Weight Training for Cyclists – How to do it Right

cycling weight training

Strong legs and a scrawny upper-body… that’s the stereotype for lycra clad cyclists. Just look at the photos of pro-riders after a three-week stint of the Tour de France, the alien-like body of Chris Froome suggests that pro-cycling is just about leg strength and the time spent in the saddle. This may have been true in bygone eras but modern cycling is a different beast and saddle-time is just one part of the path to success.

chris froome skinny

Effective training goes beyond the bike and factors-in physical and psychological aspects such as nutrition and mental exercises like goal-setting.

Top cyclists often get automatic access to comprehensive training from coaches and experts from national sports bodies (such as the Australian Institute of Sport) and from their cycling team or club. But for amateurs riders and everyday cyclists who just want to get better on the bike, expert training can be unobtainable. A new digital training service called Volt is seeking to change this by putting expert training within reach for everyday people, they cater to a range of sports and include cycling specific programs.

 

Do you even lift bro?

Don’t rip the sleeves off your t-shirt and start flexing your guns just yet. Seattle based Christye Estes is an expert in strength training and as a bike rider herself, she knows exactly how cyclists can get the most out of weight training.

christye watkins cycling

Estes represents the Volt training app and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), a qualification from the US based National Strength and Conditioning Association. She has kindly taken time to talk with Bicycles Network Australia and answer cycling specific questions about weight training.

 

Christopher Jones: Is the perfect cyclist a Tyrannosaurus Rex, all about lower body and leg strength?

Christye Estes: Well first of all, a T-Rex might have some powerful quads, but he’s pretty top-heavy. He’d probably topple backwards off the bike if he picked up any speed, especially without a strong upper body and core to support him. Leg strength is essential for cycling, that’s not up for debate. But even though cycling might not look like a full-body activity, it certainly takes more than just quads to propel you forward.

Any time you change position – standing to power up a hill, shifting your center of gravity to execute a tight turn, tucking into a streamlined position to gain speed – you are using your entire body, not just your legs. The muscles that surround your torso (your core) help you maintain balance while you’re perched on those two wheels, and are especially important during turns and descents that require you to shift your body’s weight to gain a mechanical (speed) advantage.

And your upper body doesn’t just rest on those handlebars, at least, not all the time. You use your arms, chest, and back to help you steer the bike, shift from a seated position to standing, maintain balance during the ride, and to strategically help take weight off your legs when they grow tired. So while cycling might look like a legs-only party, your arms and core are definitely invited.  In fact, strength training programs that target the full body are particularly important for endurance athletes.

Cycling, much like long-distance swimming or running, requires you to perform the same repetitive movements over and over, often without breaks. That means you’re using the same muscles, in the same range of motion, over and over. Some muscles, like your quads, can get overused, while others, like your hamstrings, can actually get underused, upsetting the strength balance in the body. A balanced strength training program helps to even out these muscular imbalances, which goes a long way towards preventing overuse injuries.

Finally, we’re not just cyclists, we’re humans first! We need our whole bodies to be strong because you never use just one segment of muscles or joints in your daily life. You need a strong upper-body to carry groceries and pick up your kids, and you need a strong core just to get out of bed in the mornings. This makes full-body strength essential for so much more than just cycling.

 

Christopher Jones: What benefit does weight training provide that a rider can’t achieve or gain otherwise?

Christye Estes: Strength training gives cyclists some pretty awesome benefits, ones you just can’t get from cycling alone. Not only does strength training help even out muscular imbalances and prevent injuries, it also helps increase your power output on the bike. While cycling is great for improving your aerobic capacity and cardiovascular system in general, it doesn’t actually do a lot when it comes to muscular strength (maximal force output) and explosive power (force expressed quickly). To sprint up steep hills or make that final push at the end of a race, you’ve got to have strength and power. A good training program for cyclists will include exercises to specifically target lower-body strength (squats and lunges) and power (hang cleans and box jumps), in addition to other, full-body movements.

Another huge benefit to strength training is that it can improve your stamina. Many cyclists think that the best way to improve stamina is by logging more and more miles on the bike, but if you really want to see improvement, hit the weights!

Strength training helps to improve your cycling posture and overall technique, which means you can ride for longer before getting tired. In the strength and conditioning world this is called your exercise economy, a measure of how efficient your body’s  “engines” are at utilising energy (much like fuel economy measures how efficient a car utilises gas). Strength training has been shown to improve exercise economy by making your body’s engines more efficient, which allows you to work harder (ride at a faster pace) for longer before the onset of fatigue.

 

Christopher Jones: Is the Volt guided weight training programs for competitive or elite cyclists – or is there a tangible benefit for the every day cyclist or weekend warrior?

