As a cyclist, you’re constantly joking about only needing “legs and lungs”. The goal of a cyclist is to be as light as possible, with the highest amount of power to weight ratio coming from the legs, pushing into the pedals. That is why there are plenty of memes out there of cyclists with stick thin arms and torso, but with massive quads and hamstrings, and titles such as “Don’t miss leg day!”. Jokes aside, imbalances such as these can have a potentially detrimental effect on your long-term health. Strength training for cyclists is key for injury prevention and performance.
As cycling is a relatively low weight-bearing sport, it is beneficial for cyclists to engage in additional loaded strength training to address a variety of issues from bone density to muscular balance. Obviously, strength demands differ between cyclists – a road cyclist, track cyclist, mountain biker or BMX rider will all have very different needs, but the tips I share below can be used a general guideline, across all types of cycling.
Strength training for cyclists are a great addition to your training routine
Strength and conditioning programs should be kept as simple as possible. As often is the case, it is the simple stuff that works best and has stood the test of time. The programs I recommend to a lot of my patients, typically contain the exercises below.
|Compound Push (Knee Dominant)||Back Squat/ Goblet Squat|
|Upper Body Push (Horizontal)||Dumbbell Chest Press, Bench Press|
|Upper Body Pull (Horizontal)||Bent over rows, Seated rows|
|Compound Pull Offset/Single Legged (Hip Dominant)||Offset Romanian Deadlift, Offset Trap Bar Deadlift|
|Trunk Stability (Anti Rotation)||Pallof Press, Plank + KB drags|
|*One of the Compound movements needs to be single legged or offset||Work in 3 sets of 5-8 repetition with 2 RIR (Reps in Reserve)|
By utilising a full body routine such as this, all the major components of the body will be covered, and even if a session is missed, you’ll know you are always covering the full body in each session. Optimally, you would want to engage this routine two times a week for adequate loading-for-strength benefits.
Compound movements are multi-joint movements which utilise multiple groups of muscles at the same time. Utilising a multi-joint movement under adequate weight helps to develop the ability to generate force through those joints. For a cyclist, the ability to generate better force in the hips and knees, coupled with bike specific training, may lead to an increase in power production.
I also added a note in the table to ensure one of the hip or knee dominant exercise needs to be either single legged or offset. Single leg/offset work is often underutilised, but is a very effective tool for stability. It also assists with restoring any imbalances you may have developed over the years, either through injuries or poor habits. I recommend that single-sided work be done towards the back end of the exercise session, as you would not often use as heavy weight. What’s more, doing single-sided work with a bit of fatigue from all the previous work sets will really challenge ones stability under appropriate weight.
The Importance of Upper Body Strength for Cyclists
For a cyclist, upper body work is not hugely important from a max strength or bulk point of view, however having good muscle tone in the upper body musculature is important for general well-being in everyday life. You don’t want to be “that” cyclist who is strong in the legs but weak with poor tone in the upper body, “that” cyclist who injures the neck or shoulder lifting a bag of groceries. Dependent on what field of cycling, some streams like track cycling and BMX may require a bit more upper body bulk and strength compared to road cycling and mountain biking.
Don’t forget to switch it up!
For a bit of variation in your workouts, you can alternate your sessions by switching the compound hip/knee dominant work around so you can focus the heavier work on the other compound exercises whilst offset/single leg work on the other. This will create a nice balance in loading for different movement patterns. I would try to do the heavy and double legged compound work at the start of the session and do the single leg or offset compound movements towards the mid or latter end of the session. Also for upper body work you can switch between horizontal movements like bench press and bent over rows with vertical upper body movements like overhead dumbbell press and lat pull down. See example in the table below.
|Compound Pull (Hip Dominant)||Traditional deadlift, Trap-bar Deadlift|
|Upper Body Push (Vertical)||Dumbbell Overhead Shoulder Press, Barbell overhead press|
|Upper Body Pull (Vertical)||Lat Pull Down, Chin Ups|
|Compound Press Offset/Single legged (Knee Dominant)||Bulgarian Split Squat, Lunges|
|Trunk Stability (Rotation)||Woodchop, Medicine ball trunk rotations|
|*One of the Compound movements needs to be single legged or offset||*Work in 3 sets of 5-8 repetition with 2 RIR (Reps in Reserve)|
Hopefully what I have covered here about strength training for cyclists will be helpful as a starting point for a simple strength and conditioning program. As always, check in with your strength and conditioning focused allied health professional to determine if these recommendations are suitable for you.
The best advice I can give is, keep it simple and sustainable. The session need not be super long in duration – aim for 30-45 minutes to be done with your program. Over time, as you develop more experience and build up a repertoire of exercises you are familiar with, in each of the categories, you will be able to interchange exercises that are similar in each category to keep your work out fresh and engaging.
|As with undertaking any new program or form of exercise, if you have any medical concerns, please check with your doctor. Or, should you need some tailored advice for strength training for cyclists – come see us here at PhysioTec.
Eric Huang is a qualified physiotherapist who specialises in cycling related pain and injuries. He has a passion for all things cycling, is a competitive cyclist himself, and runs his own cycling crew. Call 3342 4284 to book an appointment with Eric.
Nicols JF, Palmer JE, Levy SS (2003) Low bone mineral density in highly trained male master cyclists. Osteoporos Int. 14:644-649
Rønnestad, B.R., Hansen, E.A. & Raastad, T. In-season strength maintenance training increases well-trained cyclists’ performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 110, 1269–1282 (2010)
Westcott, Wayne L. PhD. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Current Sports Medicine Reports: July/August 2012 – Volume 11 – Issue 4 – p 209-216
Louis, J., Hausswirth, C., Easthope, C. et al. Strength training improves cycling efficiency in master endurance athletes. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 112, 631–640 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-011-2013-1