Does Lifting Actually Improve On-Bike Power?
I am likely not the only cyclist who neglects adding resistance/strength training into my own training. Let’s spend some time talking about the benefits of adding strength training into your training routine.
Combining strength training into professional cyclists’ off-season training has become increasingly common over the last decade or so. The idea is that strength training can help increase lower body strength, which has positive effects on power performance on the bike. Seems logical, right? Let’s take a look at what the research says.
Scientific Evidence for Strength Training
Prior to Rønnestad’s published work in 2015, only a few studies had investigated the addition of strength training into cyclists training at the elite level. The general finding was that strength training did increase various factors related to cycling performance, in both elite and recreational level cyclists. Following those studies however, researchers were not able to explain why strength training increased performance, or how much strength training was needed to increase performance.
Thus, Rønnestad and colleagues set out to investigate 1) whether a strength training period followed by a maintenance period did increase lower body strength and 2) if increased lower body strength would lead to improvements in cycling, such as max sprint power and 40 min time trial power.
Who participated? What did they do?
Sixteen elite level cyclists completed the study. Half the cyclists were placed in an endurance + strength training group (ES), while the other half were placed in an endurance-only training group (E). The study lasted 25 weeks, which included 10 weeks of a strength development period and 15 weeks of strength maintenance.
The strength training group completed a variety of lower body exercises twice per week in addition to their endurance training. The included exercises included half squat, unilateral leg press, standing unilateral hip flexion, and ankle plantar flexion. The cyclists were always instructed to do 3 sets, and the number of repetitions were decreased each week of the strength development period. Athletes were also recommended to increase the weight as they progressed through the intervention. In the strength maintenance period, cyclists completed strength training once per week with 3 sets of 6 repetitions.
Endurance training was monitored via heart rate, with ~80% of training done below 82% of maximum heart rate (HRmax), and ~20% of training done above 82% HRmax. This distribution of training aligns with the 80/20 polarization made popular by Dr. Stephen Seiler.
What did they discover?
As expected, the ES training group saw a ~20% increase in their half-squat power during the 10-week strength building phase which was maintained through the 15-week maintenance period. No change was found in the E group. The ES group also showed a 2% improvement in peak power, while E saw no change. Taken together, these results tell us that you get stronger from adding in strength training, but do these changes affect your cycling performance?
Researchers did not find any difference in VO2max following strength training between the ES and E groups. However, the ES group showed a 3.2% increase in power at 4 mmol blood lactate concentration (you can think of this as being your FTP), as well as 6.5% increase in 40 min time-trial power. These improvements, which are shown in the images below, were far superior to the endurance only group, who showed either a slight reduction or no change in their FTP and 40 min time-trial performances, respectively.
Showing the individual (solid line) and group (dashed line) changes in Power at 4 mmol blood lactate (FTP) and 40 min time trial power. Taken from Ronnestad, et al. 2015.
Taken together, the improvements in max sprinting power, 40 min power, and FTP suggest that strength training has a moderate effect on cycling performance.
How can I incorporate strength training?
So now that we know that strength training can complement your cycling performance, how can you incorporate it into your training routine?
In the present study, researchers divided the cyclists’ strength training into a ‘Strength Development’ period and a ‘Strength Maintenance’ period. The exercises used were focused on lower body strength, so in addition to the exercises mentioned by the researchers, you could consider adding in exercises that focus on lower body, such as Squat/Deadlift, Lunges, box step-ups, etc. Finally, although the cyclists always performed 3 sets of exercises, there was a difference in the weight & repetitions used between the two periods.
During the strength development period, two strength sessions were performed each week with a greater emphasis on lifting heavy – the researchers commented that assistance may be necessary to complete the last rep of each set. While progressing through the strength development phase, the number of reps were reduced each week further promoting athletes to lift heavy and until failure (weeks 1-3 included 3 sets of 10 reps, while weeks 7-10 included 3 sets of 4-6 reps).
In the strength maintenance period, only 1 strength session was performed each week. Further, the goal of the maintenance period was not to lift heavy/until failure. During this period, athletes aimed to complete 3 sets of 6 reps at approximately their 10-repetition maximum.
Personally, I aim to challenge myself to start incorporating strength training into my training starting in November. This will allow me to focus on strength development from November through January, and then switch into strength maintenance in January until the outdoor season starts back up for me next spring.
Stay safe, ride fast, and I’ll see you next month!
Rønnestad BR, Hansen J, Hollan I, Ellefsen S. Strength training improves performance and pedaling characteristics in elite cyclists. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2015 Feb;25(1):e89-98. doi: 10.1111/sms.12257. Epub 2014 May 27. PMID: 24862305.