Building Aerobic Power Through Strength Training
Toolbox: Base training has progressed significantly, and yet many cyclists (& triathletes), are stuck in the mindset of doing Long Slow Distance rides and maybe some random strength training “during base” or “the winter.” However, proper strength training throughout the year can greatly increase your aerobic power.
While I’ll cover why strength training in only the winter is leaving lots of gains on the table in future articles, today we’ll focus on how you can and SHOULD be using Strength Training to boost your aerobic engine’s horsepower, and challenge how you, and every cyclist out there view “base training” and the tools required to boost your performance and abilities.
Before we dive into the HOW let’s first talk about the WHY. As Simon Sinek stated in his book “Start With Why”, there is an immense power in digging down into the core of why we are doing something, and it’s been my experience in my nearly 25 years of learning and being curious about exercise science, physical fitness, and human performance, that answering the deepest seated “Why?” unleashes a tidal wave of power and advancement.
In endurance sports, as is well established and accepted, we need to build a stronger, more efficient engine. This means that more energy produced (horsepower), and better “miles per gallon” (energy utilization) are the 2 main adaptations we are after.
Then why is it that our sport(s) have spent many decades focusing on just 1 part of the equation? The “miles per gallon” approach is certainly necessary – no one doubts that long endurance rides to increase the size, strength and amount of blood your left ventricle can push out per beat. But this is only one part of the equation, and leaves many cyclists and triathletes alike, frustrated in the spring, as their ability to go hard and recover have fallen off significantly.
But it shouldn’t be that way.
The 3 Legged Stool
I remember going to my grandmothers as a young child, and discovering that not all chairs and stools required 4 legs; that in fact a 3 legged stool was possible, and actually far cooler, than its 4 legged cousin.
Our approach to building the aerobic engine is much like a 3 legged stool, as opposed to the ottoman which many of us have come to accept.
Our aerobic system’s advancement requires that we address items that fall into 3 categories:
If we want to improve our aerobic engine, we must address all three parts of the system, which means higher intensity work is a MUST.
A Different Way to ‘Base’
Since opening the doors at Human Vortex Training, we’ve done max efforts (30s-2min), Sprints, and even Lactate Threshold targeted work during the “base period” of the training year. While this ruffled quite a few feathers of more traditional coaches, this resulted in better, more resilient riders come springtime, especially in early races. (We’ll get into that in the next post)
But over the course of the next few years, the realization that we can use strength training exercises to work on not only strength, but also building a better aerobic engine, was a big breakthrough.
Not only did it lower the resistance many cyclists and triathletes have to actually start a fundamentally sound strength training program, but it also helped shake many out of a highly monotonous training routine, which tended to lead to early winter burnout (over reaching or overtraining), and springtime frustrations – a very hard cycle to see anyone, especially your athlete – go through.
Using Strength Training as a METABOLIC Tool
Feel the burn! Strength training can be (at the correct time of year, and in the right training plan) a great way to not only shake up your training a little, but also to help build strength & better posture and breathing patterns. But before we get into the actual HOW, we have to start by making crystal clear that there are 2 distinct ends to in the strength training continuum.
At one end, we have what we are primarily after when we strength train as endurance athletes: neuromuscular adaptations.
To get the neuromuscular adaptations we must work our way up through the 5 stages of strength development, to the Hypertrophy and Max Strength stages, and allow the individual to move heavier weights, for sets of 2-6 repetitions per set, with 3-5 minutes of rest in between sets.
If you shorten the rest period too much, or increase the repetitions too much, you lose or significantly lower the neuromuscular adaptations, and skew the body’s responses towards the other end of the spectrum: Metabolic Adaptations.
Perhaps this is why so many cyclists & triathletes have not experienced even half the increases in abilities they have sought through strength training, as many hit the gym with the same mindset they have on the bike: Go hard, get your heart rate up, rest only enough to bring the heart rate down a little, and then go again.
While, as we will see in a minute, this DOES have a place in one’s training program, the majority of us do NOT need metabolic work through our strength training regimen, but rather a focus towards neuromuscular.
It’s the strengthening of the muscles and movements themselves that we will most benefit from, as it will allow the body to have better balance, and to better translate the work we do on the bike into actual forward motion.
Getting Time Under Tension AND Metabolic work in your base period: 3-1-3-1 Tempo Lifts
If you are one who tends to lean towards doing many long, slow, rides, or just endurance paced rides in the fall, the 3-1-3-1 Tempo for major, multi-joint strength exercises, such as Bench press, seated rows, front squats, kettlebell deadlifts, and landmine presses, can help you get in some low impact Lactate Threshold style work.
How does 3-1-3-1 work?
3 seconds eccentric (down) phase.
1 second pause at bottom, keeping great position and full tension.
3 seconds concentric (up) phase.
1 second pause/reset.
Why it works: by slowing down the movements, we place more focus on the slow twitch muscle fibers, which is where the hydrogen ions, lactate, and other energy substrates from the Krebs Cycle, give us that burn we so often associate with lactate threshold work. When we do this in a slow, controlled fashion, we’re gaining far more benefits out of the exercise than just hypertrophy of the localized slow twitch muscle fibers. We’re learning to create stiffness and control through a movement.
This allows us to improve body control, which in turn can improve the amount of power we can sustainably put out on the road, as we improve our body’s positioning and ability to maintain a solid platform for performance.
Don’t go crazy though!
Start with 3 sets of 8 repetitions in this fashion, for 2-3 exercises per workout.
Make sure you’re resting 5-8 minutes between sets for each movement. This can be accomplished by making a circuit style training of 2-3 exercises in a row, which work DIFFERENT major muscle groups and movements.
Start the clock for recovery as soon as you finish the first exercise, and you want it to hit 5 minutes, before returning to that exercise.
Once you’re comfortable at this protocol, progress with heavier weights downwards towards 2-6 reps with 3-5 min recovery.
The 3-1-3-1 Tempo lifting approach serves not only to increase our endurance abilities, but also allow us to progress to what we’ll talk about in part 2, which is using more anaerobic efforts to help build power and repeatability of those higher-power efforts on top of this aerobic foundation.
Please note that this approach will NOT boost performance if done on isolated body parts such as laying hamstring curls and seated leg extensions. A large part of this approach is using large, multi-joint movements that challenge you to hold good postures and positions, while maintaining good breathing patterns.
If you’d like to learn more about this, check out Episode 19 of the Strong Savvy Cyclist & Triathlete Podcast.
Until next time, remember to Train Smarter, Not Harder, because it IS all about YOU!
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Menachem Brodie is a USA Cycling Expert Level coach, SICI certified bike fitter, and NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist. For the last 10 years he has been working with athletes from around the world to get fitter, faster, and stronger through strength training and in-sport training plans. He has presented on Strength Training for Cyclists & Triathletes internationally, and is the author of 2 authoritative online courses: