By Kevin Kolodziejski
Where Muscle Strength, Pedaling Power, and Riding Endurance Meet
The Original Rock and a Hard Place
It’s a good story to recall to remind you of an important element of the Part I article.
In “The Adventures of Ulysses,” an anthologized abridgment of The Odyssey found in some junior high school literature books, Ulysses exhorts his oarsmen to “keep to the middle way” as they enter a narrow strait — and for good reason. Scylla, a huge, Venus flytrap-like monster with six heads on long snaky necks that hungers for human flesh, inhabits one shore. Charybdis, a massive bladder of a being that sucks in and then spits out the sea three times a day creating whirlpools no vessel can withstand, lurks near the other.
While a cyclist’s weightlifting situation is not as dire, you still need to heed Ulysses’s words. You need to keep to the middle way. In other words, to lift weights in a way that increases your cycling speed on the flats without decreasing it in the hills — while also augmenting your health.
Fortunately for you, the title of this two-parter is indeed true. There is wiggle room in the weight room, which makes your task a whole lot easier than the aforementioned oarsmen’s (who all died, by the way). But your sailing will be even smoother if you understand and follow three rules. Here’s a quick review of the one already covered.
1.) Select a Weight That’s 30 to 80 Percent of Your 1-Rep Max
Part I explained the three different types of muscles fibers and the Henneman size principle to make it clear there’s a wide range of weight you can effectively use. As the dreadlocked dude wearing the Bob Marley t-shirt or the Bible-toting guy going door-to-door might say, “It’s all good.” What’s better, though, is to select the weight based upon the type of muscle fibers you want to activate. As long as you take the set to the point where you can’t do another rep, also known as muscle failure, using a weight closer your 80-percent number will primarily activate the fast-twitch Type IIB and fast-twitch Type IIA muscle fibers, increasing strength and power and adding some muscle size. Using a weight closer to your 30-percent number in the same way will primarily activate the slow-twitch Type I muscles, increasing muscular endurance without much increase in muscle size.
Regardless of what you’re looking for long term, it’s best for beginners (that includes first-time lifters and those who begin lifting again every offseason) to use weights closer their 30-percent 1-rep maximum for a few weeks as they learn how to incorporate rule number two.
2.) Feel the Muscle Being Worked
In the Part I article, you were asked to perform an experiment: to hold five to 10 pounds of something in one hand at the midway position of a biceps curl for as long as possible. The experiment proves why the heavier-is-better weightlifting belief, in Dr. Ralph Carpinelli’s words, is “a faulty assumption.” Research has shown that by the time you can no longer muster the force to keep your forearm parallel to the floor, all types of muscle fibers — even the fast-twitch Type IIB recruited to lift the heaviest possible amount of weight a single time — have been stimulated.
But stimulating all the muscles in that experiment may have taken you 10 minutes. Here’s a much quicker way.
Now do the full biceps curl motion, but without any weight. Before your forearm moves upwards, however, make a fist and squeeze so hard that you feel the squeeze through the full length of the arm. As you begin the first rep, keep squeezing as hard as possible, including on the way down. Do 10 more. Pretty tough, huh?
And that’s without an ounce of weight, which once again goes to show that using heavy weight is not the only way to work your muscles hard. Especially when you keep continuous tension on the targeted muscles and create what many call the mind-to-muscle link.
Now if you already lift with better cycling in mind, you probably do some form of squats to work the bike’s prime movers: the quadriceps and glutes. Can you see how squeezing the quads and glutes — as well as flexing your abs — would dramatically reduce the number of reps you could do in a single set even though the muscles would still be stimulated? How the reduction in weight would reduce your incidence of injury while you perform arguably the most dangerous weightlifting exercise of all?
For all but the extreme, explosive-type of powerlifting track cyclists sometimes do, always maintaining the mind-to-muscle link is a good rule to follow. And something you’ll do to make that link, apply continuous tension to the muscles, becomes even more effective during certain exercises like seated leg extensions and lying hamstring curls if you also work at a faster-than-traditional pace.
3.) Keep the Reps as Quick as Good Form Allows
While you won’t find consensus on the optimal pace for weightlifting reps, just about all experts agree on what’s safe and best for beginners: To lift the weight in two seconds, pause at the top of the movement for one, and lower the weight to the starting point in four. Once you advance past the beginner’s stage, however, you can increase rep speed to promote better pedaling efficiency. And true to the wiggle-room theme — and according to Andrew Huberman, the neuroscientist and professor of neurobiology and of ophthalmology at the Stanford University School of Medicine quoted in Part I — “it really doesn’t seem to matter” how much faster as long as the pace is not so fast that it calls other muscles than the ones targeted into play or causes injury.
To reduce the risk of injury, sufficiently warm up before significantly ramping up the rep speed. And when you do, don’t be surprised if you can’t do some exercises as quickly as others. Whereas a one-second-up-one-second-down pace might feel right for seated leg extensions, it could feel forced — and even a bit dangerous — for lying hamstring curls.
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.