Strength training has been gaining traction in the endurance training space for quite some time. It wasn’t that many years ago that many cyclists were afraid of strength training for the reason that they didn’t want to put on excess muscle – some probably still think that. But study after study suggests that strength training is not only beneficial for cycling performance, but it is also an important factor for injury prevention, overall health, and longevity.
So why are we writing about strength training again?
Well, two studies just came out on strength training and cycling, and they may convince you to start lifting.
Australian study says the strength training effects body fat percentage as much as aerobic exercise
Published in Sports Medicine in September of this year, this systematic review and meta-analysis comes to us from Sydney, Australia. A group of researchers went through nearly 12,000 records to determine the effects of strength training on body fat percentage.
Now, you have probably heard the cyclist’s excuse for abstaining from strength training or weight lifting as, “I don’t want to put on any extra muscle.”
Most people think that cycling is all about power-to-weight ratio, and so cyclists want to be lean. Lose weight by maintaining your power output, and you’ll go faster. Simple math, right?
But in reality, very little of cycling is about power-to-weight ratio. Only the upper echelons of the sport — and local hill climbs — are pure watts-per-kilo contests. The rest of cycling – local criteriums, time trials, and road races – are more about absolute power output, timing, tactics, positioning, and sprinting. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not racing in the Tour de France.
Losing weight is also a tedious process and one that so many cyclists get wrong. Thankfully, there has been an increasing trend towards healthy eating and sustainability in the cycling community; plus, many of the best riders in the world are no longer twigs.
Back on track now, the belief that strength training invariably leads to increased weight and muscle mass is false. In fact, as this study set out to prove, strength training may not only increase strength and power without increasing bodyweight, but it can even help decrease bodyweight and total body fat.
Compared to cardiovascular exercise, resistance training has the same negative effect on body fat percentage – the average participant lost 1.4 percent body fat over a 4-week training period – according to this study. This suggests that you don’t necessarily need to be doing hours of cardiovascular exercise in order to burn fat. In reality, exercise burns fat; and during a structured strength training program like the ones completed during this study, you will not only lose fat, but also gain muscle.
German study followed 30 competitive cyclists through a year of strength training
While our first study focused on beginner-level lifters in the general population, this newly published study takes on a much narrower client pool that probably includes people like you and me. Published in the Biology of Sport, a group of German researchers followed 30 competitive cyclists as they participated in a year-long strength training program. A number of important performance metrics were measured and monitored including functional threshold power (FTP), maximal strength repetition (1RM), and body composition.
The study participants engaged in heavy strength training sessions one to two times per week which included the barbell squat, leg press, seated leg curl, one-legged press, core stability movements, and others. Each exercise was performed in three to five sets, while the number of reps varied with the amount of weight, according to the study.
Researchers gave even more specific instructions to the participants, instructing them to perform each repetition with a rapid explosive effort to start (during the concentric contraction phase), followed by a slow and controlled movement back to center (during the eccentric contraction phase).
Over the year-long study, each participant was simultaneously completing structured cycling training which included endurance capacity intervals and then progressing to lactate threshold and neuromuscular capacity (VO2 max) intervals.
Here are the key differences between this study and the other: longer duration (1 year versus >4 weeks), simultaneous weekly cardiovascular and strength training, and the types of metrics measured (cycling performance metrics in addition to body composition).
In summary: This study’s participants gained both strength and endurance throughout the year, while also experiencing a slight (~1lb/500g) increase in body mass. Skipping past the stats-heavy wording, the researchers found that there were significant increases in both strength and functional power during the study, but only minimal increases in power-to-weight ratio.
Let’s talk about what this all means.
Why these studies are important to you
The second study applies to competitive cyclists, and probably most who are reading this article. The question most frequently asked is “Does strength training make me faster?” The answer, for 90 percent of us, is yes.
There are very few people whose goals are mountainous fondos or Alpine tours. Most of us race criteriums and time trials, maybe a regional road race or two, and maybe even a stage race. I also know that most of these races are relatively flat, and it’s your absolute power output – not your power-to-weight ratio – that matters most.
The other 10 percent are pure climbers. If your cycling goals involve long and steep climbs that are more than 20 minutes long with an average gradient of over 5 percent, then your power-to-weight ratio is more important than strength training. I highly recommend you lift once a week to maintain muscle mass and balance out your core and upper body, though strength training won’t help increase your power-to-weight ratio.
The first study in this article proves to us that strength training isn’t bad for cyclists and it won’t make you heavier; in fact, it actually does the opposite.
In the second study, we learned that you can include both strength training and cycling in your program, and simultaneously make performance gains in both. This is especially important for sprinters, crit riders, and puncheurs, whose absolute power matters much more than their power-to-weight ratio.
Lastly, we learned that strength training can have a direct and positive effect on your cycling performance. With just one to two sessions per week, you can increase your overall strength and absolute power output, while still completing your weekly training on the bike.
If all these big words like ‘systematic review’ and ‘meta-analysis’ haven’t quite convinced you, just take Ashton Lambie for example. The American can deadlift nearly 300lbs — in a barn in Montana just before he broke the Individual Pursuit world record.
Squats and strength training are a huge portion of Lambie’s training program, which helped him win the Individual Pursuit world championship in October. Especially for track riders and sprinters, strength training can have a direct impact to your power output in the bike.
Cesanelli, Leonardo et al. “Performance indicators and functional adaptive windows in competitive cyclists: effect of one-year strength and conditioning training programme.” Biology of Sport, vol. 39, no. 2, 2022, pp. 329-340. doi:10.5114/biolsport.2022.105334.
Wewege MA, Desai I, Honey C, Coorie B, Jones MD, Clifford BK, Leake HB, Hagstrom AD. The Effect of Resistance Training in Healthy Adults on Body Fat Percentage, Fat Mass and Visceral Fat: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2021 Sep 18. doi: 10.1007/s40279-021-01562-2. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34536199.