Coming from a running background, where weight training has been shown to improve running economy, boost lactate threshold and decrease injury incidence, I automatically think that every other sport can also benefit from time in the weight room. However, entering the cycling arena, I have found that some cycling coaches and scientists are far from convinced that weights produce faster bike performance.
Checking out the literature for myself, it is full of opposing view points. Andy Coggan, a recognised international authority on cycling physiology and the use of power meters presents a convincing argument that suggests you would be better spending your time on some hills reps or acceleration training. He does not think that the weight training research is particularly conclusive and favours the specificity of cycle training. The late Edmund Burke, physiologist for USA Cycling in the 1980s, on the other hand, encouraged his athletes to cross-train, which included weights and plyometrics. In his book Serious Cycling, Burke outlines a very comprehensive plan for incorporating resistance work into your programme.
What I found
After a couple of hours of browsing research published on the internet, I pulled out 10 studies worthy of mention. I divided them into investigations that looked at untrained subjects compared to trained cyclists. In the four studies that had put untrained subjects into a weights programme, it was very obvious that four weeks and more was enough to increase cycling time to exhaustion and elevate lactate threshold values without even getting on a bike. These observations were particularly true in the over 60 age group. We know that a lot of cyclists fall into that category in South Africa. It would be a lot more revealing, though, to have added resistance training to a cycle-endurance programme to see if it added additional benefit.
The trained cyclist studies were a bit more difficult to interpret: out of the six studies that I selected, three showed no benefit of weight training for: 30km time trial performance; one hour performance; economy and lactate threshold.
The other three revealed an increase in 1km and 4km performance; lactate-profile power; short and long-distance time to exhaustion and improved economy. Something to note here is that the studies that showed no training response measured longer distance outcomes such as 30km time or lactate threshold. Weight training sets are usually completed in under a minute, so short-distance power such as 1km or below might be a more relevant outcome. As a scientist or coach, though, you can interpret this set of studies either way depending on your beliefs and experiences.
We could benefit from a lot more research to fully explore this question. I would love to see studies comparing weights to high-intensity interval and hill reps as Coggan suggests. Also, it would be nice to see if resistance work can influence climbing and sprinting ability, helpful in parts of a road or MTB race. Intuitively, you might think that if you can increase your maximum voluntary contraction of leg muscles by practicing heavy squats or leg presses, it should increase power (power = force x speed) if you are able to maintain speed of turnover and if the weights exercises are movement specific to cycling. A cyclist has to remember, though, that weights may only be an adjunct to cycle training and living in the gym won’t lower your Argus time!
So far, all we have focused on is the question of whether weight training directly influences cycling performance. There are potentially other benefits to be gained from time in the weights room:
• Core Stability A cyclist needs to remain in the same position for a long time, especially when time trialing. Cycling-specific postural exercises can improve body positioning and reduce wasteful side-to-side motions. This might be even more relevant to mountain bikers, whose performance relies very much on technique and subtle maneuvering of the bike.
• Injury Prevention There is accumulating evidence that weight training can reduce a cyclist’s incidence of injury. Many cyclists ride with structural imbalances between left and right limbs, lower back pain or joint stiffness. Single-leg resistance exercises are excellent ways to redress your imbalances.
• Anabolic Drive It’s been noted that competitive cyclists have lower testosterone levels than the general population. This is not particularly helpful for a good training response because testosterone contributes to rest and repair.Weight training, on the other hand, increases testosterone levels (even in women) and can speed up training adaptations and general health indicators such as fertility.
So, if you would like to check out the benefits of weights, what’s the next step?
The first thing that I would suggest is for you to find a trainer or a friend with significant experience of weight training, particularly towards cycling. Technique is of vital importance and unfortunately can only be taught properly in person. I have listed a sample of some key strength and core-stability exercises in the boxes. Start with two sets of 10-12 reps of each exercise and after a few weeks, increase to 3-4 sets.
After a month or two, drop the reps to 6-8 and increase your weight – this will increase muscular strength. It is best to also change your exercises to aid neuromuscular development. Once you have established a strong base of strength and core stability, continue onto a phase of Olympic lifts and plyometrics for power (under experienced supervision)!
Originally published in Go Multi issue 13.5 (January/February 2010)
Ian Craig, Exercise scientist, (B.Sc., M.Sc., CSCS)