Time in the gym has become a staple for many riders in the pro peloton in recent years. Big name riders, such as Team Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde, are well known for their strength training routines, particularly in the off season, or when they are racing less.
“During the winter, like many other pro riders, I do gym work. I go to the gym, do some weights and combine it with mountain biking or just running”.
So, how Can Strength Training Improve your Cycling Performance?
Functional Training Body Camp
Heavy strength training can improve our ability to generate a high power output over a short period of time. How this translates to cycling performance is simple. Think about all those times you’ve been trying to break away, close a gap, or push for a sprint finish and you’ve just wanted an extra boost. Strength training can give you that boost.
Other benefits of regular strength training include;
Increased Bone Density
Due to its lack of impact and the non-weight bearing nature of cycling, lots of endurance cycling can reduce your bone density over a long period of time. Strength training goes some of the way to countering this. The stress that weight training puts on the bones stimulates bone growth, improving bone density and reducing overall risk of osteoporosis.
Better All-Round Strength and Range of Motion
Due to the unnatural positions and highly repetitive motions involved in cycling, cyclists tend to have stronger quadriceps and glutes, while the muscles in the back, abdomen and upper body can be underdeveloped. The unnatural positions involved in long rides can also lead to a reduced range of motion especially around the hip flexor, which can lead to injury and back pain. Strength training and stretching in the gym can go some of the way to counter acting the shortening of the muscles in the hips and legs, while all round strength workouts in the gym will help with any underdeveloped muscle groups, improving all around strength balance.
Not only does improving range of motion and muscular balance help improve performance, but it also prevents injury as underdeveloped muscles are also less likely to be strained. Strength training also increases the strength of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and even bones reducing the risk of injury. Higher strength also promotes better body alignment and positioning on the bike meaning you are less likely to get an injury from poor posture, especially as fatigue sets in.
5 Exercises to Get you Started.
The Plank (and Variations)
The plank is a very versatile exercise that takes no equipment, very little space, and can be completed almost anywhere, in very little time; making it an easy exercise to add into even the busiest of schedules. The plank is an isometric hold, great for strength, stability, and muscular endurance.
The plank works several muscle groups, but is particularly effective as a core stability exercise. Core strength is excellent for cyclists as a strong ore will help maintain that all important body position on the bike, improving aerodynamics and preventing excessive side to side movement in the saddle.
For a standard plank, you will want to begin in a front support position. The hands should be planted into the ground directly under shoulders and slightly wider than shoulder width apart. The toes should be grounded into the floor. Use the glutes and abs to stabilize your body; you should feel as though you are being pressed between 2 planes of glass. You should be able to feel your legs working too but be careful not to lock or hyperextend your knees.
For beginners, aim to hold the position for around 20 seconds. As you get stronger and more comfortable in the position, you can extend the time (a full minute is a pretty good benchmark). Be careful, when holding for prolonged periods, not to compromise on form, and to maintain steady, even breaths.
Squats are an excellent choice of exercise for cyclists for several reasons. They are a great lower body workout, that build strong and powerful glutes and thighs (prime movers when it comes to cycling), as well as the hips and hamstrings, therefore helping to promote that all important muscular balance. They will also help you improve muscular endurance (when completed as an endurance exercise i.e. higher reps of a low weight). What is less well known however is that the core, lower back, and calves, also get a good workout from a well-executed squat.
Start with the feet shoulder width apart and toes turned slightly outwards. Slowly bend the knees and drop the hips, lowering the body down. You should keep your weight back, towards your heels. It should feel as though you could lift your toes off the ground during all phases of your squat. At the bottom of the squat, pause, momentarily, before pushing strongly back up to your starting position.
When it comes to an exercise that combines a full body, strength building workout with a high intensity cardiovascular endurance and explosive power builder, the burpee is BOSS. Not only is this high intensity exercise brilliant for strengthening muscles that are key for cyclists such as the quads, glutes and core; burpees are so explosive and demanding on the cardiovascular system that performing 10 consecutive repetitions has been found to replicate the effort of an all out 30 second sprint on a bike.
The best way to learn a basic burpee, with good form, is to break it down. We call this the four-count burpee. Your start point is to stand, as you would for a squat, in a strong, athletic, upright stance with feet shoulder width apart. Step 1 is to squat down towards the ground. Next, jump the legs out into a high plank or squat thrust position (pause here momentarily, or alternatively perform a push up in this position). Step 3 is to bring the legs back in, returning to your crouch position. Finally, jump explosively into the air raising your arms above your head, before landing onto soft knees.
Kettle Bell Swing
Kettle Bell workouts are superb for working the posterior chain (a group of muscles found in the back of the body). Examples of posterior chain muscles include the erector spinae muscle group, the gluteus medius, gluteus maximus, hamstrings (semimembranosus, semitendinosus, biceps femoris), and the gastrocnemius. Obviously, powerful glutes are important for cyclists (especially when it comes to getting up, out of the saddle, on a climb). Kettle bell swings, however, engage the hips and hamstrings, counteracting any weakening and shortening of the hip flexors from the seated position and evening out the balance from the over-use of the quads on the bike. They’re great for core engagement too!
Start by standing with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly out, and knees slightly bent. The kettlebell swing is a hip hinging exercise where the upward momentum for the weight is generated by the hips and core not by squatting with the weight or swinging the arms. Hold the with a two-handed, overhand grip on the horns (or handles) with your arms hanging straight down, loosely, in front of you. Tilt the hips back, keeping the spine in neutral, and allow the kettle bell to pass through your legs, then squeeze the glutes powerfully snap the hips forward to drive the kettlebell up to chest height.
Be careful not to overextend or lean backwards at the top of the kettlebell swing. Instead engage your core and buttocks, squeezing tight. Finally, allow the weight to swing back down, controlling the momentum with your core so the weight swings to just behind your legs. Repeat.
Lunges are very appropriate to a cycling specific strength training plan since they work one leg at a time and the quads, hip flexors, and hamstrings. This is an effective way to build lower body strength and endurance without placing additional strain on the joints. They are a very beginner friendly move, however, when you’re first starting out, I’d always recommend doing unweighted exercises to ensure mastering good technique and avoiding injury.
Start by standing tall with your feet around hip-width apart. Engage your core. Take a big step forward on one leg, shifting your weight forward, so that your heel hits the floor first. Lower your body until the thigh on the forward leg is parallel to the floor and the shin is vertical. It’s OK if knee slides, however important that it does not shift beyond the toes on the front foot. The knee of the back leg should be as close to the floor as possible. If mobility allows, you can ‘kiss’ the floor with the back knee. Press into the front heel to drive back up to starting position. Repeat on the other side.
Please ensure that you are fit and well before participating in any new form of physical activity. It can be a good idea to consult your doctor before engaging in new, physically demanding activities. If you are a beginner, or unsure of any activities, it can be a good idea to start off without using weights, or in a supervised setting i.e a gym.