Where Muscle Strength, Pedaling Power, and Riding Endurance Meet
By Kevin Kolodziejski
Hampsten’s Jest Is No Joke
If you want advice on how to descend in near whiteout conditions on partially unpaved roads so snow-slicked that some pros unclip to take the turns — while being horribly underdressed and wearing neoprene gloves better suited for deep-sea diving — ask Andy Hampsten.
The winner of the 1988 Giro d’Italia and least-known face on the Mt. Rushmore of United States cycling gained about 5 minutes on the Maglia Rosa that year on such a descent. Moreover, that year’s 14th stage was so insanely bone chilling — a soaking rain preceded the snow — that team trainers supplied riders with cognac, at least one borrowed a motorcycle jacket, and many walked because of fingers too numb to work the brakes. Though seemingly unaffected, Hampsten later acknowledged in a 2021 Pez Cycling News article to “shaking like a kitten” by the finish and crying in the team car afterwards.
But please, don’t ask Andy’s advice on weightlifting.
In an off-season weight training article published during his prime, he claimed the only reason he did any at all was to keep his arm warmers from falling down. Said as a joke, it also contained an element of truth. To this day, pro riders, particularly the pure climbers, need to be as fixated as fashion models about watching their weight even though adding some muscle would be better for their health. You, provided you’re not hellbent on becoming a pro or ascending Mt. Washington in less than an hour, have no need to compromise your health on a quixotic quest for a cyclist’s Dulcinea, the perfect power-to-weight ratio.
Especially if it leads to two colds every winter and another at the start of spring. Causes the crash that would badly bruise another’s elbow to break yours. Affects your posture just enough to make people recall Quasimodo or their late great-grandmother hunched over of her walker.
So you need to walk a fine line. You want enough muscle up top so you don’t have to ask your son to carry the economy-size bag of charcoal to the grill, but you don’t want a lumberjack’s back and baseball-size biceps either. A somewhat related line is boldly inscribed above the entrance where you and every serious cyclist should go to work out — the wiggle room inside any weight room. It reads:
‘Heavier Is Better’ Is Only for Muscle Heads
You’ve heard the big, beefy dudes at the gym, I’m sure, talk about what they can “max.” It’s the amount of weight they can lift for a single repetition in good form for any given exercise. Since you’re not trying to become a big, beefy dude, you do not need to do maximal lifting. Estimating your max, however, creates your membership card to the wiggle room, which has these rules prominently posted on every wall.
1.) Use 30 to 80 percent of your 1-rep max.
2.) Feel the muscle being worked.
3.) Keep the reps as quick-paced as good form allows.
Use 30 to 80 Percent of Your 1-Rep Max
Talk about weightlifting latitude. This rule means if you can do a single barbell squat while maintaining good form with 185 pounds, you can use anywhere from 55 to 150 pounds for your sets and still get the job done. It’s a rule reinforced in podcast devoted to the science of muscle growth dropped by Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor of neurobiology and of ophthalmology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. It really doesn’t seem to matter what weight you select in this 30-to-80 percent “spectrum,” Huberman explains, if the lifting is being done not to pack on the pounds but to enhance health. He bases his observation not only on dozens of studies but also on an in-depth discussion with Dr. Tony Galpin, Director of the Center for Sport Performance at Californian State University, Fullerton and author of “Unplugged: Evolve from Technology to Upgrade Your Fitness, Performance, & Consciousness” (Victory Belt Publishing, 2017).
All you need to do to achieve success is take a number of your sets “to near failure.” It also really helps to understand the Henneman size principle. This is the same principle so often cited in both sports journals and hardcore gyms to support the heavier-is-better school of thought —and doing so really isn’t wrong — so you really need to pay attention to what comes next.
Andy Hampsten, Meet Elwood Henneman
Based on his work with cats in the 1960s, Henneman found what the layman would simply call muscles are activated by exertion from smallest to largest. Your smallest ones, the slow-twitch Type I muscles, don’t produce much force; are relatively resistant to fatigue; and while they do get stronger, they don’t get much bigger in the process. Your largest ones, fast-twitch Type IIB muscles; produce far more power; fatigue quickly; but gain noticeable size as they gain strength. (The characteristics of the third type, fast-twitch Type IIA, fall somewhere in between.)
So it’s easy to see why the muscle heads see squatting 250 pounds for 10 reps as better than using 135 pounds and cranking out 25 reps. But that’s not necessarily the case.
In a paper published by the Journal of Exercise and Fitness in January 2008, author Ralph Carpinelli, Ed. D, calls the heavier-is-better belief “a pervasive faulty assumption.” And along with clearly showing the faults in the research that claims otherwise, he uses a scenario similar to the one that follows. Grab something that initially feels really light — maybe a 5-pound dumbbell, a large coffee-table book, or a gallon jug of water — and lift it to the midway position of a biceps curl. In other words, have your upper arm remain perpendicular to the floor while lifting your forearm parallel to it and hold that position for as long as you can.
Because the effort is easy initially, the only muscle fibers called into play immediately are the smaller and weaker ones. But by the time you can no longer keep your forearm parallel to the floor despite your maximum effort, all three types of muscle fibers have been activated. Yet the object that maxed out even your strongest muscle fibers weighed about 5 pounds.
And while that effort could very well create perspiration, when you’re lifting weights to enhance your health and cycling, its explanation does the opposite. There’s no need to sweat over whether or not you’re choosing the right amount of weight and number of repetitions. Just know that the closer the selected weight is to 30 percent of your 1-rep max, the more reps you’ll need to do to reach muscle failure and that a greater degree of the work will be done by the slow-twitch muscle fibers. The end result in this case is improved muscular endurance. Conversely, if the selected weight is closer to 80 percent of your 1-rep max, more work will be done by the fast-twitch muscle fibers. Now the end result is better muscular strength and power.
Compared to a good ride, a good lift should be brief. Lift for longer than an hour, and your body stops secreting the hormones that advance muscle growth and starts producing hormones that could undo the good just done. Since an article that runs long can also do the same, you’ll read about the other two rules the next time.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.