The gyms might be shut, and you're stuck at home, but this doesn't mean you can't get in some quality strength training! In this article, we'll provide the what, why and when to help you on your way to some off the bike strength gains you can get in the comfort of your own home with two programs with either no or minimal equipment.
Why you would do strength training as a cyclist is an oft-asked question. There are the obvious advantages to peak power or sprint performance. Peak power is a result of how much force you can produce and how fast you can produce it. Increasing peak force with strength training can have a result on your peak power, provided you can still produce it fast and carry on those force increases from the gym to the bike. Studies have shown that increased cross-sectional area of the quadriceps muscle was associated with increased peak power output after combined heavy strength training and endurance training in well-trained cyclists (Ref 2).
What about the endurance side of things? Cycling is not a strength limited sport - you are not limited by strength, but predominately by your cardiovascular system. However, strength training has many effects on the body which can lead to performance gains.
There are many effects of strength training on endurance cycling (Table 1). Strength training has been shown to improve economy (ref 4). This can have a profound effect on the longer races or fondo- importantly, the effect may be even more pronounced in older athletes (ref 5). Heavy strength training has also been shown to improve time to exhaustion at a specified power (Ref 6). So if you want to go at a certain power for just that little bit longer to drop a mate up a climb, strength training could be the difference. These benefits aren’t just for people who are new to cycling, there are benefits even for elite cyclists (Ref 7).
My favourite bit of research showed that strength training can increase power in an all-out 5 min effort at the end of 3 hours of submaximal cycling by 7% (Ref 7). This is so important for competitive cyclists because it is what a lot of road races can be, especially if they have an uphill finish!
There are limitations though. There has been mixed research on improvements in threshold. However, there seems to be no negative effects (Ref 1). It also appears to have no real effect on VO2max (Ref 1). Anecdotally, although a few of these studies show no increase in body mass I (Dan) personally put on weight when returning to heavy strength training and know others that have also, although this is not consistent as many people have no weight gain.
In the studies referenced above what was being looked at was heavy strength training. This for a lot of people is not possible or very difficult with gyms being closed. Ideally, a program would be two strength training sessions per week of exercises that involve similar movements and muscle groups used in cycling. Traditionally, we should perform 2-3 sets of these exercises at 4-10 RM (rep max) with 2-3 minutes rest in between (Ref 1). The contractions should be performed with maximum velocity (Ref 1). Even if the movement isn’t fast, the intention should be there to perform it as fast as possible.
Some recent research into strength training may indicate we could still get benefits from low resistance strength training. There have been a few studies now looking at low vs high resistance strength training showing we can still get benefits with the lighter weights (Ref 8, Ref 9). To achieve strength benefits you should still be approaching fatigue, aiming for a strength training RPE of around 8+ or a couple of reps away from failure (Ref 10). With higher reps we can struggle to get towards this high level of muscle fatigue, so every attempt to try and make exercises as heavy as possible should be made.
Given this, for the bodyweight program there is no target for the number of reps, as the focus is the RPE of 8+. For the minimal equipment program we are aiming for 3 sets of 4-10 reps unless otherwise stated, so try to get a weight to achieve this. If this is not possible then do the number or reps required to reach the RPE of 8.
We’ve developed two different programs; one for no equipment and one for minimal equipment, each with different workouts for each day you do it each week. These are general programs and won’t be for everyone but can give you an idea of what you can do. The idea is to stick with the above mentioned principles.
Minimal equipment will be backpacks filled with weight whether it be the food you have bulk bought (rice, canned food, etc), kettlebells or weight plates. You can combine this with a powerband (not therabands but the bigger thicker ones) and an exercise ball. This should be a minimal investment for most people.
The programs will be split up into 3 supersets or two exercises each to maximise time efficiency, this means to do the first exercise straight into the second exercise, then rest. This is mostly to maximise time efficiency.
For the program, we've created a PDF you can print out or save. Hit the link here to download and view it.
Strength training sessions are best done the day before a rest or an easy day. If you want to do it as a double day with an endurance session, your best bet to maximise the training stimulus is to do the bike/run session in the morning and the weights in the evening, with at least 6 hours separating the two. Ideally it should be combined with a moderate day on the bike, and we caution people about doing this on an easy/rest day as you wont get the recovery you might need - rest days should be rest days!
We hope that you can get something out of this article! If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or head over to nero.bike/coaching
The normal caveats apply - advice given in this blog is of a general nature, and your personal circumstances should be considered.
1. Rønnestad BR, Mujika I. Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2013
2. Rønnestad BR, Hansen EA, Raastad T. Effect of heavy strength training on thigh muscle cross-sectional area, performance determinants, and performance in well-trained cyclists. Eur J Appl Physiol 2010a: 108: 965–975.
3. Rønnestad BR, Hansen EA, Raastad T. Strength training improves 5-min all-out performance following 185 min of cycling. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2011: 21: 250–259
4. Sunde A, Støren O, Bjerkaas M, Larsen MH, Hoff J, Helgerud J. Maximal strength training improves cycling economy in competitive cyclists. J Strength Cond Res 2010: 24: 2157–2165
5. Louis J, Hausswirth C, Easthope C, Brisswalter J. Strength training improves cycling efficiency in masters endurance athletes. European Journal of Applied physiology volume 112, pages 631–640(2012)
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7. Ronnestad BR, Nygaard H. 10 Weeks of heavy strength training improves performance-related measurements in elite cyclists. Journal of sport Sciences, 35:14, 1435-1441, 2017
8. Damas, F Et al. Individual muscle hypertrophy and strength responses to high vs. low resistance training frequencies. J Strength Cond Res 33(4): 897–901, 2019
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10. Helms ER, Cronin J, Storey A, Zourdos MC. Application of the Repetitions in Reserve-Based Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale for Resistance Training. Strength Cond J. 2016;38(4):42–49.