In Part 3 of the blog, I wanted to answer some of the more frequently asked questions I receive as a coach regarding strength training and cycling. Let's jump right into them:
Will I gain weight from the gym that will hurt cycling performance?
The simple answer is no if you are paying attention to sound nutrition. Gaining actual muscle is not easy and takes months, so a cycling specific strength program is not going to result in performance hindering muscle gain. I have noted bulkier athletes that seem to be able to put muscle on more quickly than others, especially if they had more muscle mass previously. Even in this scenario, the actual muscle gains are modest and I do not feel they hinder cycling performance. The bulkier cyclist may want to be more conservative with upper body lifting and keep the effort well away from failure as that appears to drive hypertrophy more so than reps or weight used. I encourage athletes I work with to track their body fat along with their weight at least weekly. I do not want anyone obsessing over weight, but I do want athletes to keep an eye on it and alter the course before things get out of hand if body fat is creeping up higher than we want into the unhealthy realm. Build the body to be strong and healthy and athletic performance follows. All shapes and sizes can succeed in cycling and heavier can definitely be faster.
Should I perform a circuit or perform one exercise and then move onto the next?
I prefer a circuit once the core and plyometrics are done. I find many cyclists are already pressed for time and a circuit allows a great workout in less time. The challenge can be at a gym when others are waiting for equipment while you are running around. If a circuit is not possible, then do the best you can to be efficient - maybe do core in between squats while at the squat rack. If the goal of an exercise is to increase power (force x speed of the lift) then taking 2-3 minutes of rest in between sets is ideal in the same manner as you would with an exercise like plyometrics.
Single leg or double leg?
Both. Programs I build for athletes include both double and single leg work. Double leg work allows for higher loads to challenge the body and I think single leg work helps with stability, balance and is sport specific to cycling. Single leg or pistol squats are great exercises as are single leg hamstring curls. Single leg work also targets the muscles and connective tissues a bit differently than double leg, which is a good thing. The single leg exercises can often be used alone in the stability phase and then used to help with progressing workouts later in a program by adding body weight single leg squats after weighted barbell squats, as an example. I also like the speed of the movements with single leg work using body weight or very light weights. The speed of the lifts is important to translate into cycling power later.
Squats or Leg Press?
For me, squats. The leg press is safer than squatting since you do not need to balance or have a spotter. The leg press machines also have safety features built in and allow for using much heavier weights compared to the squat. That said, I prefer the squat. The reason we can lift so much more weight with the leg press is because of the pad/board that supports our back does a lot of the work that our core is required to do when squatting. This core strength is critical to transfer power to the bike and I think the squat translates better to performance than the leg press. The squat also requires us to balance and recruits many other muscles to help stabilize the weight, making it a great full body exercise that I value. Using a spotter and proper form for squats makes it a very safe exercise in my opinion. Note: I prefer free weights to machines for almost all exercises.
What if I am not able to actually perform pull-ups or single leg squats?
You are not alone. Single leg squats are harder than one might think. It can be a very humbling thing to try and one leg is usually stronger than the other supporting the value of doing these to balance out the body. I know I can feel my right leg doing more work during double leg squats if I do not focus on both legs working equally. I think the key to single leg work is to accept that they are hard and start by going as low as you can and gradually going lower and lower until you can complete a full single leg squat. Some athletes might find it helpful to use their arms and a door jam to help support them as leg strength and balance improves. Using one leg on a chair behind you can also help with form and balance. Balance is a key part and I find it helpful to focus my eyes on one spot on the floor. If you are not good at these, then I think it supports the benefit of taking them on. No equipment needed.
Pull-ups are very hard and may take time to work up to being able to do just one rep. Again, using a chair under the bar so your legs can support some of your weight can be a good starting point as you develop the strength over time to do pull-ups. Lat pull downs can be used as a substitute. A great exercise if pull-ups are not an option is the inverted row - shown here.
What if I don't have weights or time to go to a gym?
No problem. The forces we generate on a bike are quite low and lifting heavy weights at the gym alone does not result in better performance on the bike in my experience. A common cycling workout (with many names) involves climbing a 4-6% hill in a big gear and low cadence (~50 rpm). These are considered force or torque work. To put it in perspective, 10 minutes at 50 rpm is equal to 500 reps per leg. How much weight can you single leg squat 500 times? This is not weight lifting on the bike in my opinion. To my knowledge, the only forces on the bike that equate what we can do in the gym are standing start or track stand sprints where we start sprinting from dead stop in a big gear. So, those can be implemented into your weekly training if you are not able to get to the gym to use heavier weights. I bet your entire body will feel it with track stand sprints. Plyometrics also create significant forces/power and add to cycling performance. They can easily be done almost anywhere there is a flat surface. Lunges and step-ups do not require heavy loads to be challenging. A yoga mat, swiss ball, a tree limb, and a cinder block can be more than enough to get an effective workout at home.
Heavy weights/low reps or Light weights/high reps?
Since weight gain is also always a concern for cyclists, some authors suggest using certain strategies to keep weight gain to a minimum and strength gain to a maximum. These strategies often include longer or shorter rest periods, lower or higher reps and so on. Keep in mind that It has been shown that light weights/high reps, heavy weights/low reps and both long and short rest periods trigger muscle hypertrophy in individuals when training to failure. I think the failure part is the key and we do not need to train to failure to find gains. I prefer using lighter weights as they are less likely to result in injury and the lifting movements are generally going to be faster than we can do with really heavy loads. Again, I think the speed of the lifts does relate to cycling performance. I think the weights need to be moved in a controlled fashion where we lower the weights slowly and then lift them back up as explosively and safely as we can. As a rule of thumb, I like to choose a weight where I can complete the prescribed reps and could do 2 more reps if I really had to - pushing myself, but also avoiding failure. 70% of your one rep maximum (1RM) for 8-10 reps for exercises like the squat is a good weight to choose in my opinion. I find the weight can be moved quickly and 8-10 reps does not result in failure as most athletes can do 12 or more reps at this percentage of their max.
Should I max out?
No. There are several resources that have charts to estimate your 1RM based on the weight you use and how many reps you can do. This is a good one here. Use trial and error from week to week through your program to find what weights you can use with proper form and complete the prescribed reps. You can then use one of the calculators like the one in the link to get a good estimate of your 1RM while following your program. Just like the bike, training is testing and testing is training.
I hope this helps you come up with a strength program that can help keep you injury free and enhance your cycling. The longer I coach athletes and see responses, the more I believe that simple is best when it comes to training. Strength training for cyclists looks very similar to strength training for any other sport. Keep in mind the progressive overload principle. A well designed strength program should gradually progress to be harder from session to session and week to week with plenty of rest and recovery. Don't skip the rest and recovery when your body needs it. Many training plans are based on a 7 day week and that does not always fit with what is best for your body. Workouts may be planned for Monday and Thursday and it may be best to move Monday to Tuesday and maybe drop the Thursday session from the week due to fatigue. Many athletes are good at working hard and many are not good at resting or dropping workouts from the program because they are legitimately tired.
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