Whether your goals are improved day-to-day functionality, aesthetic fine-tuning, or athletic performance, strength training is a tool anyone can add to their toolbox, and especially cyclists.
Cyclists are known for powerful legs. Equally so, you can often pick one out of a crowd by looking for spaghetti arms. Both of these features are directly related to limited movement on the bike.
Arms are primarily used for support during road cycling. Posture is bent forward for long periods, which can lead to back or neck pain and poor posture off the bike. A weak core and upper body can prevent you from effectively supporting yourself while pedaling, and directly lead to discomfort, pain or injury on the bike.
And it’s not just your upper body. Pedaling in circles is a limited range of motion exercise, which means some of your leg muscles get lots of use and others don’t, causing an imbalance. Muscular imbalance can also lead to injury. Cycling is also low impact, so you are missing out on increasing bone density to match your leg strength.
Strength training can help remedy each of those areas and also help optimize your cycling performance, rehab strained muscles, and further improve your specialized cycling muscles.
However, adding it into a routine without proper preparation can lead to overtraining or increased risk of injury. It’s important to take it slow and ensure proper form to allow the body to adjust gradually, especially when you start strength training for your first time.
To set you up for success, we’ll cover:
- Benefits of strength training for cyclists
- How to avoid getting bulky
- How to start using strength training safely and effectively
- Recommended strength training exercises for cyclists (and beginners!)
- Some methods to use for strength training
Why Should Cyclists Consider Strength Training?
Strength training, also referred to as resistance training or weightlifting, is where you apply resistance to induce muscular contraction to improve strength and endurance. Weightlifting is often considered anaerobic exercise, contrary to cycling, but some forms of resistance training also provide cardiovascular benefits and effectively work the heart and lungs in addition to the muscles (Hagerman, et al., 2000).
Train isolated muscles.
Most cyclists can already attest to the need to strengthen their back and neck to improve posture. Cyclists may also want to consider their overused cycling muscles and underused muscles elsewhere in the body.
With cycling, you can’t target specific muscles or muscle groups except the ones involved in the activity. Overuse of cycling muscles and underuse of others can lead to muscular imbalance and increase risk of injury (Croisier, 2004). With strength training, you can isolate specific muscles you want to strengthen in a variety of exercises. It can help rehabilitate strained and overused cycling muscles (Hölmich, et al., 1999) and train other underused muscles to prevent injury (Croisier, 2004).
Reduce stiffness and increase flexibility.
Cyclists often find that overused muscles feel stiff and tight. If you’re looking to loosen up and increase flexibility, strength training does provide similar benefits to static stretching as long as you use full range of motion (Morton, Whitehead, Brinker, & Caine, 2011)!
Burn calories at rest.
Steady-state aerobic activity like running or cycling burns more calories within the duration of a single workout. However, strength training causes your body to burn calories at rest, even hours or days after your workout (de Mello Meirelles & Chagas Gomes, 2004). The higher the intensity of a single strength training workout, the more calories you’ll burn at rest and the longer it will last (de Mello Meirelles & Chagas Gomes, 2004).
Build bone density.
Cyclists are particularly prone to decreased bone density and at a higher risk for osteoporosis (Mathis, Farley, Fuller, Jetton, & Caputo, 2013). Progressive resistance training helps build bone density and is low-impact (Layne & Nelson, 1999), making it a safer option compared to higher impact activities like running and jumping which can have adverse effects on the joints if you don’t train properly.
Mitigate age-related issues that negatively impact cycling.
Resistance training can help older cyclists continue riding safely and more comfortably by combatting muscle loss (Mayer, et al., 2011), improving balance and mobility (Mayer, et al., 2011), and decreasing joint and musculoskeletal pain (Westcott, 2012). We’re all blessed with our time on earth and if you want to make the most of it and live life effortlessly, strength training can help with that.
Speaking of age-related issues… Let’s talk longevity.
If you want to live a long, happy life, and cycle for as long as you can, strength training does help with longevity. In a nutshell, a safe and effective resistance training regimen can set you up for success and avoid or combat most, if not all leading causes of death in United States. Muscle mass can also help predict longevity (Srikanthan & Karlamangla, 2014).
What if I get too bulky?
This is a question both beginners and pro cyclists may have. Pro cyclists want to keep their frames and mass as minimal as possible to maximize lightness and speed. Beginner and average cyclists shouldn’t find additional upper body weight detrimental, even if they are racing, because it balanced strength will help avoid injury. However, beginners might also have aesthetic concerns
There are two pieces of great news for those with the concern of getting “too bulky.”
- Muscle size and mass is determined by genetic potential. As much as we all want to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, for the overwhelming majority of us it’s just not genetically possible.
- If you happen to have that genetic potential, there are easy adjustments you can make to your training to avoid unwanted muscle mass, such as decreasing the intensity in that muscle group.
Safety First to Avoid Injury and Maximize Results
As with any activity, you risk injury when you exercise improperly. Keep your training safe and effective. If it isn’t safe, it’s not worth it. If it isn’t effective, there’s no point.
