Cyclists frequently ask whether strength training is worth doing, and the short answer is yes. This is particularly true for cyclists who are experiencing pain and/or have reached a fitness plateau.
It has been said that the best cyclists push down harder and that the way to get better at cycling is to ride more, but I believe this concept is designed for very elite, young road cyclists rather than nonpro cyclists who must balance their health and longevity with their performance goals. We all have a friend who gets knee or back pain on the bike and at least one who has thrown out his or her back shoveling snow or playing with the kids. These real-life situations, which challenge us to control different loads through full ranges of motion, are why strength training is worth doing.
Greg Lehman, a multidisciplinary expert on movement, is an excellent resource for those in pain. According to Lehman, a cyclist doesn’t necessarily need to include core and strength training in order to ride.
“Everyone has a finite amount of time to train, so any extra work (e.g., core) should be kept to the minimum required,” he says. “Road cyclists need minimal core strength, as their demands are pretty static during riding.”
If your goal is simply to pedal a road bike up a hill, and you don’t have concerns about other health factors or activities, then indeed core training may not directly contribute to your immediate goal.
However, training for resiliency in life — to maintain your bones and muscular balance — should include lifting and mobility movement patterns. For many athletes, ongoing pain, hunched posture and/or decreasing ability to perform other sports and activities in daily life may warrant inclusion of strength training. For athletes nursing injuries or reaching a plateau, decreasing cycling to include strength training may be hugely beneficial.
Numerous studies and these summaries from French sport scientist Yann Le Meur show that strength training improves cycling performance, but you can also find studies showing the opposite. Studies are generally focused on direct improvements on cycling power over short periods in isolated lab settings, so it is difficult to extrapolate this to long-term applications in variable environments.
With this in mind, we can guide our best practices from the research, but we also must address the demands of our own health and fitness. The studies that show how strength work benefits cycling performance are typically done with higher loads. Research shows that it’s worth maintaining strength into the competitive season, rather than stopping this type of training in the spring, as many cyclists do. Using higher loads with correct form can also challenge the core while providing a stimulus that can augment our cycling fitness and improve our health.
Cyclists, like many endurance athletes, are prone to doing too much, and overdoing strength training is no different. To reap the most benefits in the shortest amount of time, you have to train wisely. Lehman sees too many endurance athletes doing high-rep, low-load (light weights) training, which is counter to the studies mentioned above.
“You are training endurance during your sport, so you should train other qualities of performance, like peak strength and power, during strength training,” Lehman says. He proposes a simple way to build your own movement variety routine.
“If you had to simplify, the best exercises are the ones that aren’t being done [on the bike] and are helpful for the sport or health of the athlete,” he says. “Doing 300 sit-ups, 5-minute [static] planks and 200 supermans might be less helpful than exercises like deadlifts, squats and heavy resistance training for the anterior core.”
While classic core exercises, such as the static plank, are easy to include, it is important to keep challenging your body as you improve.
“Lower-body exercises aren’t just lower-body exercises,” Lehman adds. ”They also work the lateral and posterior core. Upper-body exercises like the push-up also work the anterior and lateral core. I think there is a place for supplemental, core-specific exercises, but you can still get a good core stimulus from other exercises.”
The routine below includes a few classic core exercises, but it also progresses to get you to move through more range of motion and continue to add load and challenge. This simple routine requires no equipment, is low-risk and takes minimal time. Start with this, and then increase the loading with whatever equipment you have around, are willing to buy or can make.
20-Minute Core/Strength Routine from SmartAthlete
When you’re ready for another challenge, try this slightly harder version:
Warmup: Active flex (4–6 reps each of reverse lunge, inchworm and lateral lunge)
WORKOUT: 2–3 sets,10 reps per move
- Lunge or Split Squat
- Push-up (raise hands as needed to stay in plank position — no knee push-ups)
- V-Sit with Twist
- Plank (on elbows with controlled shoulder tap and breathing)
- Air Squat
- One-Arm Overhead Press
- Row or Pull-up
- Back Extension or Cobra Pose
- Side Plank (10 top leg lifts per side)
If we can start opening our hips, putting our arms over our heads and loading our joints more often, it is conceivable that injuries from cycling and daily life activities will be reduced — and we will be able to pedal harder for longer.