In this column, we’ll tell you why strength training may or may not improve your cycling performance.
It feels like we revisit this question every year: does strength training improve cycling performance? The short yet unsatisfying answer is, “it depends.”
Strength training is great for injury prevention, maintaining muscle mass, improving overall stability, and increasing bone density. Simultaneously, many of the best cyclists in the world completely abstain from strength training.
A recent study detailed the training data of three different top-five Giro d’Italia finishers in the years 2015-2018. From December to May, these riders trained 15-30 hours per week, raced around the globe, and went to high-altitude training camps. But never once did they perform a single strength training session.
In this article, we’ll tell you how you can benefit from strength training in more ways than one. But not every cyclist will benefit from strength training. There are many factors to consider including your age, overall health, and cycling goals. In looking at multiple studies and meta-analyses, we’ll separate the substance from the fluff.
How Strength Training Improves Your Cycling Performance
One of the #1 reasons that I recommend strength training to cyclists is injury prevention. Multiple studies have shown significant decreases in overuse injuries in cyclists who participate in regular strength training. Some studies showed up to 50% risk reduction from strength training.
Forced time off the bike is low-grade torture for serious cyclists. There are few worse feelings than scrolling through Strava or Instagram, watching your friends riding in the sun while you’re stuck at home recovering from an injury. Because of the repetitive pedaling motion and unnatural body position on a bicycle, cycling has a high rate of overuse injuries.
Some of the most common overuse injuries occur in the knees, lower back, IT band, hip, or neck. But the good news is that you can directly target these areas (and more) through strength training. These sessions can strengthen the muscles and surrounding areas, improving balance and muscle mass, as well as preventing future injury.
When it comes to high-performing cyclists, there is still some debate about strength training and its effects on cycling performance. Some studies have shown increases in sub-maximal and peak power output after a period of strength training, while other studies show no benefit at all.
The answer lies in the details of these studies which typically follow well-trained cyclists as they complete a six-to-12-week strength training program. It should come as no surprise that the introduction of a new training stimulus resulted in positive performance adaptations. In other words, adding strength training to their program resulted in short-term performance boosts in these cyclists.
Links to all these studies can be found at the end of this article.
But anecdotally, there is little evidence that suggests strength training improves cycling performance long-term. This is why, in my opinion, few professional cyclists participate in regular, structured strength training. Once they are dialed in with the best training, coaching, and equipment in the world, there isn’t much evidence that strength training could further improve their performance.
Simply put, strength training does not generally lead to increased cycling performance. Instead, strength training promotes all-around health and wellness adaptations. Most studies on strength training and cycling show improved balance and coordination, flexibility, bone density, and retention of muscle mass.
Also, it is important that we dispel the myth that strength training will lead to increased body weight. Most cyclists want to be lean, and many are scared of strength training because they think they’re going to bulk up with performance-hindering muscle mass.
If only it were that easy to get ripped and have huge muscles.
Strength training does not always lead to increased muscle mass, also known as muscle hypertrophy. It takes a specific training and nutrition program to gain significant amounts of muscle mass, and those programs are much different than what is best for cyclists. In a cyclist’s strength training program, the small amount of muscle mass that you may (or may not) gain will make you faster, not slower. And did I mention that regular strength training promotes the loss of body fat?
Why strength training DOES NOT improve your cycling performance
One of the biggest reasons that cyclists abstain from strength training is time. We are all busy, and for some cyclists, it is tough to squeeze a 1-hour ride into their daily schedule.
To get the most out of strength training sessions, you should be lifting at least once a week, if not twice. Two strength training sessions, lasting 30-60 minutes each, is ideal for the vast majority of cyclists.
But the time you spend strength training is time not spent on the bike, which can seriously hamper your cycling performance if you only have 5-8 hours per week to train.
For time-crunched cyclists training less than eight hours per week, riding will do more for your cycling performance than 1-2 strength training sessions per week.
If you happen to search for studies on strength training and cycling performance, you will find lots of studies that suggest strength training always improves cycling performance, such as an all-out time trial or your sprint power. But when you dive into the details of each study (whose details can be found below), you will find that the results are marginal.
When looking at five different studies from 2009 to 2017, all of them showed increased time trial performance after eight to 25 weeks of strength training. But in most of these studies, the average performance increase was between 0.5% and 1.5%. In one study, 12 weeks of strength training actually decreased time trial performance by ~1.5%.
Think about those numbers for a second. After eight to 25 weeks of strength training being added, performance increased (or decreased) by -1.5% to 1.5%. If you took out strength training completely, you might actually expect better performance outcomes.
With 12 weeks of structured on-the-bike training, most experienced cyclists could expect a 1-2% performance increase in their time trial or sprint power, for example. In other words, it’s impossible to say if strength training had any positive effect on these cyclists’ performances, or if it was just eight to 25 weeks of structured training that made them marginally better.
Strength training is best for experienced cyclists
I do not recommend strength training for beginner cyclists. If you are just starting out in cycling, there is no need to overload your training with strength sessions. When you first enter the sport, your body will experience lots of stress and subsequent adaptations just from riding.
At this early point in your cycling training, it is a big risk to add strength training on top of your cycling sessions. If you do want to use strength training for the obvious benefits, start with one light session per week in addition to your cycling.
There are two main risks that come with strength training: injury and overtraining.
First, strength training can cause all sorts of injuries from strained muscles, to herniated discs, or tendonitis. Improper form is the most common cause of injury in strength training, while overuse can have the same effects.
Overtraining can lead to deteriorating cycling performance; from strength training, riding, or both. We’ve already seen that time spent strength training is time not spent on the bike, and going too hard in the gym can seriously affect your cycling performance. If you’re so sore from the gym that you can’t complete any of your on-the-bike HIIT sessions, your cycling performance will begin to tank.
So who is strength training for?
Strength training is for cyclists who want to improve their balance and coordination, flexibility, bone density, and retention of muscle mass. That’s why I recommend strength training for younger (under 18) and older athletes (50+) who are most susceptible to all types of injuries.
Strength training is not for cyclists who only want to improve their cycling performance. These cyclists should focus on structured training and interval sessions to improve their on-the-bike power. One or two weekly strength training sessions shouldn’t hurt, but don’t put too much energy into your gym sessions if you’re trying to get the most out of yourself on the bike.
In summary, strength training will only improve your cycling performance if it is coupled with a structured training plan. The true benefits of strength training are improved general health and injury prevention, which indirectly makes you a faster cyclist since you have more time and energy to train.
- Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects
- The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials
- The Effect of Resistance Training in Healthy Adults on Body Fat Percentage, Fat Mass and Visceral Fat: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
- Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review
- 10 weeks of heavy strength training improves performance-related measurements in elite cyclists
- Strength training improves performance and pedaling characteristics in elite cyclists
- Strength training improves cycling performance, fractional utilization of VO2max and cycling economy in female cyclists