VeloNews Training Center: Is strength training for cycling a good idea?

Strength training can help your cycling and help prevent bone density loss, says BCSM's Matt Scheider. Here's how.

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Strength training for cycling

Dear VeloNews Training Center:
I used to lift weights regularly before I took up cycling ten years ago, but stopped in an effort to lose body weight. Now I read about many pros lifting weights in the off season or even during the season and I’m wondering if it’s a good idea to break out the iron again. Can it help my cycling?
— Brad

This is a good question and is one I am asked often in my sports medicine practice. I encourage all my cyclists, both male and female, to perform 20-30 minutes of strength training (ST), 2-3 times per week, year round. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) supports ST as part of a well-rounded exercise routine as well. A natural part of the aging process is for muscle to decrease in size (sarcopenia) and strength, but ST has been proven to slow down, and even reverse this effect. Not only will ST improve your race performances, but it also has positive health benefits.

On the performance side, ST will increase muscle mass, which will allow you to generate more power on the bike (watts). Regular ST will also delay the onset of fatigue in your muscles, especially during longer cycling events, thus improving your overall performance. And your metabolism rate will slow as a result of decreased muscle mass. Muscle is more metabolically active than other tissues in the body, so the more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn throughout the day and that can help to maintain an ideal body weight.

On the health side, ST has been shown to increase bone density. This is a very important effect, because cycling is a non-weight bearing sport, which can lead to early osteopenia/osteoporosis. I have seen this effect of decreased bone density occur even in younger elite male cyclists. Bone density is improved as a result of the muscle-tendon-unit placing stress on the bones they attach to.

When performing ST exercises, you want to make sure they are specific to your sport. Cyclists should focus primarily on the lower extremity. However, one should not completely overlook the upper extremity either. For the lower extremity, exercises like squats, lunges, leg press, leg extension, leg curls, hip adduction/abduction, and calf raises are essential. For the upper extremity, bench press, overhead shoulder press, biceps curls, triceps extension, pull-downs, and rows are beneficial for the cyclist. Traditional free weights or machines can be used to perform these exercises.

While often disregarded, core/abdominal/low back strengthening is also effective at preventing or minimizing low back pain that may occur with cycling.

For each of the ST exercises, you want to use a weight that is “challenging” enough for 10-15 repetitions. This means the muscles should feel tired after performing the repetitions. Two to three sets of each exercise is sufficient.

The amount of ST you do will vary throughout the season. Early on during your base-building phases, you should be getting to the gym three days a week. As the season goes on, you will be spending more time on the bike, but still try to get to the gym at least two days a week.
— Matt Schneider, PA-C, ATC, MS

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Matt Schneider is the current medical director at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Boulder, Colorado, and is a Certified Physician Assistant specializing in primary care sports medicine. He also holds a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology and treats several age-group and professional cyclists in his practice.

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