By Kevin Kolodziejski
Can Singing Get the Unwilling to Weight Train?
You’ve read it here before. Twice. That cycling doesn’t stress the upper-body muscles enough to stave off sarcopenia, the inevitable loss of muscle mass, strength, and function that usually begins well before you hit the big four-oh, and — oh, no! — eradicates on average about 30 percent of all muscle between the ages of 50 and 70. Nor does it stimulate muscle growth in the legs of longtime cyclists.
Consequently and regardless of your age, you’re probably doing yourself and your cycling a disservice if you don’t lift weights at least twice a week, preferably year-round — but certainly in the off-season. And unless you’re somewhere south of the equator, the off-season’s one weekend away.
Ever the exercise evangelist, I’ve sung the praises of weightlifting to my cycling buddies over the years. While they rarely argue with me, they rarely ever sing along for more than two or three weeks each November either. So this year I crooned a different tune, the one Mary Poppins uses to get kids in her care to take medicine:
“A Spoonful of Sugar”
Okay, so I lie. I did not sing that sappy old show tune to my buddies — though a satisfying November ride does make me want to belt out the chorus of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” as I savor the steaming shower afterwards. But what you’ll read next helps your weightlifting go down just like medicine mixed with sugar: “in a most delightful way.”
Using 1 1/2 Reps Is as Easy as It Sounds
It may be overkill to define it here, but a single weightlifting repetition is the full-range movement employed in a given exercise to stimulate a specific muscle group. When you do one repetition and follow it with either the bottom or top half of the same motion before beginning a second full one, you’re performing what bodybuilders call 1 1/2 reps.
Bodybuilders use them to add intensity, increase muscle mass, improve technique, and provide a change of pace. They can do the same for cyclists, too. And when I’ve worked with less-than-motivated lifters, I’ve found 1 1/2 reps do one more thing as well: Help the weightlifting medicine go down.
Why Cyclists Should Like Doing 1 1/2 Reps
It’s easy to understand why some cyclists would rather not lift weights. Invariably, it reduces your time on the bike — unless you give up your day job and pick up some really potent performance enhancers. But as a now-and-then exercise counselor which leads me to be a now-and-then clinical psychologist, I believe I’ve uncovered the real objection many cyclists have with lifting weights: It replaces something they do well and enjoy with something they probably don’t enjoy as much and feel they don’t do as well.
While that statement may seem painfully obvious, this isn’t: That don’t-do-as-well feeling you may very well have is a false one. It only occurs because you’re comparing yourself to the giants in the gym who use twice — and maybe even three times — the amount of weight you use for many exercises.
But everyone in the gym knows — even the most genetically blessed but mentally cursed goliath — that performing 1 1/2 reps in good form and intensely makes the amount of weight inconsequential. One cyclist coaxed into trying 1 1/2 reps told me that doing them not only felt right, but also “liberating.” There’s no reason you can’t come to feel the same.
When Lifting Less Is Really More — and Best
Think about the motion used to do the most effective muscle-building exercise for the upper legs and the glutes, the squat. While doing any version is hard, there are “easy” parts to all the types, times when the muscles are not under as much tension: about the top half of the motion as you ascend and descend.
But if you employ 1 1/2 reps when you squat, you eliminate the ascent of the second rep before doing the full motion again. When gym rats count reps, though, they count all that I’ve just described as one. (If you’re having trouble picturing this, check out this video below of an absolute animal performing the type of squat I feel is best for cyclists, the front squat. Keep in mind he’s decided to do the half rep first and is going a bit slower and a lot lower than you need to go.)
So for each 1 1/2 rep, you’re doubling the time the muscles are under tension and forcing them to adapt to the added effort. But the benefits to lifting this way don’t end there.
As you’ve read here before in The Wiggle Room in the Weight Room Part 1 and Part 2, taking the targeted muscle or muscles to failure is far more important than the amount of weight used to create the failure. That’s why you can keep the weight relatively light, perform 25 to 35 repetitions per set, and — as long as you’re taking the targeted muscle or muscles to failure — achieve the sorts of results that translate into better cycling.
But constantly doing 25 to 35 repetitions takes time, something you probably don’t have enough of. Ironically, the added time under tension when performing 1 1/2 reps shortens the workout because you can’t do nearly as many reps. In fact, when August Schmidt, who writes for Iron Athlete.com, advises clients, he’ll suggest 50 to 75 percent fewer reps when the client switches from standards reps to 1 1/2s.
One final bonus to 1 1/2 reps: Because you need to slow your pace to control the start and stop of the half rep, your technique generally improves, thereby reducing your risk of injury.
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.
I’ve never been a power lifter, but pre-pandemic attended a weight class three times a week until I became gym-shy. It appears this newsletter caters to an older bunch (a group I fall into). Upper body weight work helped keep my aging, sun damaged skin taut. In 18 months of bike only, I see the loss of tone shows in my wrinkles! Your column is good advice, if only to keep my skin fitting my innerds.
Pete Sandrock says
I winced watching the lifter go all the way down on his squats. Did I hear the sound of his knees popping on the first couple of reps? As far back as 1960 I was trained to never drop my butt below my knees when doing squats. I still don’t.,