Building Bike Strength: It's Time to Hit The Gym


, by Nikalas Cook

Photography by: Flamingo Images

In my last post about rethinking your approach to winter training, I eluded to the importance and benefits of off-the-bike training in terms of performance, health and longevity.

When I’m talking about off-the-bike training in this context, I’m specifically referring to strength and conditioning work and, under that broad umbrella, mean resistance/weight training but also focused mobility work including yoga and pilates.

It will make you faster

Regular off-the-bike training will make you faster on the bike - fact. Not only can it give you more powerful pistons and a more stable pedaling platform but, if you have the mobility and strength to hold a more aerodynamic position for longer or don’t have to stop and stretch at the top of a long climb, you’re going to get round any ride quicker.

RELATED: Rethinking Your Winter Bike Training

Cycling is a great activity but…

It only works your muscles through a very limited range of movement. This is fine if all you do is ride your bike but it leaves you very prone to picking up injuries in everyday life from movements outside of those ranges. This could be carrying the shopping, getting the kids out of the car or working in the garden. Tweak a muscle and it means time off the bike.

Cycling as your sole activity can be detrimental to bone density. The pro peloton has now embraced the importance of off-the-bike conditioning but it wasn’t so long ago that pros would retire and have bones as brittle as kindling.

Photography by: Duncan Andison

In terms of health after 70, a number of studies have shown that one of the number one activities you can do to ensure this is resistance training.

Finally, cycling doesn’t do much for your upper body and, come the summer, that T-rex look on the beach isn’t great for anyone.

When to do it

The winter is a great time to prioritize mobility and strength work. The main reason for this is that, without any events looming, substituting a few gym sessions for cycling ones isn’t a big deal. Especially if you’re lifting weights, it’s not unusual to see a short-term drop in cycling performance due to heavy/fatigued legs but this is easily offset by the medium and long-term gains. This drop in form isn’t an issue though during the winter as the only beating it might lead to is to your ego on a club run!

RELATED: 4 Easy At-Home Strength and Conditioning Exercises for Cyclists

During the winter, I’ll try and schedule 3-4 lifting sessions a week but, especially as I’m now tickling my 50s, I’ll try to maintain 2-3 sessions throughout the year.

Don’t do low-weight/high reps

In the gym, a classic mistake cyclists make adopting a high rep/low weight approach as they think it’ll develop endurance and won’t cause them to gain muscle bulk. Unfortunately, this is untrue on both counts. Endurance for cycling is best developed by cycling whereas the gym is where you go to get stronger and produce more force. The best way to develop force is to lift a relatively heavy weight for a smaller number of reps.

The gym is where you go to get stronger and produce more force. The best way to develop force is to lift a relatively heavy weight for a smaller number of reps.

From an endurance perspective, sets of 20 or even 50 reps aren’t going to come anywhere near the muscular endurance demands of cycling where you’re doing 90+ pedal rotations each minute. Low weights, which allow you to perform sets of 20+ reps, will also have almost no strengthening benefits.

MORE FROM NIK: Power Meter Guide: The Watts, Whys and Hows of Functional Threshold Power (FTP)

Lifting relatively heavy weights (sets of 8-10 reps), especially in combination with cycling training, won’t cause you to put on large amounts of bulk but it will stimulate strength gains. Don’t be afraid of lifting heavy but, if you’re unsure of technique, do get some qualified instruction and read the paragraphs below.

Don’t just head to the gym and load up that squat bar

The majority of cyclists lack the mobility and control to perform many lifts correctly. The best way to check where you are with regards to strength, mobility and control is to perform a Functional Movement Screening (FMS) and then to use specific exercises to correct any issues.

Photography by: Flamingo Images

Finally, “gym work” doesn’t have to mean pumping iron or even necessitate going to the gym. You can achieve a lot at home with basic kit - most of the exercises in Phil and Martin’s book fall into this category and, of course, Pilates and Yoga are also brilliant options for stiff-as-board cyclists too.

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