been doing this plan from X coach for the last X years, and it works well for me.”
“No way, It wasn’t the weight training that did it, the injury happened at home lifting up the lid of the large freezer in the garage after, not during my strength workout.”
“I don’t see how the heavy strength training could have done it, as I felt the injury on my ride when I went over the spannings on the bridge – not during my weight training”
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE me some heavy weights. In fact, I’ve competed as a powerlifter back in my late teens, with great success, and am still known to occasionally lift some pretty heavy things around.
There is a time and a place, and necessary adaptations, that we have to keep at the forefront of our minds. And for any cyclist over the age of 40 who is not strength training (with external resistance such as bands, weights, or loads) year round, you are NOT in a time or a place for these!
Dr. Stuart McGill, one of my mentors, and I sat down and talked about this very issue on episodes 8 & 9 of my podcast back in 2019.
Back Pain – Bike or Weights to Blame?
Many cyclists don’t develop back pain or problems on the bike, but rather in the weight room.
This is due in large part to the fact that for the rest of the year, outside of these 2-4 months of cold, dark winter, we’re out on our bikes, pedaling along, perhaps doing some “core work”, pilates, yoga, or TRX, thinking that we’re keeping up our strength.
However, this is not the case, as the demands we are placing on the muscle and connective tissues in the body are incredibly different than those of weight training. The demands of riding our bikes, especially for hours on end, can and often do lead to what is called “tissue creep” which is simply a term for slow stretching of the passive tissues, like the posterior ligaments of the spine.
From herniated discs, to fractured disc endplates and even fractured facet joints, I’ve seen more than enough cyclists who just didn’t know any better, and wound up injured and off the bike.
While these coaches and trainers are well meaning, they’re missing an important part of the picture in strength training – tissue adaptations happen over time, and cannot be undone, or happen, in 8-12 weeks.
Cycling (Mal)Adaptations for Strength Training
Due to our riding position, we often slowwwwly stretch out important supporting tissues of the back and spine, as well as stretch out and weaken key muscles. These lead to changes in the tissue’s strength and qualities of everything from the bones to the toughness of the intervertebral discs.
Then, when fall comes and you hit the weights again, these weaknesses get pushed to the forefront as you begin to challenge the tissues and muscles to bear heavy loads, pushing them ever closer to the precipice of injury.
Year-Round Strength Training
This is one of the biggest reasons why I teach year-round strength training.
While those who have done some reading or know a little something about strength training can throw around terms like “specific adaptations to imposed demands” and “progressive overload”, what they may forget, is that these terms also refer to exactly what’s been happening when your ride your bike thousands of miles a year:
Your body and its tissues are responding to the specific demands cycling places on them:
- Low impact forces
- No overload with external resistance
- Long period of time in relatively static positions
This means that your body, especially your back and spine, are pretty far from being able to handle the demands that these programs often place on them.
While we can get away with these when we’re younger and tissues rejuvenate and adapt a bit faster (and we have fewer years of specific adaptations to cycling’s demands), as we begin hitting our 5th decade, we’ve now accumulated enough cycling-specific adaptations that the odds are stacking up against us avoiding injury going through these kinds of large swings of the training pendulum.
Ok, So What Can I do?
A dirty little secret in the world of strength training, is use of “tempo”, or, how fast or slow you execute each part of the movement. Tempo is often prescribed in 4 parts as:
- Is the Eccentric, or lengthening phase of the working muscle. For a squat, this would be sinking down from the standing position
- Represents the bottom of the movement, where a 1 means you pause at the bottom with full tension for 1 full second before you reverse the movement, such as standing, in our example of a squat
- Represents the Concentric, or shortening phase of a movement. In our squat example, it’s standing back up.
- Represents any kind of rest at the starting position. In our example of squatting, it would be standing tall with the weight.
One of the absolute best things you can do to begin to build strength AND tissue qualities for resistance training, is to use tempo to help you
- Learn and master the movement quicker
- Expose any weaknesses within a movement
- Build strength faster
For cyclists, a particularly challenging pair of exercises in this manner are the 3-1-3-1 Tempo Goblet Squat:
And the 4-0-4-0 Tempo Pushup with hands on bench:
Give these each a shot, after a solid dynamic warm-up, for 2-3 sets of repetitions. Stop when you feel you’re beginning to lose technique, and be sure that you’re hitting 1.6-1.8g protein per kilogram in your diet, especially the days of and immediately after strength training.
Heavy weights can and should be a part of your strength training regimen. However, we must be very smart about how, why, and when you’re going for the heavy things. Tissue changes that our chosen sport of cycling put on the body has resulted in cyclists over 40 needing to take a year-round approach to strength training, allowing them to get, and keep, the tissues and muscular changes they need to stay healthy, strong, and ride better than ever.
Using lighter weights for the FUNdamental 5+1 movements with the 3-1-3-1 or 4-0-4-0 Tempo offer you fantastic results, with a lowered risk of injury, all while helping you build far better tissue and movement qualitie-making you a stronger, fitter, and more body-smart rider.
If you’d like to learn how to build strength training programming that actually builds on-bike strength and performance, not weight room strength, sign up for my Strength Training for Cyclists Certification course, open for enrollment October 14-24, 2020. You’ll learn on and off bike assessments to help you dial in your or your riders needs, as well as over 75 exercise progressions and regressions specific to cyclists to help you improve your strength for on-the-bike enjoyment, and performance….no matter what that may be!
PEZCycling News readers receive $200 off during the Fall 2020 enrollment, but enrollment closes October 24, 2020 and won’t open again until the spring!