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Cycling strength training: Your ultimate guide

Strength training for cyclists
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The notion of whether or not to incorporate strength training into your cycling endurance training in order to improve performance is a hotly debated topic as far as sports science doctrine is concerned.

Athletes and coaches alike are hesitant to incorporate strength training into programmes due to the notion that increased lean body mass or the reduction of time and/or quality of on-the-bike training can have a negative impact on performance.

However, there is a growing sum of research that shows the incorporation of strength training may be of benefit to endurance athletes and cyclists. Research studies conducted on cyclists and triathletes have shown positive effects of strength training on endurance performance.

How does strength training improve cycling performance?

A major factor in many cycling races is the ability to generate a high power output over a short period of time. This is particularly useful when trying to close a gap, break away from the peloton or perform a good finishing sprint.

When used concurrently with endurance training, heavy strength training improves the ability to produce such efforts.

By introducing strength training into the training program and combining it with endurance training, there are a number of mechanisms that may result in improved performance, these include:

  1. Increased force potential of type I muscle fibres which lead to the delayed activation of the less efficient type II muscle fibres. This results in improved economy and performance.
  2. An increased proportion of type IIA muscle fibres at the expense of type IIX fibres. Type IIA muscle fibres are more fatigue resistant than their type IIX counterparts, but are still capable of producing a high power output, which leads to improved endurance performance.
  3. Increased maximal force and/or increased rate of force development (RFD) which facilitates improved blood flow to the exercising muscles. Improvements in maximal force and/or RFD can lead to reduced relative exercise intensity and less constriction of blood flow.
  4. An improved ability to recruit a relatively large amount of muscle mass has been observed to have a larger fractional utilisation of VO2max. This is related to increased amounts of mitochondria sharing the power production resulting in a lower metabolic strain at a given power output.

Cycling strength training recommendations

Before you begin any form of heavy strength training, it is highly recommended that you undergo a period of light gym work, often termed anatomical adaptation, where the focus is on learning to perform the techniques correctly with a light load. This will help to prevent injuries. Once you have completed this phase of training you can follow the guidelines below to incorporate strength training into your training plan:

1. Specificity

When starting any form of strength training, the goal should be to include exercises where the muscle action, muscles engaged, and the movement pattern should be similar to the action on the bike. In cycling, the muscles around the hip, knee and ankle joints are required to work together in order to generate a force on the pedals, so this should be your primary focus.

2. Training Load

When starting off with strength training you should reduce your total endurance training volume. A side effect of the introduction to strength training is an increase in DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) often described as 'heavy' or 'sore' legs. By simply adding strength training to an already high volume training load, you can negate any positive improvements to be found in cycling performance.

3. Sessions

Research has indicated that two sessions per week over an 8-12 week period are sufficient to achieve strength increases. It is recommended to perform between four and 10 reps with two or three sets with approximately two to three minutes of recovery between sets. Start with lighter loads and then progressively increase weight while reducing reps.

It is important to start each session off with a 5-10 minute general warm-up followed with a more specific warm-up (this can be an exercise used in your session where you progressively increase the load). Once your warm-up is completed, focus on the exercise that incorporates the largest muscle mass first, followed by two to three exercises important for the muscles involved in the pedalling action.

4. Exercises

Some of the exercises that can be included in your training program include: squats, half squats, step-ups, leg presses (progressed to a single leg at a time), one-legged hip flexions, and toe raises.  As you progress closer to competition and strength development is not the main goal, you can incorporate more explosive strength training exercises.

5. On-the-bike alternatives

Endurance training on the bike is still the most important focus for a cyclist. For those individuals who are time-constrained and only able to complete around three to four sessions a week, it is more important to focus on the bike itself.

Luckily there are some on-the-bike strength training methods that can be done and are especially effective when done indoors.

Torque (or big gear) efforts are performed by maintaining a high power output at a low cadence. You can incorporate some of these efforts into your training during the general preparatory phase (the first phase of your training program). These are especially effective in utilising the ERG mode function on a smart trainer where the resistance is maintained throughout the effort.

Torque is the rotational force applied to the pedals. It is an important variable for cyclists to consider as power is the product of torque and cadence. A cyclist should, therefore, be able to improve the power they produce on the bike by improving the amount of torque they can sustain at a set cadence.

These are intervals performed at a low cadence (usually 40-60rpm) where the rider can just manage turn the pedals over. They are best performed on a steeper gradient or using an indoor trainer. Intervals of four to 10 minutes in duration are most commonly utilised.

Cycling strength training: a four-week program

Follow the points below to include strength training into your current plan:

  1. Pair your weight training sessions within 12 hours of your interval / key sessions 
  2. Complete your interval / key training sessions before your strength sessions when paired on the same day
  3. Allow for adequate recovery from session to session, this can be done by following hard days with easy days
  4. Perform between 4 and 10 reps with 2 – 3 sets with approximately 2 – 3 minutes recovery between sets. 
  5. Start with 10 reps and progress to a heavier load and reduce reps over time
  6. Perform your lifts as quickly as possible during the concentric phase (cycling specific phase), while the eccentric phase (non-cycling specific phase) should be performed more slowly (lasting 2 – 3 seconds)

Recovery is vitally important

Not allowing for sufficient recovery between key sessions is a major error made by many cyclists. When this occurs, you are performing hard training sessions before you have allowed yourself to adapt to the previous training session.

