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Gym work for cyclists

Some people don't think it helps and some people do. Lifting weight definitely makes you more robust.

Gym work for cyclists 04/04 2014 by Pieter Van Pietersen

Is gym work useful for cyclists? Many people don't think so, but many do.

After a program of squats, lunges and core exercises I was able to increase my sprint power by 20% in 3 months. It resulted in a spate of 9 race wins - all for an hour per week of gym work. Here's my program and tips.

Lifting too much weight or lifting with the wrong technique can cause serious injury. Start with light weights and ask a professional gym instructor for assistance with your form. Get into good habits from the start, including warming up. Do not attempt to lift when you are too tired.

If you experience abnormal pain then stop working out immediately and seek advice from a trained professional. The suggested weights quoted below are for male cyclists weighing 130 - 180lb / 60 - 80kg

A lot of coaches don't recommend weightlifting for cyclists. They say:

- that time spent in the gym would be better spent on the bike or resting;
- the force required to push a pedal is quite small, so muscular strength isn't required;
- Gym work could cause an increase in weight, which would be detrimental to performance;
- Gym work isn't specific enough to translate properly to pedaling; strength training should be done on the bike.

However, there are many coaches who believe that gym work is beneficial for cyclists. From personal experience, I agree.

Benefits of going to the gym
Bone and ligament health
Lowered bone density caused by a non-weight bearing sport can be reversed by lifting weights. While you might not care about the issue in your 20s, you'll be glad you prepared for it when you're in your 60s. Old age will come round sooner than you think!

Helps to stop the decline of old age
Due to the process of aging, muscle mass is lost (Sarcopenia). Lifting enables mass to be retained or even gained if required. This assists with general strength but also metabolism and general well-being.

It'll help you with normal life
Normal life outside of cycling requires lifting things like suitcases, furniture and shopping. If you have no strength in your back and arms, this becomes difficult. If you have been going to the gym, then you'll be able to lift things more easily.

Although Brad Wiggins does regularly go to the gym, he is under team orders not to lift suitcases in case he tweaks his back. His wife has to carry the suitcases when they go on holiday.

Improves power transfer from handlebars through to pedals
It is important to realize that the entire body needs to be balanced and working well to be able to drive the pedals around. If you have poor core strength, your body will rock when you turn the pedals, which wastes energy. Your arms and neck will become more tired, you might be unable to maintain an aerodynamic position.

Once you start working on your core and arms, you feel much more solid and strong on the bike. This extra strength can be gained without gaining weight.

Correcting imbalances
It is natural to have a preference for one side of the body over another. Imbalances in strength and flexibility can grow, especially with a repetitive motion completed hundreds of thousands of times such as pedaling.

Cycling concentrates on using the legs, whilst your body is forced into a poor posture: back crunched forwards and neck jammed backwards.

Gym work addresses the balance between legs and upper body, between front and back of the body and left and right sides. To give 3 examples of this:

Example 1: the front of a cyclist's body does not get worked very hard. Sits ups and bench presses will help to regain some strength in the core and arms.

Example 2: left and right leg strength imbalances can be resolved with exercises that work each part individually, such as lunges.

Example 3: Hamstrings tend to shorted when exercising below their full range. Stretching and strength work over their full range will keep you injury-free and will allow for comfort on the drops.

Improve sprint power
Although pedaling at 300W doesn't require much strength, pedaling at 1500W does. Surges in power are not only required at the end of a race, but throughout - over the crests of hills, out of corners, when closing gaps.

Firstly, if your strength is low, then you'll not be able to hit high wattages in sprints.

Secondly, if you are constantly pedaling at a higher percentage of your available strength then you will fatigue faster.

Improve threshold power
Adrie van Diemen, coach of Garmin riders like Nathan Haas, David Millar, Tylar Farrar says that the threshold power of his riders drops if they stop gym workouts. He concentrates on whole body movements and explosive actions, such as squats, lunges, jumping and throwing medicine balls.

The theory behind the threshold power increase is that lifting increases the number of mitochondria in the cells. The high forces provide the stimulus required for this adaption to occur.

Increase of Growth Hormone levels
This study shows an increase in growth hormone after a gym session but not in Testosterone levels. If you want to increase your testosterone levels you'll have find other means.

Growth hormone useful as it supposedly helps with recovery, metabolism of body fat, sleep, bone density and general well-being. It might actually be beneficial, since it is on the WADA banned list.

Wouldn't low cadence riding up a hill be good enough?
The problem with low cadence riding in big gears is that the strength required to turn the pedals, even at 40rpm is still considerably lower than you could lift at the gym. If you really want to stress your musculoskeletal system, then you should lift.

On-bike training does not address muscular imbalances, and it doesn't help with flexibility.

Whilst it is more specific than lifting, it has been argued that since the cadence is different to that used in the real world, the benefits are greatly diminished.

Should I do gym work throughout the year?
More emphasis should be placed on gym work in the off season. At that time you will be doing less high intensity bike work, so your legs will be fresher to work in the gym. Concentrate on balancing your body, flexibility and strength of glutes.

