Strength Training for Cyclists

Peak Centre for Human Performance

Strength is an often overlooked but very important factor in endurance athletes. There are two main types of strength: absolute strength and strength endurance. Absolute strength represents your ability to lift a maximal weight once (your one repetition max). Strength endurance is creating a sub-maximal force, and repeating it for a required number of repetitions. Cycling is a sub-maximal exercise and thus, the higher your absolute strength, the easier the repeated movement (your cycling cadence) becomes.

Modern strength training programs often focus on using unstable surfaces and balance training, despite the fact that these types of training have not been shown to improve performance. This type of training can in fact significantly limit strength gains due to the lower force development produced with these movements when trying to compensate for balance and stabilization. Traditional strength training exercises such as the squat, bench press, deadlift, pull ups, and power cleans have been shown to be key to athletic performance time and time again.

Warm-Up and Movement Preparation

A good warm up is essential for a good workout and must be done prior to each training session.  Warm-ups are designed to increase muscle temperature, flexibility, strength and endurance, which make your workout more effective.  There are two components to every warm up:

  1. General Warm-Up
    • Start your warm up with some very light and relatively short cardio. Jump on your favorite cardio machine (elliptical, rowing erg, treadmill, etc.) and warm up for 8-10 minutes, ensuring that muscles are warm.  This may need to be longer in colder environments.  The goal of a warm-up is to increase muscle temperature, not to create fatigue, so take it easy.
  2. Specific Warm-Up
    • After the general warm-up is completed you need to do a specific warm up for the type of training that you will be doing regardless of strength or cardio training. Again, keep in mind that a warm-up is just that: a warm-up and is NOT training!  Fatigue should be kept to a minimum during the warm-up period or else the training session will suffer.
    • Every warm-up should include a period of mobility which is also referred to as movement preparation or dynamic stretching and includes similar muscles, joints and movements that are specific to the workout. Do not include weights in this portion.
    • Finally, perform at least one light set of an exercise before using the ‘working’ (harder) weight. Repetitions in warm up sets are low, 2-6, and done at a controlled speed. Warm-up sets are done for every exercise in the program, not just the first exercise.  Later on, when lifting heavier weights, you should include 2-3 warm-up sets.  The first of these sets is done at ~50% and the second at ~75% of the working weight.

Strength Training Progression

While the rep range (see below) gives you a guideline for the amount of weight to use it is up to you to pick the appropriate resistance for that range, the time of season and the goal of the training phase.  Lifting properly (technique) is essential to good strength development.  One of the most basic principles of training – the “Overload Principle” – states that you need to continually increase the physical stress on your body in order for it to continue to adapt and bring you closer to your goals.  You should select a weight that will allow you to complete the required number of reps (while still using good technique).  As you become stronger and are able to complete 1-2 more reps than are required for the specific range, increase the weight an appropriate amount to bring the reps back within the desired range.  Use this weight until you improve once again.

Reps, Sets and Movements

To become a better cyclist, your focus for strength training should be:

1)            5 to 8 reps of maximum weight

2)            2 to 3 sets

3)            8 to 12 whole body exercises

4)            2 to 3 minutes rest between sets


It is important to ensure good technique is maintained throughout each movement. If you can’t make 5 reps with good technique, then the weight is too heavy. If you can make 9 or more reps, then the weight is too light.

Brand new to strength training:

If you are not familiar with strength training, it is not recommended you start straight away at the 5 to 8 repetition range.  Begin your training at a higher repetition range (10 to 12 for example) with a weight that you can complete with good technique for 3 to 4 weeks. This initial phase of strength training allows your body time to get used to the movements of each exercise so that ligaments and tendons are strong and your technique is good. When you are comfortable with the weight and your technique is good, increase the weight and reduce the repetitions to 8 to 10 for 3 to 4 weeks. Finally reduce the reps down to 5 to 8 reps with a higher weight for the remainder of your training.

Combining Strength & Cardio on the same day:

Recent research has demonstrated that in order for strength sessions to be effective, they should be done PRIOR to cardio (if doing back-to-back) or else separated from another session by a minimum of 2 hrs.  If you are already fatigued going into your strength training the force production you’re able to create will be lower and therefore the gains will be reduced.

How often should I strength train?

It is recommended to begin with two strength sessions per week working up to three, time permitting and dependent on the time of year.  During the off-season is a great time to add in more strength training sessions when your overall cycling volume will likely be lower.  As you get into the competitive season the sessions may come down 1-2 times per week as your in saddle volume increases.  You may be sore for a day or two after your first few sessions.  This is very common and is called “delayed onset muscle soreness”, where your muscles are complaining because they are not used to doing the movements involved.  Once you are into the swing of things, you shouldn’t be as sore and will be able to recover from each session that bit easier.  ‘Recovery’ weeks should also be built in; these are lighter intensity sessions and are essential in order to solidify adaptations to training.

But, I’m a cyclist, and I’m concerned about gaining too much weight!

Won’t that make me slower?

Of course power to weight ratio is a very important factor in cycling events.  But if performed correctly, and nutritional requirements are applied appropriately, you will not gain any significant amount of weight.  And the gains you will see from being stronger will massively outweigh (excuse the pun!) any negative impact from increased body weight.  Seek further professional advice from a qualified nutritionist, or come speak to us at the Peak Centre if you have further questions about this.


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