Resistance Training: Power to the Pedals
Do you want to improve your cycling strength and power this off season? How about developing those bulging quadriceps and calves that the opposite sex loves ‘oh so much? Well read on and plan on pumping some iron in the gym.
What has often been a controversial training method for cyclists, I’m here to tell ya that lifting weights gives you the most bang for your buck in terms of time and training progression. Plus, it’s great for those of you who are nine to fivers – daylight is not required!
Not a believer? How about taking a tip from US Postal Vuelta workhorse, Michael Barry: “I’ll do squats, leg press, back extensions, sit ups, and hamstring curls. Closer to the season I’ll do squats, back extensions and sit ups with a few minutes of riding between circuits.
Canadian Michael Barry rests those bulging quads en route to a 7th place at the 2003 Hamilton Worlds
I also recently spoke with 2003 US Pro National Criterium Champion Kevin Monahan about his philosophy on resistance training: “I believe all aspiring sprinters should follow a weight program for at least a few years to develop some of the muscle adaptations necessary for sprint power.” So you see, climbers, sprinters and everyone else in between can benefit from lifting weights.
The Plan, Stan
Now that you’re on board the weight lifting train you need a plan because successful resistance training involves more than just hitting the iron. You’ll want to break down your time in the weight room into four phases each having a physiological purpose.
1. Acclimate your legs to the weight room
2. Build some muscle
3. Train that muscle to produce great force
4. Enable that muscle to produce great force at cycling specific speeds.
Your resistance program should start off slow with an adaptation period of approximately three weeks. During this time your training goals should be to prepare yourself for a rigorous training regimen. Instead of hitting every machine in the gym, take Michael’s advice and focus on three primary lifts: the squat, the leg press, and the hamstring (leg) curl. Start with 3-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions (reps) per set, taking 2 minutes in between each set, three times per week. Gradually increase the weight over the course of the three weeks in a way that is challenging but not so hard that you cannot finish each set.
Pump You Up
Now comes the Hans and Frans part of the show.
After three weeks you will be ready for the big time: a muscle building phase. Because muscular size is closely correlated with muscle strength, the primary goal during this training phase will be to build muscle. This is where you can revel in the fact that you are creating those opposite sex attracting legs. Like your adaptation phase, perform 4 sets of 8-12 reps per set with a 2 minute rest period up to four times per week. With each set increase your weight by 5% and select weight that is hard but allows you to just finish the four sets. Plan on 2-4 weeks for maximal adaptation to this phase. You will notice that what was once difficult will become easier so increase you weight to keep you legs responding to the training stimuli.
Once you’ve put on a few lbs of power producing leg muscle, it’s time to train this muscle to produce more forceful contractions. Without going into a physiology lecture on nervous system stimulation (Stephen’s on sabbatical leave from teaching this year anyway), that’s the goal in this phase of resistance training.
Thus, fewer sets, less reps and greater weight are the name of the game. You want to increase the frequency and the magnitude at which the nervous system can stimulate the muscle to contract. To do this, drop down to 6 reps per set and bump up the weight (in a safety conscious way!) big time. For an even greater training effect, add weight with each additional set but drop the number of repetitions in the set. Note: this type of training produces great stress and training progress will only be seen with adequate recovery often involving up to 2-3 days in between lifting days. Plan on a 2 week “force” phase of 4-5 workouts before moving on to your final “power” phase.
Power to the Pedals
In the final phase comes the fun part. Muscle strength is speed specific and up until now we haven’t been lifting at speeds specific to cycling. In your power phase drop the weight significantly to “almost ridiculously easy” levels and concentrate on performing each lift as fast as possible. The squat will become the “jump squat” as you accelerate out of the squatting position so fast that you actually jump off the ground. Once again please exercise extreme caution and safety in the weight room during this time. One recommendation I make is to find a “Smith machine” to perform your squats on. The Smith machine has built-in safety features unlike a free squat. Like the “force” phase allow 2 weeks of 4-5 workouts with 2-3 days of rest in etween workouts.
There you have it, more power for you to put into the pedal. But while you’re at the gym don’t forget your core strength! Again US National Criterium champion, Kevin Monahan: “Most if not all cyclists should do what ever it takes to strengthen the ‘core.’ It makes the long days so much easier because you tire less easily in the back, shoulders, and neck where a lot of cyclists have problems.”
Cycling fans, you’re not finished yet! We’ll talk in the future about transferring all that power gained in the weight room onto the bike, but first we’ll throw the super crazies a bone: cyclocross racing and how it will enhance your road and mountain biking next season.
Frank is a full time USA cycling certified Expert coach specializing in training athletes with powermeters. If you aren’t downloading your powermeter files you aren’t training with power! For race and training analysis services please visit