Strength training is now a mainstay of the pro peloton, but is hitting the gym worth the time investment for an amateur racer? Dr Oliver Bridgewood embarks on an eight-week weights programme to find out
As cyclists we are always looking for new ways to get faster, and one widely hyped method is to hit the gym to develop more strength. But the reason I’m a cyclist is because I love riding my bike; I don’t want to spend hours posing and preening with the gym narcissists (my take on it, forgive me if I’m wrong) unless it really will improve my cycling. And that was my starting point.
I decided to do an experiment. I would put myself through a structured eight-week, cycling-specific gym programme to see if it could make me faster and improve my race results. Of course, for professionals like Bradley Wiggins, who have 18 hours or more per week to train under the guidance of coaches and nutritionists, the inclusion of weight training is naturally beneficial.
However, most of us (me included) do not have anywhere near that much time, nor as many resources. To provide some context: I spend eight to 12 hours per week on the bike, hold a second-cat licence and have a 10-mile TT PB of 19:35.
I’d never before done any serious weight training, and when it comes to sprinting I am about as good at blasting out explosive power as Gregg Wallace is at dodging the dessert trolley. Given my limited training hours, would it be worth my while using up a chunk of that precious time on weight training?
I wanted to find out for sure so I enlisted the help of Martin Evans, head strength and conditioning coach for British Cycling. If he couldn’t help me, no one could. Evans has worked with elite cyclists who, like me, have been riding for years but have never done any strength work.
In light of my previous gym experience (next to nil) and my skinny upper body, Evans prescribed machine-based exercises. “Machines don’t require much skill and can therefore be loaded quite quickly and safely to get the changes in muscle performance.”
Longer term, I would aim to do dynamic free weight exercises, as, according to Evans, “they will give a better return.” He was keen to stress that free weights should be used only “if you can perform the fundamental movements well and have prior experience,” adding that athletes “shouldn’t do exercises that they are not conditioned to perform. People get injured because they overload themselves doing squats and end up with knee or back problems that could have been avoided.”
Video – Strength and conditioning exercises for beginners – Including movements that are in the program below
The BC Weight Training Program
British Cycling’s Martin Evans prescribed the following programme, consisting of three sessions a week for eight weeks, with each session consisting of session preparation and movement competency, followed by strength development.
Cycling Weekly programme example:
Below is an example of how an eight-week progressive overload programme for leg press could look (similar to the Ronnestad studies that have demonstrated improvement in cycling performance). Everyone progresses at different rates, therefore you should adjust the loadings accordingly to enable you to complete the set and reps.
Control the lowering portion of the movement and then drive it up as hard as you can. Rest for two minutes between sets. (10RM = 10-rep maximum)
Leg extension, leg curl and calf raise
Below is an example eight-week progressive overload programme for leg extension, leg curl and calf raise. Everyone will progress at different rates, therefore adjust the loadings to enable you to complete the set and reps. For maximum benefit, keep the muscle under tension for the duration of each rep, i.e. acceleration is constant. Rest for 60-90s between sets.
Before we get on to the results, here is what Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde had to say on the subject. Valverde is a rider famed for his explosivity and ability to sprint from diminished groups when it matters, giving him a key advantage over his rivals. “Being a fast rider when it comes to sprints in small groups gives me a big advantage over my rivals,” he told CW.
Do you do any special strength and conditioning or gym work? “During the winter, like many other pro riders, I do gym work. I go to the gym, do some weights and combine it with mountain biking or just running. “In the rest of the year I do a lot of sprint training, probably one of the things that helps me keep the power in the sprints and climbs.” Do you think this training is what gives you
the edge when it comes to sprinting? “Being a fast sprinter is more of a natural trait you are born with. “Training will make you faster but you won’t become a sprinter.”
Before we discuss the results, it’s important to recognise a key limitation of this experiment: the sample size is one, just me. However, I am a fairly typical amateur cyclist inasmuch as I’d done no gym work but was curious to explore the potential benefits. Two weeks into my experiment, I entered a road race. It was a fairly innocuous Surrey League 2/3 race with a rolling but gentle parcours. Before I even started, my legs were aching. As the race got going, it quickly became apparent that I was going to struggle.
Aerobically I was fine, but my legs screamed at me every time the pace increased or we rode up a slight rise. I managed to hang on and finish in the bunch, but I found it brutally hard. It was at this point I realised that until the weights programme was done, I would not be competitive in races. Another challenge was controlling my body weight. Repeatedly shredding my muscles and doing lots of weights gave me a big appetite.
I wasn’t doing as much cardio as before either, and so gained a few kilos – some of it muscle mass. I measured the size of my legs before and after and noticed an increase in size. The amount of weight I could lift and push increased significantly.
