– By Matt McNamara –
For most cyclists I advocate a whole body approach to strength training. You’ve got to live with your body the rest of your life so we want to create a balanced athlete from top to bottom! This is especially true after a long season of cycling. Include upper body and non-cycling specific exercises in your routine. Trust me, as you get older you’ll appreciate the value of this approach.
Periodization of Resistance Training
Most of you are probably familiar with the concept of periodization. Much like your aerobic program, your resistance training should be built in progressively challenging stages. Most cyclists are probably looking at a primary training program that is 12-16 weeks long and designed to end before your Build period starts (for example preparation phase – end of Base 3). A common organization is to have a base period of 4-5 weeks, followed by Strength and Power phases of ~4-5 weeks each.
Typically, weight training starts with several weeks of what is often called “anatomical adaptation.” This is the period when you will be moving light weights through a full range of motion to help muscles and connective tissues (ligaments/tendons) prepare for the higher demand of a structured program. For most athletes I recommend a minimum of 4 – 6 of these low-intensity training sessions, over a couple of weeks, as a lead in to the endurance phase. If you jump into hard-core lifting too quickly you risk serious injury that could jeopardize your cycling season and keep you on the sidelines when the fun begins. A motivated athlete would be wise to heed this approach. Similarly if you’ve ever experienced the pain of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) after an overly aggressive start to your weight training, then you know what I’m talking about!
There are a myriad of ways to organize your training. From circuit style and the traditional 3-set blocks, to more advanced split routines like push-pull days, overload training, drop sets, or pyramids. For now, focus on keeping your routine simple to avoid overloading your brain! What lifts to do can be equally intimidating. Suffice it to say that, for the most part, the basics are great! For legs/lower body focus on multi-joint exercises like Leg press or Squats* augmented with single joint lifts like leg extensions and hamstring curls.
I am NOT a fan of heavy single joint exercises. Most cyclists have relatively strong quads, for example, so they can lift a bunch of weight on an extension, but heavy lifting on single-joint exercises is rife with problems. For upper body use lifts like bicep curls, triceps extensions, pull downs, rows, dumb-bell press, flat bench and various shoulder exercises. I’m a huge fan of using dumb-bells instead of machines because they force you to both stabilize with supporting musculature and develop independent motor programs. We’ll discuss the biomechanics of each of these in the next article.
*Squats are very good, but very difficult to do well – DO NOT do them without professional guidance. For most new to lifting I don’t include squats in their routine.
Join the Circuit!
Early in a program I often use a circuit approach. Simply group 3-5 exercises into a single rotation, minimize the rest between each, and repeat. Most of my early circuits target a different muscle group for each set in the circuit. Each set in the rotation will be between 14 – 20 reps depending on the exercise, and will be done with light-to-moderate weight and a focus on steady movement speed and form.
A common program will have 3 or 4 circuits augmented with cardio blocks at tempo to threshold intensities. My goal is to keep the workout at 60 minutes or less. I usually have the athlete repeat this 3x per week for the first 2 – 3 weeks, and then I’ll shift the program to keep it fresh and fun. My second rotation is built around a more traditional 3-set paradigm with a gradual increase in weight from set to set and/or a reduction in recovery interval (remember this is not heavy lifting so recovery needn’t be maximized).
Once we’ve set a foundation of endurance it’s time for some strength! I usually put a strength phase after an endurance phase to challenge the body and to create some pure strength gains that will allow the power phase to be truly effective. If you enter a power phase without a basic ability to lift a substantive weight then you are simply going through the motions rather than maximizing your gains. To put it simply, if you can’t lift enough weight to matter, then it doesn’t matter!
Strength gains are made in the 4-6-repetition range. Most often that means lifting with a friend so you have good support, motivation, and someone to spot you! If you don’t have a friend ask the staff at your gym to help. Given the low rep – high intensity demand of Strength training do at least one warm up set before you jump into the heavy stuff. You must also consider the rest interval between sets. Lifting at maximal, or near maximal, effort requires additional recovery time to be effective. Depending on exercise and intensity your recovery interval can vary between two and four minutes, with two minutes being a good starting point. If you can’t complete the next set try resting a bit longer. If that still doesn’t work then cut the weight to one you can manage and make note of that for the starting weight next time.
Need for Speed?
Next consider the speed of your movement. Slow and steady is a great starting point. Since this is not part of a power phase the speed of contraction is not a primary goal. Instead, moving the weight consistently through the full-ROM will give you more total gain and set-to-set consistency.
This brings me to your set protocol. Much like a warm up protocol for a race, you should have a simple, repeatable sequence to your sets and reps to minimize variability. For example, on a bench press or leg press I find it beneficial to lift the weight off the rack and stabilize the weight over a neutral joint before starting my first repetition. By consistently repeating this process it helps me maintain good form, focus on the movement to be done and minimize the anxiety of lifting these massive weights (ok, maybe they aren’t that massive!).
Given the higher demand of this phase we usually cut the frequency to two days per week, with at least two days between for recovery. Monday and Thursday, or Tuesday/Friday seem to work well for most athletes. The length of your strength phase can vary, but should be at least 4 weeks to see some real gains. For a strength phase my goal is to keep the workout in the 60-75 minute range so it doesn’t become a chore. For most cyclists I don’t use a split program like a push-pull and a four-day/week schedule. Instead try to get a whole body workout twice a week since most of you are riding in addition to the gym workouts.
While I do advocate doing multiple exercises for lower body, I am not a believer in doing a bunch of overload for upper body, at least not for cyclists. The goal of upper-body lifting for cyclists is primarily endurance gains and balancing the body. For the most part that can be accomplished doing one or two exercises per body part. I am a strong advocate of changing your program often. If you are doing dumb-bell bicep curls one week it is certainly fine to do preacher curls, cable curls or any other variation the next time.
Power to the People
After you’re strong, you’ll want to use that strength to augment your power. Again, there are several types of power training. Pure power lifting is moving heavy weights through the range of motion in an explosive manner. Exercises like the clean & jerk and dead lift are great examples. These are very effective, but difficult to do correctly and potentially dangerous. If you want to attempt these lifts get some professional training first!
Another iteration is power-endurance: moving substantive, but not maximal, weight through a range of motion quickly and augmenting with a secondary movement designed to push the athlete to new levels. Some examples of this include leg press followed by jump lunges, leg extensions with step-ups on a bench, or a circuit of leg press, iso-lunge and 10 minutes of “sweet spot” power riding. I think these are bread-n-butter for cyclists and should be a central part of any program.
The exercise choice and sequencing of the workouts is highly adaptable, but care should be taken to mix-n-match appropriate combinations and vary the sequencing regularly to elicit gains. Heavy lifting on single joint exercises is not recommended. Neither are super-heavy lifts on leg press or squat. Lots of cyclists want to throw on a weight belt, load up 700 pounds on the leg press and fire away for 8 reps. Instead consider cutting the weight to one you can manage without a belt (and the strain associated!) and lift it 12-15 times. I can guarantee that an ability to lift eight times your body weight will NOT translate into more cycling prowess, with the possible exception of track sprinters. Instead of big & heavy this is a great place to add plyometric work and explosive movement circuits. Remember your goal is to enter the cycling season stronger, healthier, and fitter than you left it.
Next time we’ll tackle the tricky questions of how to lift correctly and how much to lift!
About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is the President of Sterling Sports Group and races road, track, and cyclocross in Northern California. Sterling Sports Group is a growing company focused on creating a seamless interface between athlete and coach, technology and personal attention. Visit us online to learn more at www.sterlingwins.com.