Beginners in particular are at a higher risk of injury without proper attention to safety and starting out SLOWLY to give your body time to get used to new exercise (Kraemer & Ratamess, 2003). To minimize risk of injury, optimize results, and set yourself up for success, there are three things you should adhere to: form, nutrition, and recovery time.
Learn Proper Form to Keep Your Workout Safe and Effective.
Form is perhaps the most important thing for beginners to remember and possibly the greatest preventative measure for injuries. Improper technique can inadvertently cause injuries and make the exercise less effective. Proper form is dependent upon each exercise and includes attentiveness to aspects of the exercise being performed such as proper breathing, pace, posture, alignment, and range of motion.
Here are a few universal guidelines you can use for breathing, pace, and posture:
Never hold your breath and always breathe freely from the diaphragm. Holding your breath while training can increase risk of exercise-induced headaches, cardiac arrest, excess intraocular pressure (Magela Vieira, Bonifácio Oliveira, Tavares de Andrade, Bottaro, & Ritch, 2006), and other dangers and should be circumvented through conscious breathing (Ikeda, et al., 2009).
It’s important to move in a controlled, intentional manner while exercising. Sudden stops or starts increase risk of injury, so you want to move as smoothly as possible.
Those untrained in proper form tend to rely on momentum to swing or throw weights around to produce the desired movement. That’s how injuries happen. The bottom line is, if you can’t do something in a controlled and intentional manner by relying on your own power within your physical limits, even if it’s just pushing against an immovable wall, you should modify the exercise so that you can or you shouldn’t do it at all.
It’s common while strength training to try and engage other muscles to assist in the movement being performed. This is a natural and impulsive crutch used when we are faced with something difficult. However, relying on the muscles outside the ones targeted in the exercise to help perform the motion can lead to injury. It also makes the exercise less effective because it takes it away from the muscles targeted and moves it to other muscles being used to compensate. Instead of giving into impulse and straining to perform an exercise, remember to keep your posture as neutral as possible and only engage the muscles targeted in the exercise.
Factor Recovery Time
Cyclists will want to factor their strength training workout into their weekly training calendar and allow at least one day after their strength training workout for rest and recovery. Overtraining doesn’t do anyone any favors and can hamper your progress and the results you’re looking for (Kreher, 2016).
Through appropriate weight and resistance, strength training causes micro-tears in the muscle and they are stimulus for growth. The process of the muscle repairing these micro-tears takes place over the next few days.
It’s crucial to allow muscles time to recover. Even if you feel fully recovered shortly after, you want to allow muscles at least a full 24-48 hours to recover before attempting another strength training workout or vigorous activity (Kraemer & Ratamess, 2003). The higher the intensity, the more recovery time your body needs (Kraemer & Ratamess, 2003).
Soreness is your body’s way of telling you that you did something your body isn’t used to yet. When you start strength training, you might experience Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). DOMS is mild to severe muscle soreness usually experienced within 24-72 hours after unaccustomed activity (Smith, 1992). It can be an unpleasant experience that might curb anyone’s appetite for strength training.
Not everyone gets sore after strength training, though. Proper nutrition, hydration, and quality sleep help the body recover and anti-inflammatories and antioxidants can mitigate soreness levels and avoid DOMS (Connolly, Sayers, & McHugh, 2003).
Things Beginners Should Avoid
Until you know proper form and how to engage the right muscles, you should avoid a couple of things.
Most group classes aren’t oriented toward brand new beginners, even if it’s a “beginners” class. True beginners often observe that group classes don’t provide the one-on-one time and attention needed to ensure your safety, comfort, and effectiveness starting out.
Fast or Explosive Movements and Training Styles
Circling back to the dangers of excess momentum and sudden starts and stops, many training groups specialize in explosive, rapid movements that may do participants more harm than good. Without proper technique, including pace, exercise becomes more risk than benefit because it can lead to injuries that prevent any kind of training, including cycling. It’s just not worth the risk.
Which Exercises Should Cyclists (and Beginners) Do?
What muscles you target in a strength training workout depends on the benefits and results desired. Cyclists and beginners in general can’t go wrong with targeting the biggest muscles in the body: glutes (rear), latissimus dorsi (back), quads (top of thighs), rectus abdominis (midsection), pectoralis major (chest). Generally, the bigger the muscle, the bigger the impact on the body.
Here are some tried and true exercises that target these big muscles:
- Leg Press
- Seated Row
- Chest Press
- Ab Crunch
In addition to all the general benefits, these exercises will help cyclists:
- Rehab strained cycling muscles
- Improve balance and stability
- Better posture
- Reduce or eliminate back and neck pain
- Increase upper body strength (Think hoisting and lowering bikes from racks!)
Modify Exercises for Pre-Existing Risk
Always consult a medical professional before starting a new physical activity, especially if you’re prone to injury or have a preexisting medical condition. Someone with a medical need, injury, or someone aging gracefully might automatically count themselves out, thinking that strength training isn’t safe or appropriate for them.
