‘It’s something I fully believe in’: Why Gabriel Cullaigh is in on strength training

Powerhouse rouleur Gabriel Cullaigh makes the case for strength training – lockdown or not

I’ve done strength and conditioning training since I was a junior rider. It was while riding for the RST Racing Team that Chris Walker [former pro, winner of 1991 Milk Race] introduced me to it – he was a big believer in strength work.

When I joined the British Cycling Academy [in 2014] we were in the gym at least once a week, mostly doing mobility and core exercises, and that set me up for doing what I do now. In my first year at Team Wiggins I didn’t do very much, aside from a bit of core training, but going into my second year on the team, I met Peter Gascoigne.

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It was Pete who gave me confidence that spending time in the gym would not only help my sprinting but would also make me a more robust rider across the board – without putting on too much weight. That had always been my fear – being a slightly bigger rider anyway, I didn’t want to pile on loads of muscle.

Under Pete’s guidance, over the past two years we’ve got cracking with it and I’ve felt a really positive difference. It’s now something I fully believe in and will keep doing throughout my career.

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My coach [at Movistar] Patxi Vila is also a big believer in the gym. Having worked with [Peter] Sagan for the past seven years, he knows that bigger riders need to use the gym because it’s important not only to improve their sprint but also for being generally robust.

Gabriel Cullaigh (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Since moving up from the under-23 ranks, I have grown quite a bit, gaining about 2kg each year, but now my weight has stabilised and has remained consistent for the past two years. An added bonus of strength work is that it helps keep you trim.

With the hours of volume we do on the bike, I know I’d be unlikely to put on weight unless I deliberately trained for hypertrophy with higher rep ranges.

Given the coronavirus crisis, we may go back into pre-competition phase, who knows! During the winter, I do my biggest block of gym training, and we have two different sessions. The first is strength-endurance: six to eight reps per set with one-minute recovery between each set, based around leg press, squat, back squat and box squat, with single-leg work plus a core set.

The other session is max strength: it’s similar exercises – back squat, leg press, etc – but it’s all double-leg and with higher weight, for a maximum of five reps per set with full recovery in between.

In the back squat, I can now lift 120kg; on the sled leg press at the velodrome I’ve pushed a maximum of 300kg. It’s amazing what the body can do, how quickly you
can improve.

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We do two sessions a week during the winter, building a base of strength and power, switching to more mobility and lighter weight in the competition phase. During the racing season, we do three different sessions: strength maintenance, mobility, and a session with lighter weight that targets explosivity. It’s important to hold on to the strength you gained over the winter.

When I first started strength training properly, my peak power on the bike increased massively, from struggling to hit 1,500 watts to banging out 1,700. My 20-minute power also increased, by 20 watts – showing that you can make improvements across the spectrum. I also feel a lot more efficient on the bike, especially in sprints and hard efforts of up to five minutes.

In my team [Movistar], the older guys tend to do what they have always done, whereas the younger guys do what they’re told. Because I have Pete on my side, I cherry-pick from various sources of advice to find what works for me.

Less robust riders would have to build up slowly. You can’t just go to the gym and straight away bang out weighted squats. It is a strenuous exercise and if you got it wrong, you’d pay for it.

Strength training is part of what has made me the rider I am, so I’ll definitely keep it in my schedule. Last year I took a break from it, and could definitely feel the difference. It works for me.

This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.