A Newbie’s Guide to Strength Training for Cycling

by Jeff Whitfield on | 0 Comments

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A friend of mind recently sent me a link to an article on The New York Times entitled The Zen of Weight Lifting. This article got me thinking about my current strength training routine and the impact it has not just on my physical health but mental health as well.

When it comes to training, there is more to it than just numbers. You can look at the numbers associated with your training but never take the time to understand what they even mean or, more importantly, how they make you feel. The relationship you have with your training is personal. When you’re exercising, it's just you and the exercise at hand. What you do is in the moment and is as easy or difficult as you make it. While there's a physical aspect, there's also a mental one too. Never forget that.

Your training is a journey. There’s a reason they call it training. When you train you’re working towards a goal. That’s the primary difference between that and just exercising for the benefit of improving your health. To do it, you first have to have a goal, and one that is realistic and achievable within a reasonable amount of time. After that, you have to come up with a plan on achieving it.

This is likely to be a pretty lengthy post so...buckle in!

Coming Up with a Plan

Aside from the mental preparation and Zen-like approach one might take to training, you still have to come up with some sort of plan on what that training is. Strength, power, endurance, flexibility, stability, and balance are all things that a cyclist might strive for. In my opinion, none of these goals can be done with just cycling training alone. Some strength training should be considered as part of an overall training plan. With strength training and cycling, the two can go hand in hand in terms of achieving all your goals.

Question is: What does a strength training plan for cyclists look like?

I’m not a professional cyclist or a personal trainer. I can’t tell you what is right for you or what a good strength training plan really looks like. In fact, I can’t really share every single workout that I do because what works for me might not work for you. You have to listen to your body and know what’s right for you. As such, picking the right plan that works for you and your goals is something you kind of have to find out for yourself.

What I can do though is share my journey and how I got to where I’m at now with strength training. By doing so my hope is that you’ll gain some insights into how to go about finding a path that works for you and your own goals. In other words, you can learn from my mistakes and successes.

I should mention that I have Crohn’s disease which has greatly influenced my decisions with training. Everything I was doing (ie. going to the gym, walking, and eventually cycling) was all towards improving my health to help minimize my symptoms. I was sick of being sick. As such, I changed my diet and started exercising more. Strength training is a big part of my health and fitness but it isn’t the only part.

Going to the Gym

Before I even started getting serious with cycling, I started my path towards better health by signing up for a gym membership. I mean, isn’t that what everyone else does? I honestly didn’t really know what I was doing. I just showed up, got on a stationary bike and/or treadmill, did a round on the machines, and went home. It wasn’t structured, nor was there really any goal. But, on the bright side, I was doing something which is far, far better than nothing.

However, once I started riding a bike, I knew I needed to get some sort of a plan that worked towards some of my cycling goals. The gym I was going to had free trainer sessions so I signed up for a session hoping that the trainer would help me setup some sort of weekly plan. None of that happened. Both times I did it, the trainer just instructed me through what seemed like a random circuit of core and strength exercises. I asked about a plan for cycling but never got one. It really kind of disappointed me in the end.

I considered going to a different gym or just getting a personal trainer. But something told me that neither would really give me what I needed. After all, unless I pay for a trainer who was a cyclist themselves how could I trust that the plan they gave me was good? I didn’t know what I was really doing so how could I gauge any of it? Plus, to be honest, I didn’t really have the money to spend on a personal trainer. My best option then was to research it and roll my own plan.

Researching Strength Training for Cyclists

My research began as most research does: on the internet! I read a lot of different blog posts and articles on the topic. While I found some great information, none of it really allowed me to fully formulate a plan.

I did however find a ton of different books, some of which are targeted specifically towards cycling. The two books that proved to be the most beneficial were Weight Training for Cyclists by Ken Doyle and Eric Schmitz and Maximum Overload for Cyclists by Jacques DeVore and Roy M. Wallack. Along with these, I picked up other books on topics such as stretching, dynamic stretching, foam rolling, core strength, home gym workouts, cycling anatomy, and more.