However, there are safe ways to modify exercises depending on the needs of the individual such as adjusting weight, angle, pace, range of motion, form, equipment, etc. You may be surprised how much you can do – with the right adjustments. If you’re uncertain how to make the proper adjustments for your needs, work with your care provider and a trained exercise professional to design a program that works for you.
An exercise professional such as a personal trainer is not a bad choice, if you find a good one. What makes a good trainer? Several things, all of which come back to the fundamental safety and effectiveness of your training:
- Emphasizes safety first
- Individualized attention
- Minimal distractions
- Able to back up what they advise with evidence/science/peer-reviewed journal articles
- Deeply understands and supports your fitness goals
Machine vs. Free Weight vs. Bodyweight: Which One Should Beginners Choose?
Machines, free weights, and bodyweight exercises all have their benefits and drawbacks.
The safest option for beginners would be working with weightlifting machines because they control the structure the exercise and stabilize the position of the body. Machines are the safest option when used properly, because they minimize factors contributing to injury. Someone with preexisting conditions like bad knees or a bad back could make a lot better use of machines than many free weight or bodyweight exercises because of the increased structure and safety.
Not all weightlifting machines are created equally. Look for machines that feature a spiral cam, which will provide proper resistance throughout the exercise to increase effectiveness, instead of only at certain points, like machines with circular cams.
Free weights are more convenient than machines. They take up less space and you don’t have to spend as much cash on a set of dumbbells as you do a Bowflex, TotalGym, or access to machines through a gym membership. They’re also a great option if you want to exercise with a little more privacy at home.
Bodyweight (no equipment)
Bodyweight exercises are the king of convenience. You can perform bodyweight exercises just about anywhere. You don’t need anything for equipment, just the surfaces around you, but an exercise mat may provide more comfort.
Bodyweight may be trickier for beginners because they may not be strong enough to handle their own bodyweight for certain exercises, but this obstacle can be overcome by increasing or decreasing the angle of the exercise, such as wall push-ups instead of floor push-ups. More experienced athletes may need to consider doing one limb at a time to provide an appropriate challenge, such as one-legged squats or one-arm push-ups.
Precaution for free weights and bodyweight: It’s worth noting that injury risk is increased with free weights and bodyweight. With these, you have limited control. To increase control and safety while using free weights and bodyweight, work with a spotter or personal trainer. Even athletes and professionals use these measures to stay safe.
Options for Beginners Starting Strength Training
Here are some options beginners can pursue to get started safely and effectively.
Slow-Motion Strength Training
Invented by Arthur Allen Jones and popularized by Doug McGuff in the book Body by Science, slow-motion strength training is low-impact and high intensity, which makes it a safer and more effective. This method is proven to: Improve cycling performance (Vikmoen, Rønnestad, Ellefsen, & Raastad, 2017); cardiovascular health, cardiorespiratory efficiency, and aerobic capacity (Hagerman, et al., 2000); and build bone density with minimal impact on the joints (Layne & Nelson, 1999). It’s also proven to be as effective as methods with higher reps and more effective at losing fat (Baker, et al., 2013).
This method provides efficient 20-minute workouts once or twice a week. Those 20 minutes are intense because it’s one set per exercise of slow movement (10 seconds or so for every half-rep) where you push to your muscle’s limits (temporary muscle failure) within 1.5-3 minutes then move on to the next exercise with minimal rest between. One nice thing about this method is you can easily measure strength gain and effectiveness by recording time-under-load to “failure” and progressive weights used over time to see your progress.
Isometric Strength Training
Isometric strength training doesn’t have reps and sets the way traditional weightlifting or slow-motion strength training does. Instead, you sustain an immobile position and squeeze your muscles for as long as you can, which counts as one set. Good examples of isometric strength training include a plank or wall sit, where the body is immobile, but there’s still resistance due to continuous squeezing and contracting of the muscles.
It is frequently used as a training bridge or sorts when moving up to a higher intensity and is sometimes used to “maintain” strength after an injury that prevents use of full range of motion until the injury recovers. More experienced individuals might use isometric methods to target and strengthen part of an exercise motion they struggle with. Even without injury or plateau, actively contracting the muscles while sustaining an isometric exercise to temporary muscle failure will stimulate growth.
It’s also a good way for beginners to create a mind-body connection to their muscles so they can identify what it feels like to activate and engage the correct muscles during exercise without having to worry about adding additional mental components of the motion just yet.
There can be a lot to consider when starting strength training, but you don’t have to go into it blindly. Adding strength training to your training regimen can provide a host of benefits for cyclists, if done safely.
Strength training safely includes paying attention to proper
form, recovery time, and starting out slowly. We’ve highlighted some exercises
and methods to help you get started training safely and effectively. Optimizing
health and performance is a journey, and we hope to help you reach your goals
stronger and injury-free!
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