Strength Conditioning for Cycling

Dr. Westcott
As a competitive distance runner in high school and college, I discovered cycling later in life. Too late, considering my nine foot surgeries that resulted from too much running.

The bicycle is an extremely energy efficient machine, and cycling is an excellent exercise for enhancing cardiovascular endurance. Like running, power is generated by the leg muscles. Unlike running, there are no landing forces to the feet, legs, and back, which reduces the risk of impact injuries. Nonetheless, like any repetitive movement activity, cycling stresses some muscles more than other muscles, which may lead to overuse injuries.

Let’s examine the major muscle involvement in cycling. The power stroke in cycling is produced primarily by contraction of the quadriceps muscles (knee extension) and the hamstrings muscles (hip extension). Although the gluteal muscles are also involved in hip extension, the biomechanics of cycling emphasizes the knee extensors (quadriceps).

Lower leg contributions to cycling include the calf muscles for ankle extension, and the anterior tibial (shin) muscles for ankle flexion. Although the calf muscles are involved in every pedal push, the anterior tibial muscles are limited to up upward pulling movements against the toe clips.

The cycle racing position places considerable stress on the upper body muscles, including the triceps, shoulders, lower back, upper back, chest, forearms, and neck extensors. Properly positioned handlebars more evenly distribute the upper body muscle involvement, but longer rides may fatigue some muscles more than others. For example, the neck extensor muscles work continuously to hold the head up, and are likely to tire before the other upper body muscles.

The triceps muscles, front shoulders and lower back are primarily responsible for maintaining the torso position. The upper back and chest provide stability for the upper arms, and the forearms maintain a firm grip on the handlebars.

Like all athletes, cyclists should strengthen all of their major muscle groups through a comprehensive program of resistance exercise. That is, they should train both the prime mover muscle groups and the antagonist muscle groups to develop balanced muscle strength and to ensure joint integrity. Training only the prime mover muscles typically leads to overuse injuries because one side of a joint becomes much stronger than the other side, and the weaker structure is eventually overpowered and damaged.

This does not imply that opposing muscle groups should be trained to equal strength. For example, the neck extensor muscles are inherently larger and stronger than the neck flexor muscles. However, both of these muscle groups should be addressed in a sensible strength training program.

Sample Strength Training Program for Cyclists

It is usually advisable to work the larger muscle groups of the legs before the smaller muscle groups of the torso, arms, and neck. However, within each muscle group it may be preferable to perform rotary exercises before linear exercises. In this manner, single joint exercises performed with less resistance precede multi-joint exercises performed with more resistance.

Selection

Table 1, presents recommended exercises for the major muscle groups in appropriate order of performance.

Table 1. Recommended exercises for the major muscle groups.


Exercise Muscle Group

Leg Extension Machine Quadriceps
Leg Curl Machine Hamstrings
Leg Press Machine or Barbell Squats Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteals
Chest Cross Machine or Dumbbell Flyes Pectoralis Major
Decline Press Machine or Barbell Bench Presses Pectoralis Major, Triceps
Super Pullover Machine or Barbell Pullover Latissimus Dorsi
Compound Row Machine or Dumbbell Bent Rows Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps
Lateral Raise Machine or Dumbbell Laterals Deltoids
Overhead Press Machine or Dumbbell Presses Deltoids, Triceps
Biceps Curl Machine or Barbell Curls Biceps
Triceps Extension Machine or Dumbbell Kickback Triceps
Low Back Machine or Back Extensions Erector Spinae
Abdominal Machine or Trunk Curls Abdominals
4-Way Neck Machine Upper Trapezius, Levator, Scapulae, Sternocleidomastoids
Seated Calf Machine or Barbell Heel Raises Gastrocnemius, Soleus
Toe Raises with Attached Barbell Plates Anterior Tibials
Super Forearm Machine or Barbell Wrist Curls Forearm Flexors, Forearm Extensors

Cyclists require considerable time and energy to perform their daily training miles. It is therefore not advisable for cyclists to spend unnecessary time and energy in the strength training facility. Fortunately, endurance building and strength building are complementary activities. Whereas endurance building requires exercise of low intensity and long duration, strength building requires exercise of high intensity and short duration.

Sets

Research indicates that one set of properly performed strength exercise is as effective as two or three sets. It is therefore recommended to perform one set of each exercise. Each exercise set should be completed within the anaerobic energy system, approximately 60-90 seconds. At about one and a half minutes per exercise and a half minute between stations, the above training program should take just over 30 minutes per session.

