Resistance Training for Cyclists

By Gregg Fuhrman, MPT, OCS, CFMT, CSCS originally posted on March 9, 2010 12:38 PM

Cycling is primarily an endurance sport with the major energy contribution coming from aerobic energy production. Resistance training, or weight lifting, is primarily an anaerobic activity characterized by short bursts of high intensity work. At first glance it would appear that these two activities are at the opposite ends of the fitness spectrum. In fact, Chris Carmichael, personal coach to Lance Armstrong, has compared the relationship of weight training and cycling to that of “oil and water.” While Carmichael acknowledges the dichotomy of weight lifting and cycling, he feels that the time spent in the gym lifting in the early season is essential to build the cyclist’s strength for the demands of the competitive season. But what about the recreational or amateur cyclist; why should they be concerned with weight lifting?

Why lift weights for cycling?

In the book Science of Cycling, edited by Dr. Edmund R. Burke, Harvey Newton outlines several benefits of resistance training.

  1. First and foremost is obviously increasing strength. The ultimate goal of increasing your cycling performance is to ride faster. In order to ride faster, the cyclist has three choices: exert more force into the pedals, pedal faster or both. Resistance training builds strength in musculature needed to exert more force into the pedals.
  2. Second, resistance training improves local muscular endurance. If the primary muscle groups involved in turning the pedals have increased endurance, the rider will be able to sustain a faster speed for a longer time, hence a better performance.
  3. Third, resistance training plays an important role in injury prevention. Cycling is inherently a highly repetitive activity. Consider a cyclist out for a two-hour training ride. With a cadence of 94 revolutions per minute (rpm), he or she will perform 11,280 repetitions! If the musculoskeletal system is not prepared to handle this quantity of repetition, overuse injuries can easily result. Resistance training strengthens connective tissue found in muscle, tendon, and at their attachment sites onto bones. The benefit of this “pre-hab” is important for the athlete who wants to stay on the road.
  4. Finally, resistance training is an important component of a post-injury rehabilitation program to get the athlete back on the bike.

Cycling Biomechanics

In the power phase, as one leg pushes down on the pedal from a starting point at the 12 o’clock position, the following actions are occurring. The hip flexors contract to flex the hip to prepare for the push phase. Knee extensors (muscles that straighten the knee) contract as the rider pushes down, coordinating with the powerful hip extensors contracting to straighten the hip. Plantar flexors (muscles that point the foot down) contract to further assist with the push on the pedals. As the pedal stroke continues, the antagonist (opposing) muscle groups to those mentioned, contract to prepare the leg for the upcoming pedal revolution.

Anecdotally, it was thought that the use of toe clips, and more recently clipless pedal systems that fix the rider’s foot to the pedal, allow the rider to pull up on the pedal opposite to the side that is pushing down. However, laboratory research has more accurately shown that the non-pushing leg is really being prepared to get out of the way and to unload resistance off the pushing side pedal. A skilled cyclist is more efficient at both phases: applying more force to the pushing side pedal, while concurrently unloading the opposite side pedal.

A final point on muscle function–riding a bike is a concentric muscle activation activity. Concentric muscle activation is defined as a muscle generating force through shortening. Eccentric muscle activation is defined as a muscle generating force as it is elongating. Activities that include both eccentric and concentric activation patterns include walking, running, jumping, throwing, and catching. The bicycle as a machine is unique in that it allows the rider to activate the necessary muscle groups concentrically.

It’s not just legs …

Cycling is primarily a sagittal plane sport. Anatomically, the sagittal plane cuts the body into right and left halves with the axis of rotation oriented at 90° from the plane or from medial to lateral. Simplifying things further, in the sagittal plane, joints predominantly flex (bend) and extend (straighten). From a strength perspective, a cyclist will want to target those muscle groups mentioned previously that work at the hip, knee, and ankle to flex and extend, but what about the rest of the body?

The two other anatomical planes that exist are the frontal plane, which divides the body into front and back halves, and the transverse plane, which divides the body into top and bottom halves. Muscles of the trunk, spine, and upper extremity that function in these two planes have the chief role of stabilizing movements of the hips, legs, and arms. This stabilization allows the rider to impart more force into the pedals because the hips, legs, and arms now have a stable base to push and pull against while pedaling.

The plan: Keep first things first

The goal of resistance training for the cyclist is to enhance cycling performance. Resistance training must be viewed as an adjunct to riding; a means to a better end. A comprehensive resistance training program for a cyclist must be specific, dynamic, and adaptable. In order to meet these criteria, the concept of periodization should be used when creating a training plan.

Periodization as a framework for structuring a weight training program for cyclists was outlined by Stone, O’Brien, Garhammer, McMullan and Rozenek in a 1982 article published in the National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal. (Table 1 is adapted from this article.) The basic premise of a periodization training scheme is that the training should be cyclical and progressive in nature, allow for rest and regeneration, and manipulate training variables to better prepare for the athlete for competition.

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