Christye Estes: Great question! The answer is that both competitive cyclists and weekend warriors can get a lot out of a cycling-specific strength training program, but those that are training to improve performance for a specific race or series of races will benefit most from Volt’s periodised training calendar. Good training programs are strategically organised to develop and layer training adaptations (like strength, power, and endurance) so that athletes reach peak performance at just the right time, this is called periodisation.

Volt’s intelligent training engine automatically periodises your training program based on when you need to reach peak shape for competition, so you never enter a race over- or under-trained. Periodised training is the gold-standard approach to sport performance for elite athletes, but it requires a lot of expertise to organise correctly, which is what makes Volt such a great asset for athletes training for performance.

volt weight training plan

Volt programs also include strategic injury prevention exercises that target the most frequently injured areas in a specific sport, for cyclists, that’s the knees, hips, and back. Every workout contains movements that strengthen and stabilise the muscles and joints in a way that develops proper movement patterns and helps mitigate the high-volume nature of endurance cycling. Any cyclist, from beginner to elite, will reap the rewards of strategic injury prevention training!  So to sum it up, both competitive and non-competitive cyclists alike will see benefits from working out on a well-designed, balanced program, but if you’re training specifically for performance, it’s the periodisation (in programs like Volt) that gives you the real bang for your buck.

 

Christopher Jones: Let’s explore periodisation in more details, Can you provide an example of periodisation for a competitive cyclist and how the Volt training program guides the rider preparing for a major race.

A periodised training program allows the athlete to layer training adaptations in order to maximise performance, and importantly, ensures the athlete is not overtrained by the time they compete. By progressively lifting heavier weights, you will grow stronger, but only up to a certain point, beyond which you will cease improving and can actually see your strength decline if you keep training. Periodisation helps avoid this overtraining by periodically decreasing workout intensity, to allow the body to adequately recover. While there are many different types of periodisation, this strategy is generally accepted as the gold-standard approach to sport performance training.

Volt’s Cycling program utilises a periodisation scheme that breaks up the entire training year into phases. Preparatory is when you are actively training for a race. Competitive is either a single race or racing season and Transitional is when you are not competing but not actively preparing for competition.

volt training periodization

Each phase is further broken up into blocks, with each block focused on developing a specific training adaptation, like muscular endurance or power. Each block is broken up into training weeks, usually 3 weeks to a block. So if you have 12 weeks to train for a race, Volt will cycle you through 4 blocks of focused training. Each block of training gradually progresses the athlete in loading (weight being lifted) and/or volume (number of reps and sets prescribed), depending on the specific goals of the block.

In the Preparatory Phase, athletes will see volume start high and then decrease as competition draws nearer, while loading starts low and increases, in order to produce the optimal adaptations. The blocks are also strategically ordered to produce the best possible performance results for example, Power always precedes Speed.

The number of blocks and block type all depend on how long you have to prepare for competition and Volt dynamically adjusts your periodised training calendar according to your specific timeframe. Volt Cycling incorporates Muscular Endurance, Strength Capacity, Strength, Max Strength, Power, and Speed blocks to accomplish the training goals of the competitive cyclists, and tapers athletes in volume, loading, and workout frequency. There are just 2 workouts per week in the final block of training to ensure athletes are fresh and ready for competition.

 

Christopher Jones: What do I need to get started? Do I need to buy weights and are there substitutes?

Christye Estes: While you can do a lot with just your bodyweight – especially if you have a few other implements, like a bench and a pull-up bar – we recommend athletes using Volt join a gym or use a facility with weights for best results. Volt was designed to be implemented in a weight room environment, so many exercises you’ll see in your workout program may include barbells, dumbbells, bands, stability balls, medicine balls, and more. However, if you don’t have access to a lot of equipment, there is always a work-around!

weight training app

Volt lets you replace any movement in your program with another from the same category, so you can select exercises with equipment you have access to. For example, if you don’t have a barbell, you can replace a Barbell Back Squat with a Dumbbell Goblet Squat or Bodyweight Squat, the exercises are from the same movement pattern category (in this case, double-leg push), so your program will still be effective and balanced.

Also, the first few weeks of Volt training are focused on mostly bodyweight movements, in order to start developing good mechanics and work capacity before introducing heavy weights. So if you’re not sure if you want to commit, you have a few weeks to get the hang of some of the exercises before we ask you to start picking up weights.

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Thank you Christye!

You can get more training insights from Christye Estes on her Volt Athletics Blog and can follow her on twitter @coachchristye

The Volt App is available for iOS and Android and can be trialled without cost for seven days after which the monthly charge is $29.99 (USD).

 

Photos 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 Supplied by © Volt
Photo 2, Chris Froome © Jaguar MENA



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About The Author

Christopher Jones is a recreational cyclist and runs a professional design business, Signale. As the driving force behind Bicycles.net.au he has one of each 'types' of bicycles.

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