The main reason for writing this article is because I was asked the kind of training I’ve been doing in the gym outside of my cycling. It is simply to document my understanding (at this point in time) and my experience. It should not be taken as a guide, but rather as a reference.
To get it out of the way – for a lot of cycling fanatics the word “strength training” is either foreign or even dirty, because it is associated with gaining bulk, weight, “big muscles”, etc. Even though there could be some such gains, that is not the point of these exercises and such “negatives” (not for me) come with many benefits that in my opinion outweigh the arguments against.
Muscle fiber types
Another thing to get out of the way is the difference between the muscle fibres and what they are used for. I won’t delve in detail here, but it is important to recognise that there are two main parts that would interest us (in basic terms).
There are the slow twitch and fast twitch ones. The slow twitch ones are used primarily in endurance whereas the fast twitch ones are used for power, explosiveness. The first type are very lean fibres and you can see this in the classic build of “skinny” cyclists and long-distance runners where slow release of power is necessary over a long period of time. The second type is bulky and you can see that in weight-lifters and sprint runners where a huge amount of explosive power is necessary over the short amount of time.
This is a simplistic representation to paint a picture, and you should not aim to just have one or the other because you will naturally have both.
Slow-twitch fibres – endurance, fast twitch fibres – strength, power.
The way I like to think about any training is the way described in the World’s Fittest Book (no affiliation, but it is a brilliant reference for any sort of training).
It means you see any training you do as a pyramid. The base of the pyramid is your “base” conditioning, which means overall. You need to have a level of fitness that is there regardless of what you’re doing. No weak spots. Then you can specialise into a specific sport / activity (cycling) and it’s requirements (endurance).
The base conditioning includes both power, endurance, aerobic capacity, core strength, flexibility.
For me, the reason to start strength training for cycling was because of a few injuries that quickly showed I had left my base conditioning to the side, which exposed a few weak spots and that lead to injuries in the increased training capacity I had set myself.
It is important to note that this capacity, weakness, injury prone-ness is specific to each individual. For me, it was achilles tendonitis, issues with the tendons on the hamstrings and the ones under the foot (connecting to the heel). That was because I was training hard, but I never really focused on strong calfs or hamstrings and as a result they started to suffer. Partly, that was due to my pedalling technique, but also the increased amount of cycling and climbing upright that I started doing.
Regardless, the reason to do strength training is not just injuries, because it has much more benefits. The body is a mechanism, if you strengthen one side (top of legs), it will bend that way and will cause issues on the opposite side. Hence, you need to equally train all parts of your body to avoid neck issues, lower back problems, tendon issues. Even the “never to be spoken of in cycling” upper body can give you benefits – more strength in your arms and back can help you transfer more power on the climbs and a stronger core can help you stray solid in a seated climbing position, again transferring more power to the legs.
Cycling is not just about the legs, although they are told to shut up quite often, in fact, it is best seen as a unit and if you do use it as such, you can make much gains.
I am not a great cyclist (even when I dare call myself one), but I have still experienced in immense amount of improvement in my training when adding strength specific training.
For doing core exercises I follow the daily routine described in this Android app (avoid the cheesy name):
The reason is – I don’t have to think extra as to what I need to do. It is always there, day by day, slowly increasing in difficulty. I have done the full 30 days in 30 days program and I’ve never felt stronger in my core. Now I aim to simply do 2 to 3 days a week.
In my experience, doing “Supermans” is very important for cycling and in general core training as it strengthens the lower back and is often ignored in core workouts. Of those I do 4 sets x 25-30 reps.
Stretching the neck muscles is sometimes important for long rides. I follow these exercises maybe once every two weeks. I find that my muscles are sore for a while after, so I don’t overdo it.
Calf raises – 3 sets x 15 reps
Make sure that this is done slow and controlled. Hold for 2 seconds at the top, 2 seconds in the middle and 2 seconds at the bottom of the exercise. Slow is good, it means strength and tension. Fast reps will render much of your time wasted.
If this is too easy, you can start holding some weight while doing it.
If it’s too hard, just do as many reps per set as you can with good form.
I do them every other day. This has really helped me massively with my achilles tendonitis.
Hip raises on bench/chair – 4 sets x 8-10 reps (each side if on one leg)
I do these on 1 leg at a time, the other being straight horizontally. If it’s too easy – hold weight on your hips. Also make sure the reps are done slow and controlled.
Holding hip raises – 20 seconds hold / 20 seconds rest x 6
Stretch your legs on a little raised surface or a chair. Similar to the previous exercise but legs more straight. Tighten your glutes and core. Hold for 20 seconds (you can also do on one leg at a time if you can) and then rest for 20 seconds. Repeat 6 times. You can do this every day or every other day.
Romanian deadlift on one leg (with kettlebell if you can) – 4 sets x 10 reps (each side if on one leg)
Again, do slow and controlled.
Quads and glutes
Pistol squats (with kettlebell if you can) – 4 sets x 5-8 reps (each side)
Deep squat with kettlebell – 4 sets x 10-15 reps
A really good variation of this is the same, but explosively jumping at the end of the movement. This means you don’t relax the muscle fibres at any point.
Crab walk on toes with band – 4 sets x 10 reps. One rep is 3 steps left, 3 steps right. The video shows a regular crab walk, I do mine on my toes with the band around my ankles. Keep increasing the band difficulty.
Lunges on toes on bench – I do the lunges on a raised surface, or a bench, on my toes (to engage the calves) and normally hold a kettlebell in each arm. 4 sets x 8-10. Try to do this slow and controlled.
I really like kettlebells. With a few of them you can have a full workout.
Kettlebell swings – 4 sets x 1 min each with 1 min rest in between sets. You can increase the time of each set. or you can try to fit more swings per minute, but be careful to keep good form.
I believe that strength training can have massive benefits to anyone’s conditioning. Along with the above exercises (and variations of them) I would do max output watt sessions. Normally 20 minutes warm-up, then 4 sets of 5 mins at maintaining max watt output and then 10 minutes cool-down.
This has really reduced the amount of pain I have in my tendons at the backs of my legs, but has also given me a lot more strength while on the bike. The core exercises have removed any pain in my lower back on long days or long climbs and I have a lot more control and less “swinging” up and down when tired.
A note on the exercises, it is more important to do them slow and controlled, with less reps rather than reach a rep count with bad form. It will not only give you less benefits, but is also likely to cause an injury.
Finally, write down everything you do. That will both inspire you, and also help you track your progress long-term to see if you have the benefits you were hoping for.
I hope this helps any of you that have had my difficulties and remember to enjoy going out and just riding. This is jut the base work for when you’re out there.