Resistance Training 1: Technique and Form
After a season full of miles built upon miles the body is ready for both a break from arduous training and a re-set of our whole body balance to prepare for more, uh, arduous training. If you are like most racers you want to be better, stronger, and faster next year. The path to improvement is most attainable to the athlete who is best prepared and well balanced.
At then end of each racing season we cyclists come out of our collective hibernation and re-enter the mainstream world and reactivate our gym memberships. Resistance training can provide a viable means to achieve some of the gains you seek. This is especially true for masters level racers whose tendency to lose force generation capacity (peak power) can be attenuated by strength training(1).
Here’s the caveat – To merely lift a series of progressively heavier weights by “any means necessary” is hardly the way to make the kinds of gains you are looking for as a cyclist(2,3). Over the next few articles I’ll discuss some of the elements that will help create a fundamentally sound weight-training regimen. First let’s introduce you to some movement fundamentals.
GYM SPEAK 101 – As you prepare to hit the gym and fire up your personal program here are a few terms to know.
• Sets & Reps – Most training programs describe the number of sets and reps that you are expected to perform. This is usually written as: 3×15, 2×12, 4×20 etc…where the first number is the number of sets and the second is the number of repetitions per set. In general please give yourself an initial “warm up” set that is roughly 40 – 50% of the maximum weight you will do for that exercise. This helps you reinforce good form and work through a complete ROM without risk to the joints, connective tissue and muscles used before going heavier.
• Range of Motion (ROM) – This describes the complete movement of the desired limb through its joints’ useable arc of motion. For example a Full ROM for a chest press involves bringing the bar all the way down to the chest and then extending it to full, but not locked-out, extension. Similarly for the hamstring a full range of motion is defined as a movement of the completely extended lower leg (straight), to fully contracted (peak contraction, fully bent) and back again. Generally you do not want to force ROM on any joint that is not happily going there. You can increase your ROM with stretching and strengthening exercises.
• Neutral Joints – Good form is the most essential element to responsible resistance training. Good form generally means keeping a neutral posture, especially at the spine. When lifting think of ways to keep your back as close to its natural curvature as possible. For other joints be aware of the angle of attack and muscles involved. A couple of examples: on leg extension be sure the axis of rotation on the machine is aligned with the center of the knee joint; on a dumb bell fly be aware that the arm/wrist is aligned with or just below (towards the hips) the joint rather than above (towards the head). This helps keep the movement focused on the main muscles (pecs) instead of the smaller, less powerful shoulder muscles (front deltoid). We will address specific movement dynamics in another article.
• “Valsalva Maneuver” – is performed by forcibly exhaling against a closed airway. This is the classic lifter’s grunt. A simple example is the big push effort you would use if you were trying to lift your car off the ground. This “push” is a great precursor to an Inguinal Hernia! Try to avoid emphasizing this “maneuver” whenever possible. Instead focus on your breathing. A smooth controlled exhale during the crux of the lift will help keep internal pressure down and rep quality up. Keep air moving throughout the range of motion and you can lift plenty of weight without risking a hernia to do it.
• Agonist/Antagonist – agonist muscles are the ones being worked. In a bicep curl the bicep is the agonist. The antagonist is the opposite muscle or muscle group used to stabilize the movement. In a bicep curl the antagonist muscle group is the triceps. It works in opposition to the bicep.
• Concentric/Eccentric Phase of Contraction – the concentric phase is when the muscle is shortening. In our bicep example when you are lifting the weight up towards the body you are working in the concentric phase of contraction. Conversely the eccentric phase is when the muscle is lengthening while still under the resistance of weight. When you lower the bar in a bicep curl you are working in the eccentric phase of contraction. Ironically the majority of muscle soreness is attributed not to the concentric “work” phase, but to the work done in the eccentric phase…hence the reason negatives are so effective and painful!
• Single & Multi Joint Exercises – Single joint exercises only involve one joint moving at a time, multi joint exercises use, go figure, two or more joints. Bicep curls, leg extensions, hamstring curls are all examples of single joint exercises. Squats, hip sled, and chest press are two joint exercises. In general a two joint exercise is a bit more effective because it forces you to stabilize both of the joints and to activate the supporting musculature much more than a single joint exercise. They are also less dangerous to ligaments and tendons because the force is spread across several joints and more muscles. Most people can lift fairly heavily on a leg extension for example, but this fact also predisposes them to injury because there is so much force generated on a single joint. Just be cautious when lifting heavy weights on single joint exercises!
• Closed vs. Open Kinetic Chain Exercises – Simply put, closed kinetic chain exercises have the distal (farthest) joint from the center of the body in a fixed position while Open Kinetic Chain Exercises allow the distal segment to move freely. Typically open chain exercises are single joint, while closed kinetic chain exercises involve two joints simultaneously. While some open kinetic chain exercises are useful (bicep curl, bench press, leg curls) they should be undertaken cautiously as there are limitations to weight bearing undertaken by a single joint exercise, or one that has too much freedom of movement. Closed Kinetic Chain Exercises include squats, straight leg raise, hip sled and push ups. As you build your exercise regime, learn which one you are using.
These terms will not put you ‘in the know’ with the local body builder set, but they should help you start to think creatively and responsibly about your lifting program. Don’t simply do what the other kids do, become a student of the game. Watch others and see if you can spot good form. It may be harder than you think! If you are new to lifting, sign up for 3-5 sessions with a professional trainer. A good trainer can help you learn appropriate form, how to use the machines in your gym, and help you set up a good program – just make sure they are targeting the workout to your needs, considerations, and individual limitations.
Just like interviewing a potential coach, work up some questions to ask the trainer before starting. Things like: What is your experience working with endurance athletes? Can you explain the difference between muscle strength and muscle endurance? What are your feelings on single vs. multi-joint exercises? What are some form considerations for all exercises?” Or asking for an explanation of any of the items above will help you determine if the trainer is experienced and a good fit for you. Next time we will get into specific exercises and their form considerations.
1. Pfeiffer, Abbiss, Chapman, Laursen, and Parker: “Physiological characteristics of masters-level cyclists.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research – 2008 Sept, 22(5): 1434 – 1440
2. Paton & Hopkins: “Combining explosive and high-resistance training improves performance in competitive cyclists.” Journal Strength and Conditioning Research – 2005 Nov;19(4):826-30
3. Jackson, Hickey, & Riser “High resistance/low repetition vs. low resistance/high repetition training: effects on performance of trained cyclists.” Journal Strength and Conditioning Research – 2007 Feb;21(1):289-95
About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is the President of Sterling Sports Group and races road, track, and cyclocross in Northern California. Sterling Sports Group is a growing company focused on creating a seamless interface between athlete and coach, technology and personal attention. Visit us online to learn more at www.sterlingwins.com.