During that period, go to the gym two to three times per week. Of course, it is important not to gain too much muscle mass, but this can be avoided by doing high reps (three sets of ten rather than three sets of four, for example). Generally, any excess muscle mass can be easily catabolized by cyclists within a few weeks of serious bike riding.

When the racing season starts, you will be doing race pace efforts which will leave your legs in tatters. Once a week at the gym is then adequate. If you go less than once a week, the benefits will be diminished. You'll ache every time you lift if you only go once a fortnight.

Use the weekly session to maintain your strength and flexibility. If you have time for a second session in the week, rest instead.

Recommended gym exercises
Warm up
It is vital to warm up to loosen up the muscles and ligaments, especially if you've just woken up or been sitting at a desk. Some of the core exercises can serve as a good warm up, as is 5 minutes of light jogging or 10 minutes of gentle pedaling.

This is the king of gym exercises as it strengthens so many areas of your body, especially your glutes which is great for cyclists. More info about activating your glutes is here.

You'll need a power rack to hold the bar for you. Don't use a rack with the bar fixed to sliders (a Smith Machine ), as this can damage your knees as the exactly vertical path is unnatural. If you're using a free bar, your path up and down is curved.

Keep your back straight - do not round your back, as this can easily result in a ruptured disk under load.

Squat so that your thighs are at least parallel to the floor.

Drive upwards, concentrating on your glutes. Inhale on the way down, exhale as you push upwards.

Do 3 sets of 10-15 with a minute break between sets.

Start with 50lb/ 20kg and build up to 220lb/ 100kg.


These are great for working on the glutes and for ensuring balance between left and right sides. As you can read here, it is easy for your glutes to switch off due to too much sitting or an injury. Lunges will get them firing again, which translates to more power on the bike.

Start without any weight, so you learn to balance.

Step forward about 3 feet/ 1 meter and bend your knee. Do not allow your knee to pass the front of your foot as this will cause too much knee strain.

Push back to an upright position. If you push with your heel, it activates the glutes more. If you push with your toes, the quads tend to fire. It is better to concentrate on the glutes.

3 sets of 10-15 with one minute rest between sets.
Start with no weight and build up to 100lb/ 50kg held on a bar behind the neck.


Sit ups
Try doing this on a Swiss ball. There's no need to twist at the top, as it strains the spine. You don't need to sit all the way up, as it also can strain the spine. Ensure that you go all the way back so you're looking at the ceiling rather than the wall in front.

Try for about 30-50 sit ups. There's no need to go mad with these!

Sit ups

Back extensions
Do these on an exercise ball using the wall behind you to hold your feet. You can also do them on the floor. At the top of your stroke your body should form a straight line.

Try for 30-50 extensions. This is good to cure back ache if you sit at a desk.

Back Extensions

Planks - front and side
Get into the plank position on a mat. Face down, weight on toes and elbows. Bum up is okay, as this is said to reduce pressure on the spine.

Hold for 2 -3 minutes. You might find that 30 seconds is tough to begin with.

Also try a plank to the left and right.
1-2 minutes per side with a 15 second rest between is enough.


Seated row
This is good as it mimics pulling on the bars. Hold your back straight and do 3 sets of 10-15 reps with a one minute rest between each set. Weight - start at 60lb/ 30kg and increase to 180lb/ 80kg.

Seated row

Step ups
Find a step about 2 feet/ 60cm high. Put one foot on the step and drive yourself upwards. Drop down again and repeat, 10 reps per leg, 3 sets. No need to rest between sets and you just alternate legs.

This will help develop explosive power in your glutes.

Step Ups

Bench press
This is good to do as it counteracts the seated row. Try not to gain muscle mass (beach muscles) on your chest as it will weigh you down.

Bench Press

Abductors/ adductors for stabilization
It is good to do a little bit of exercise for the abductors and adductors (inside and outside thighs). Not all gyms have the equipment to do so. If they don't you can use an elastic band around your ankles to give resistance.

The point of strengthening these muscles is to stabilize the hip joint. If these muscles are weak, the quads will take over the stabilization job, which will rob you of power. Allow the correct muscles to stabilize, and 100% of the quad's power will go into moving the pedals.

Heavy weights are not needed here. 20 reps x 60lb / 30kg is enough.

Abductors/ Adductors

Other exercises
A little bit of other machines in the gym is fine during the off season for a bit of overall strengthening.

In three months I was able to increase my maximal sprint power from 15W/kg to 18W/kg by going to the gym. When I stopped going to the gym, maximal power dropped accordingly. This gain in power came with no gain in weight.

Gym work is useful for developing power. Strength gain can be accomplished without weight gain. Strength gained in the off season can be maintained with weekly gym trips during the season. A stronger core and arms will also help you feel more solid and balanced on the bike.

However, it is debatable as to whether strength training improves endurance performance.

Older athletes should strongly consider gym work to prevent natural muscle wastage and loss of bone density.

Effects of progressive resistance training on growth hormone and testosterone levels in young and elderly subjects.

Activating and strengthening the glutes for faster cycling. Bike Parts Review article on this subject. Some overlap with this article, but still useful information.

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