Tanita smart scales suggested my body fat dropped from nine to seven per cent although my weight increased from 70 to 72kg. Fitting in key, quality on-bike training sessions around gym work proved very challenging. I attempted to do my most intense bike sessions on the same day as my hard gym workout, my thinking being that I could get it all done before the delayed onset muscle soreness set in. This pattern worked for the first four weeks, but after that I found it too hard to sustain.
On standard Sunday club runs, I felt like a sprinter in the Tour de France Queen Stage – desperately trying to cling on to make the time-cut. I found myself getting dropped more often than a post-2011 Andy Schleck, and constantly making excuses to my friends for my plunge deep into the murk of cycling mediocrity.
Once I had finally finished the eightweek weights programme I was keen to see the benefits. I was able to resume intense training on the bike, but it quickly became evident from my power data that my aerobic fitness had declined. The reason for this, I’m sure, is that I neglected high-intensity sessions on the bike in favour of weight training.
How about my peak power? Had eight weeks of weights given me the legs of Robert Forsterman? Disappointingly, no. It appears that sprinters are in fact born, not made. Although the amount of weight I could lift and push improved signifi cantly, this didn’t translate into big wattage improvements on the bike. One week prior to the strength training, I produced 913w for five seconds in a sprint.
Post-training, I hit 1,038w for five seconds. I am no sprinter; Marcel Kittel will not be quaking in his lederhosen. Even so, it was an improvement. Evans explained: “If we improve force output, it doesn’t necessarily all transfer onto the bike, as there is a skill element to pedalling and cadence. You still need to develop skill.”
A month after finishing the eight-week block of weights, I took part in a number of time trials. The power I was able to produce over 20 minutes to an hour was significantly less than it had been in the past — and definitely less than it would have been had I simply completed three months of structured bike training without lifting any weights.
I also rode the 2016 Fred Whitton challenge, an event and route I have ridden a number of times before. In the past, the event’s frequent, brutal climbs had caused me pain in my lower back. This time, I had no such issues and recorded my fastest ever time. Through working on foundational movements and core strength, I had significantly improved my core.
Martin Evans heads strength and conditioning for British Cycling
He mainly works with the sprinters and BMX racers but also oversees coaches who work with pursuit and road teams.
CW – Why is strength conditioning important for cyclists?
ME – We can improve power production and pedalling efficiency too. A lot of research suggests that strength work is not just for sprinters, but is really useful in five and 10km time trial efforts and even longer distances. It is not fully ingrained in road riding because of the traditions within the sport. There is also an indirect aspect too, making cyclists more robust, so they can do more training and get more out of their training.
CW – For a keen amateur doing 10-12 hours a week, what would be a good proportion to devote to weight training?
ME – The further away from competition, the more time you should spend building power and resilience. Speaking in very general terms, 30-40 per cent of the time in the very early period before an event and then 20 per cent, 10 per cent and next to nothing in the final month before competition.
CW – What are the key exercises?
ME – Everybody should be able to do a bodyweight squat without pain, a lunge, a press-up, a horizontal pull or row and also a hinge movement. In strength training this is like a deadlift or kettle bell swing. These are the five key movements I want all my athletes to be able to do. If you are a beginner and only have a limited amount of time to train, you are unlikely to get to the point where you can perform these five movements loaded to gain a training effect.
That being said, my programme for you would change. We still want to work on the five key movements, to get you moving better and more resilient, but on top of that I want a short-term improvement in force production using machine-based exercises. Dynamic exercises give a better return, but machines don’t require much skill and can therefore be loaded quite quickly to get the required changes in muscle performance.
At first I quite enjoyed the strength training programme; it was something different to break up my normal training. However, it soon became apparent that my on-bike performance had taken a hit. Looking at my power output and performances post-weights, I saw a slight improvement in sprinting power, and I became stronger out of the saddle. But sprinting requires the right genes, and I will never be a sprinter — you can’t turn a donkey into a racehorse.
Should amateur racers training for seven to 13 hours a week commit serious time to the gym? If you are naturally powerful and muscular, you probably don’t need to do supplementary strength work. For the level of training that most amateurs have the time to complete, the results probably won’t justify the additional time commitment.
I’m convinced I would get a greater return simply by training more on the bike. Although my sprint improved, the decline in my aerobic engine had a greater impact on my racing: I wasn’t in a position to use any extra sprinting power come the end of the race.
For me, riding bikes is a hobby; I do it primarily for fun — and I wasn’t able to have as much fun riding my bike while my legs were torn to pieces by resistance training. That’s not to say it’s not worth trying.As Evans points out, “There is no one size-fits-all… Everyone is different; there are responders and non-responders.
Some people respond to certain types of training, others don’t.” Perhaps I am simply a non-responder. Either way, my gym days are over; I’m sticking to my bike.