It was information overload to say the least. What started as a simple inquiry turned into a full blown obsession. Reading all of it was super helpful and educational but, like anything, I had to stumble my way through it. I still had much to learn as you’ll soon find out.

Gym Membership vs Home Gym

For some, getting out of the house and having a set place to workout is a benefit. The minimal expense of a gym membership means you don’t have to buy any equipment. You just show up with a plan and use the facilities as needed.

But for someone like me, going to a gym turned out to be a bit of a bummer. I just didn’t fully feel comfortable there, even in a gym that is all about making everyone feel welcomed. Plus, with Crohn’s disease, I had times when I would take frequent bathroom breaks. It made going to the gym a labored ordeal to say the least.

Early on in my research, one of the things I learned is that most of the people doing serious workouts at a gym tend to not use many of the machines at all. In fact, free weights and more functional exercises are what is promoted. Which makes sense considering that free weights engage your muscles in a way that is more natural. While there is still benefit of machines to isolate certain muscles, an overuse of machines tends to hinder development rather than improve it. All that time I spent on the machines turned out to be a less that effective way to get a good workout.

In fact, when you really think about it...you don’t even need a gym. I was spending about $20 a month on a gym membership (there are places that are cheaper though). That’s $120 a year which isn’t much to spend really. However, for about $500 you can setup a home gym by getting a decent bench and a set of selectable dumbbells. What you spend could be a bit more or less but the point is that with a fairly minimal investment you can setup something in the comfort of your own home and do it from there. For me, that exactly what I needed.

Some of you might choose to stick with a gym membership though, which is perfectly fine. But for me, I found that a home gym is a better investment. As such, I purchased a set of Bowflex SelectTech adjustable dumbbells and one of their benches to get things rolling. I also got an 8-pound medicine ball, a set of resistance bands, floor mat, and few other things to help out with my routines. In the end, I had everything I needed to get solid workouts based on all my research.

Periodized Weight Training

One of the words that kept coming up while researching weight trading was periodization, which is basically a systematic way of structuring your workouts so that you can work up to a particular event. For instance, you might start in the off-season during the winter and work your way up to spring when you start riding a lot more in various events.

Professionals tend to use pretty specific methods of sports periodization that involves various phases between the off-season and the first event of the season as well as phases between events. It can get pretty complicated pretty fast so, for a non-professional like me, simplicity is desperately needed.

For the sake of simplicity, lets take my current goal which is to complete a 100-mile century ride. In fairness, I could probably accomplish that goal right now. The problem is that it would probably take me 12 hours to do it. The missing elements are speed, power, and endurance, all of which can be helped a lot with some strength training.

The thing is that you can’t tackle all of these elements all at once. They all employ different types of muscle fibers so you have to employ methods that allow you to concentrate on different muscle fibers over time. That’s where periodization comes into play. By breaking down your strength training into phases, you can build off of prior phases and improve in all the areas needed.

So, for me, periodization might mean a series of simple phases: one phase to build my overall fitness first, then another to build up my strength, followed by a phase for building my power up, and then a final phase to maintain it. Each phase takes weeks to complete. The trick is figuring out what each phase is comprised of and what exercises to do for each workout.

Weight Training for Cyclists Plan

The bulk of my workouts is primarily based on the plans introduced in the Weight Training for Cyclists book. The structured plans presented follow a loosely based method of periodization for the workouts. The method of periodization in Weight Training for Cyclists is kept really simple. The basic phases are pretty self-explanatory and are as follows:

  • Stabilization
  • Strength
  • Power
  • Maintenance
  • Recovery/Transition

The Stabilization phase is exactly as it sounds: its all about building stability. Weighted exercises generally use lower weights with more reps with an emphasis on slow, quality reps (around 15-20 reps per exercise). This allows you to build up the general strength you need to tackle the more strenuous phases ahead. When starting the program, it’s likely that you haven’t been exercising heavily for a number of weeks. I look at this phase as a way of getting your body back to being used to strength training regularly.

