By Martin Sigrist
A sure way to start a vigorous discussion on a cycling training forum is to ask whether there is any benefit, as a cyclist, in strength training. Some think it’s a waste of time or even detrimental, others that it is essential.
As so often is the case with such arguments both sides are right. You can become a truly great cyclist without once visiting a gym. However most cyclists are destined never to stand atop the Tour de France podium and for them strength training should be an important part of their training regime. For reasons of general health/well being, to counter the potential downsides of cycling and because it might just make them a better rider. This article explains a bit more, starting with a look back to a cycling hero of the past who, sadly, turned out to be no superstar.
As a teenager one of my favorite TV programs was “Superstars,” which pitted athletes from many different sports against each other in a variety of tests.
I wasn’t a cyclist back then — football (soccer) and swimming were my preferred activities. But I do recall how the cyclists taking part stood out. They were useless, regularly coming last and looking like a different species when compared to the well honed bodies of football or other sports heroes.
It might have been my memory was playing tricks — but no, a bit of research found this post, When Joop Zoetemelk took on Tony Ward.
Joop Zoetemelk, one of the greatest riders of all time, finished dead last in pretty much every event and could not even take part in the weightlifting because he was so feeble.
The article finishes with pondering if today’s cyclists would fare any better. I would guess the answer to be yes if those taking part were track cyclists who are at much at home in the gym as the velodrome. But road riders and especially Grand Tour champions would still struggle, I’d bet.
The fact is that while cycling is great fun and can give you a strong cardiovascular system, it is probably the worst of all the major sports at developing all around health.
Does it matter?
For Joop Zoetemelk, no. He and any other pro cyclist would trade 1,000 Superstars victories for one stage win, let alone a Grand Tour.
But for the average or even elite Joe or Joanna riding a bike, yes it does matter. Good health is about far more than having a low resting heart rate and a high FTP.
“Strong” does not mean having a good pair of lungs and legs that can go on all day, which is how we tifosi use the word when talking about riders.
It is now an accepted medical fact that endurance training by itself is not enough to keep you fit and healthy. Authorities including the US government and WHO clearly state that in addition to cardiovascular exercise, the ideal training regime should also include at least two strength sessions per week.
Unfortunately, these same authorities have been fighting a mostly
losing battle to also get people to eat five servings of vegetables and fruit and to walk a mere 10,000 steps a day, so they seem to have pretty much given up on trying to persuade folks to do more — even it is in their own best interests.
The arguments are all well summed up in the UKs leading science weekly
Most of the article is behind a paywall, which is unfortunate, as the message should be something that everyone has the chance to read. Here are a couple of quotes.
“Strength training could add years of life and protect you from some major killers. Having stronger muscles seems to decrease the chance of getting cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. There is even evidence that it can improve your memory and prevent cognitive decline.
Its importance is so great that the UK government’s latest physical activity guidelines emphasize muscle strengthening over aerobic workouts. “It’s an urgent message that needs to get through,” says Stuart Gray, who studies metabolic diseases at the University of Glasgow, UK. “People need to know that strength training is important at any age.”
“Advice from the American College of Sports Medicine couldn’t be simpler: it says that adults should perform strength exercises on all major muscle groups – legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms – at least twice a week.”
Just riding a bike simply does not meet these needs. Indeed, just riding a bike can actually make things worse if it means you do less weight bearing activity such as walking or running.
So, unless you are planning a career as a professional cyclist, you would be well advised on health grounds alone to spend one hour less per week riding and use it doing strength training instead. You don’t have to go to a gym to do this. It is quite possible to do this at home with minimal equipment, provided you get expert advice.
You may even be surprised by the results. I took my own advice and ended up feeling decades younger noticeably stronger and losing aches and pains I thought I would take with me to the grave.
Not only that, but I also became a “stronger” cyclist, setting new personal bests at the age of 60. Looking back the reasons for this are now obvious, and something I will share in a future article.