Performing hard training sessions before you have recovered can lead to a downward spiral of performance and can lead to a state of overtraining, where prolonged rest will be required in order to recover. This can be avoided by including adequate rest and recovery days between training sessions and ensuring that these easy days remain easy.

Week 1
DayTimeTraining
Monday1h 30m 1.5 Hours LSD - zone 2 - Low intensity ride in zone 2 on flat terrain. Self-selected cadence
Tuesday2h Morning: Warm up 15 min zone 2 and 3: 60min high zone 2, low zone 3 in high gear at low cadence. Keep cadence below 50 throughout. Warm down 15 min zone 2 | Afternoon: Gym session.
Wednesday1h Easy active recovery. Have a good social ride. Maintain a good cadence throughout
ThursdayRestRest
Friday1h 30m 1.5 Hours LSD - zone 2 - Low intensity ride in zone 2 on flat terrain. Self-selected cadence
Saturday2h Morning: Warm up 25 min zone 2 and 3: Follow with 5 x 4 minutes of one legged riding. Keep non-working leg clipped out. Do 5 minutes of riding with both legs between each one leg repeat. Warm down 25 minutes - zone 2 | Afternoon: Gym session.
SundayRestRest

Week 2
DayTimeTraining
Monday1h 30m 1.5 Hours Zone 2 only. After 20 min do 5 x 15 second maximal effort sprints on FLAT terrain (perform a 15 second effort every 10 minutes). Do not shift down the block but allow cadence to reach absolute maximum and then try to hold that cadence for full 15 seconds.
Tuesday2h Morning: Warm up for 25 min in zone 2 and 3: Follow this with 6 x 4 minutes in a high gear and at a low cadence (Use a gear which you can only just turn over. Keep your cadence at 40-50 during the high gear efforts). Rest 4 min in zone 2 between each high gear effort. Warm down 20 min - zone 2 | Afternoon: Gym session.
Wednesday1h 30m 1.5 Hours LSD - zone 2 - Low intensity ride in zone 2 on flat terrain. Self-selected cadence
ThursdayRestRest
Friday1h 30m 1.5 Hours LSD - zone 2 - Low intensity ride in zone 2 on undulating terrain. Keep cadence >85 throughout
Saturday2h 30m Morning. Warm up for 25 min in zone 2 and 3: Follow this with 8 x 4 minutes in a high gear and at a low cadence (Use a gear which you can only just turn over. Keep your cadence at 40-50 during the high gear efforts). Rest 4 min in zone 2 between each high gear effort. Warm down 20 min - zone 2 | Afternoon: Gym session.
SundayRestRest

Week 3
DayTimeTraining
Monday2h2 Hours LSD - zone 2 - Low intensity ride in zone 2 on undulating terrain. Keep cadence >85 throughout
Tuesday2hMorning. Warm up 25 min zone 2 and 3: Follow with 5 x 4 minutes of one legged riding. Keep non-working leg clipped out. Do 5 minutes of riding with both legs between each one leg repeat. Warm down 25 minutes - zone 2 | Afternoon: Gym session.
Wednesday2h2 Hours LSD - zone 2 - Low intensity ride in zone 2 on flat terrain. Self-selected cadence
ThursdayRestRest
Friday2hDo not eat breakfast. Drink 2 x Espresso Caps or a very strong cup of coffee with no sugar. Ride 2 hours zone 2 only. Drink plenty of water while riding.
Saturday3hMorning. Warm up 45 min zone 2 and 3: Follow with 3 x 10 minutes of seated climbing on moderate gradient. Keep cadence low (50-65). Recovery of 10 minutes - zone 2 between climbs. Keep shoulders and hands relaxed during climbs.. Warm down 45 min zone 2 | Afternoon: Gym session.
SundayRestRest

Week 4
DayTimeTraining
MondayRestRest
TuesdayRestRest
Wednesday1hEasy active recovery. Have a good social ride. Maintain a good cadence throughout
Thursday2hMorning. 1.5 Hours LSD - zone 2 - Low intensity ride in zone 2 on flat terrain. Self-selected cadence | Afternoon: Gym session.
FridayRestRest
Saturday2h2 Hours Zone 2 only. After 30 min do 5 x 15 second maximal effort sprints on FLAT terrain (perform a 15 second effort every 10 minutes). Do not shift down the block but allow cadence to reach absolute maximum and then try to hold that cadence for full 15 seconds.
Sunday2 Hours2 Hours LSD - zone 2 - Low intensity ride in zone 2 on flat terrain. Self-selected cadence