The Strength phase increases the intensity in two ways. First, exercises are done with a bit more weight with less reps (8-12 reps). Second, two different types of exercise within the same muscle group are done back to back to help further your stability. You’ll definitely see some serious gains in strength and stability with this approach.

The Power phase changes the focus by implementing more explosive moves into the mix. Exercises are done with heavier weight with even lower but faster reps (3-5 reps). The goal of this phase is to give you the tools you need to accomplish things like sprints and climbs with more power and greater speed.

The Maintenance phase levels things off by giving you exercises you can do while in-season that allow you to maintain your strength and power on the bike.

Once your season ends, you go into the Transition or Recovery phase. Kick back, relax, let your body heal, spend some time with your family. Basically, just take some time away from it all. You can do workouts if you want but keep it light and simple.

A typical session within any given phase is typically made up of a warm-up, the exercises themselves, and some sort of flexibility and/or cool down routine. How you choose to warm-up and cool down is largely up to you.

For the exercises, phases are generally broken down into three main parts: core, power, and strength.

Core exercises are done as a circuit with each exercise done back to back with little or no break. Early phases will have one or two sets per circuit with the maintenance phase having up to three sets.

Each session usually has at least one power exercise where you produce a more explosive move. This could be something as simple as a hop exercise, jumping, or a more complex one like a power clean.

The main strength part of a workout varies from phase to phase. Some workouts are setup as a circuit, or what some call a superset, where each strength exercise is done back to back with little or no break. The benefit is, like a core circuit, you get the cardio benefits along with giving your body a chance to rest in-between each exercise.

You kind of have to pickup the book to get the full gist. While I can’t share every routine but I can at least give you a taste. Here’s what the first four weeks of the Stabilization phase looks like:

Stabilization Phase 1A

As you can see, the routine is pretty simple. Five core exercises are done as a circuit in one to two sets followed by a jumping exercise to help build a bit of power in your legs. After that, the main strength exercises are done as a superset. It starts off with a total body exercise, followed by four upper-body exercises, and finished off with a lower-body exercise. Rinse and repeat.

The rest of the routines follow a similar structure but vary a bit based on the goals of the phase. But the nuts and bolts of each routine follows that basic pattern.

The only phase that breaks it is the Power phase. In that one, there isn’t a one-off power exercise since the main strength section incorporates power exercises anyways. Plus, the core and strength sections are flip-flopped with the core going last. The author suggests this with the theory being that power exercises require full strength which could get depleted with core exercises. I honestly don’t find this to be the case really. I think it’s better to do a light set of core exercises first to help warm-up your muscles and avoid injury during the more heavy hitting exercises.

Overall, I’ve been very happy with this routine. It’s simple and it gives you clear goals for your training. I also like the fact that it gives you a few choices for some of the exercises to help mix things up. I tend to flip-flop exercises every other week in my routines which keeps things interesting.

Plus, as we’ll talk about next, the plan also lends itself to being a great template that you can use to switch in and out different exercises. That’s one of the things I suggest is finding a plan that allows for a degree of flexibility. Mixing things up helps make it more interesting and forces your body to adapt to different forms of stress. However, you do have to be careful and plan these changes with care.

Maximum Overload for Cyclists Plan

In the Maximum Overload for Cyclists book, I learned more about power lifting and how it can benefit cyclists. It tends to put a LOT of emphasis on power training...too much really. But the information given is quite educational and did give me some ideas on how to better alter my training to take advantage of some of the things they talked about.

The book details its own weight training plan, albeit in a somewhat confusing manner. The workout primarily replaces the workouts in the previous Power phase. You still do a five exercise core circuit as a warm-up. However, the main exercises primarily focus on raw power stuff. You do things like squats, deadlifts, and thrusters but alternate them with upper-body exercises like bench press, rows, and such.

But the topper is the one exercise they talk about the most in the book: the explosive walking lunge! It’s the one exercise the writers believe you get the most benefit out of because of how well it utilizes the same muscle groups used in cycling. I latched onto this one almost immediately. After just a few weeks of doing it, I could definitely tell a difference.