Resistance

Of course, the exercise resistance should be sufficient to fatigue the target muscles within the anaerobic energy system. For most practical purposes, this requires about 75 percent of maximum resistance. Empirical evidence clearly indicates that 75 percent of maximum resistance provides a safe and productive training stimulus.

Repetitions

Research demonstrates that most individuals can complete between eight and 12 repetitions with 75 percent of their maximum resistance. However, persons with low-endurance muscles (sprinters) typically perform fewer than eight repetitions and persons with high-endurance muscles (marathoners) typically perform more than 12 repetitions. Because cycling is an endurance activity, most cyclists should attain excellent strength gains training with approximately 10-15 repetitions per set.

It is important to understand that each set of strength exercise must be performed to muscle fatigue for maximum benefit. This is sometimes referred to as temporary muscle failure, meaning that you continue exercising until your muscles can no longer lift the resistance. For best results, the training intensity must be high and the exercise progression must be consistent.

Progression

I recommend a double progressive system of strength development. First, train with a resistance that you can perform 10 times until you can complete 15 repetitions. Second, when you perform 15 repetitions increase the resistance by about five percent. Stay with this resistance until you can complete 15 repetitions, and again increase the weightload by about five percent.

Frequency

During a strength training session you fatigue the exercised muscles. This serves as a stimulus for strength development provided you allow sufficient recovery and building time between workouts. Research shows that two or three properly spaced training sessions per week are effective for improving muscle strength. Cyclists who schedule two strength workouts per week invest only one hour of time for excellent improvements in muscle strength. Research with young people reveals approximately 70 percent more muscle strength after two months of twice-a-week resistance training.

Speed

There is a myth that strength training at fast speeds develops fast muscles, whereas strength training at slow speeds develops slow muscles. This is categorically untrue. Muscles respond to sensible strength training by becoming stronger. Speed is developed by practicing your athletic event with emphasis on increased movement velocity and proper technical execution.

From a practical perspective, it would be difficult to perform leg strength exercises faster than you pedal a bicycle, as that would require about 90 repetitions per minute. It is therefore advisable to train in a controlled manner to maximize strength development and to minimize injury risk. Research has demonstrated excellent strength gains from exercising with moderate to slow movement speeds (four-second reps, six-second reps, eight-second reps, and 14-second reps). Because our muscles are stronger in negative movements than positive movements, I prefer to lift the weight in two seconds and lower the weight in four seconds. This six-second training protocol provides more work during the stronger phase of each repetition, and requires about 60-90 seconds of continuous muscle effort to complete an exercise set of 10-15 repetitions.

Range

Although cycling involves mid-range movements of the leg muscles and static contractions of the upper body muscles, it is beneficial to perform full-range strength exercise. For performance purposes it may be acceptable to do part-range movements, but for safety purposes it is advisable to do full-range movements. Weakness in the ends of the movement range may reduce joint integrity and increase the injury risk.

Cyclists should perform rotary exercises, such as leg extensions, from the fully stretched position to the fully contracted position. However, pressing movements, such as leg presses, should end just short of the lock-out position. Locking out the knee joint against heavy resistance increases the potential for injury and is best avoided.

Summary

In my experience with cyclists and triathletes, stronger muscles lead to better cycling performance. Because every pedal revolution requires a certain percentage of maximum leg strength, more strength is of considerable advantage. After strength training, many of our cyclists are able to use higher gears at the same pedal frequency, thereby increasing their road speed.

When developing a sensible strength training program, I recommend that cyclists carefully consider the following exercise guidelines:

Exercise Selection: One exercise for each major muscle group.
Exercise Sets: One set of each exercise.
Exercise Resistance: Approximately 75 percent of maximum resistance.
Exercise Repetitions: Between 10-15 controlled repetitions.
Exercise Progression: Increase the resistance by five percent when 15 repetitions can be completed.
Exercise Frequency Two or three exercise sessions per week.
Exercise Speed: Moderate to slow, typically two seconds lifting and four seconds lowering.
Exercise Range Full-range movements, but avoiding lockout position on pressing exercises.




Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South
Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of several books including the new releases Building Strength and Stamina and Strength Training Past 50.

©2001 Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D. all rights reserved

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Wayne L. Westcott PhD Written by Wayne L. Westcott PhD

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