The problem I had was trying to figure out the prescribed plan in the book. While it starts off similar to the workouts I was doing, with six core exercises in a circuit, the main exercises consisted of nine different power exercises...and that’s before getting to the walking lunges! It felt like too much. The whole routine took a good hour and half to get through.

In fact, I know it was too much. Four weeks into the plan I pulled the hell out of a muscle in my back. Doing all of it on top of HIIT style interval training on the bike did me in. I overdid it. This set me back by a good two to three weeks for sure.

Later, I read an article on Bicycling.com by co-author Roy M. Wallack with a similar plan to what is detailed in the Maximum Overload book. The workout he wrote about was a highly scaled down version that only took an hour to complete. Four core exercises, seven strength exercises with only three of them being power lifts, and the final walking lunge exercise. This told me that you can build a more scaled down routine out of the Maximum Overload plan.

Rolling My Own Plan

After experiencing some unexpected downtime due to a back injury, I knew that I needed to modify my strength training plan into something that was far more realistic. I decided to roll my own plan using Weight Training for Cyclists plan as the foundation while incorporating ideas from Maximum Overload and other sources.

I read about all sorts of different exercises, especially core ones. In fact, if you follow Bicycling.com you’ll get a ton of ideas for various strength exercises. I’m always taking note which ones I know I can do and would be useful in my routines. I keep a running set of notes in a notebook and reference it whenever I feel I need to update my routine. Having the ability to switch things up and keep it fresh and interesting is a big help. If I think I need to focus on certain areas, I can just switch out an exercise for something else.

For the core circuit exercises, I tend to switch things up pretty much every week. I stick to just five exercises and try to target different core areas structured so that I can go from one to the other in a fairly fluid manner. I also make sure that there isn’t any overlap in target areas.

For the one power exercise, I switch it out as well. When I get to the Power phase, I like to do one power exercise that incorporates some sort of plyometric function like a box jump or something.

The Power and Maintenance phases are the main ones that received the most change. A core circuit remains at the beginning but is fairly consistent for a 4-week period of time. I might change an exercise here and there but just make it a variation. For instance, switch from a standard plank to a stability ball plank.

From there, strength exercises get minimized to just six exercises. I try and make sure that exercises are chosen so that I don’t overdo it. For instance, if I’m doing deadlifts one week I switch out squats for something like dumbbell step-ups that has less impact on the glutei to avoid killing my back.

The explosive walking lunge routine remains consistent with what is prescribed in the Maximum Overload book. Starting with the Power phase, I do 1-minute sets with a comfortable weight and progressively work my way up from there all the way into the Maintenance phase. The goal is to achieve at least 2-minute sets by the beginning of the Maintenance phase. After that, I can progress my way over an 8-week period of time and try and get to 4-minute sets. I just do whatever I’m comfortable doing.

Tip on Improving the Walking Lunge

One thing I have been thinking about though is how to improve my ability to do the walking lunge. Carrying 35 pound dumbbells across the floor two minutes at a time for three sets is super tiring on the arms and wrists. I bought some wrist hooks which helped a bit but it’s still super tiring.

The solution I think is to use something like a fitness sandbag with a similar total weight. I can just throw it over my shoulders and complete my sets without putting all that stress on my arms and wrists. Plus, if it’s too much, it’s just a sandbag. I can let it fall to the floor without it hurting anything.

Conclusion

Hopefully all of this will give you some ideas on how to go about formulating your own strength training plan. The books and resources I shared here aren’t the only ones. There are tons of books and websites on the topic. In fact, you can learn a lot by just perusing through your local library or used book store. That’s how I got a lot of the books I read.

Another option is to get a personal trainer. Personally, I didn’t have the money to do that. Nor was I comfortable going to a gym to do it. But if you can find a good trainer who understands the needs of a cyclist then this could be a quick and easy way to get help putting together a solid strength training plan.

Otherwise, like me, you simply have to put in the time to research the topic, figure out your goals, and create a plan that works for you. The end result is a strength training routine that helps you achieve your goals while giving you a greater relationship with your body.

Get busy training! :D



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