TdF-Inspired Cycling Post #2 – Strength Training for Cyclists

What a difference a week makes in the tour.  Firstly, someone seems to have sorted gravity out, as there has been a lot less crashes.  And now, with the major hill stages over, one of my favourite riders, Andy Schleck (though I preferred it when he rode for Saxo Bank – Specialized), has taken the yellow jersey.  It will be great if he can hold it heading into Paris.  Has Cadel Evans spent his legs riding with no mates up the hill today?

UPDATE: It would appear Cadel did have the legs, setting a blistering time in the final ITT before heading into Paris.  Nice work by Cadel and a great way to likely finish his career. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie… oi, oi, oi.

On an admin note, I’ve been really enjoying some of the comments that have been coming through to the blog.  Again, I do read them all even if I don’t always reply.  I love the mix of science and n=1 experience that seems to come together here.  I have also been receiving a few more emails from people who want to share their experience or ask me a question.  This is great, and I do try to answer everyone.  However, with my day job computer based, and my input into the blog requiring a good deal of computer time, please don’t be surprised if it takes several days before I get back to you.  I do often find myself torn between the fulfillment I get writing and my desire to be not sitting down at a computer all the time.  Unfortunately, events here in Christchurch over recent months have seen me lose my walking desk and our office is now based in the world’s most mind-numbing neighbourhood.  The increased sitting time is doing me in and leading to increased GBS.*

The following paper review will likely be my last major posting prior to head away to Los Angeles (provided the U.S. doesn’t go broke in the interim).  It is a paper that I was alerted to a few months ago and I must admit, I let out a very large “I bloody knew it – in your face <fat nemesis cycling coach>” when I read it.  Please read the introduction to my previous series on strength training for cyclists to see my background to this.

In general, with very few exceptions (such as track cycling sprinters), a well-constructed, year-round strength training programme has never really found favour with the majority of cyclists – particularly road cyclists, regardless of the level they race at.  The commonly held beliefs are that strength training doesn’t offer any benefits to performance that cannot be derived on the bike, that lifting heavy weights (there are a few cyclists who are happy to undertake body weight, core-strength-type workouts), adds additional fatigue to those who would rather spend more time on the bike, and that weight training will lead to an increase in overall mass – mass that then has to be dragged uphill (if it ain’t driving the pedals, it must be slowing you down).

I’ve heard all the reasons, had all the arguments, and have two consistent observations.  Those who have sacrificed some time on the bike and undertaken a well-constructed strength programme, have ALL become better cyclists than they were prior to that (with most of these having undertaken various types of riding programmes prior to this).  And those cyclists who I have seen try the gym out but decided it wasn’t doing anything for them, were ALL invariably trying to do 3 sets of 10 reps of bench press, bicep curls, leg extensions, etc.  “It made me ride worse/put on weight/too tired” seemed to be a default argument for “I had no idea what I was doing and wasn’t prepared to ask or pay for the correct advice”.

A (hot) cyclist doing a well-constructed strength programme.
Not the best exercise for cyclists… or anyone else for that matter.

I have always stuck to my guns on it and now generally stay well clear of people who want to argue otherwise – particularly when they have no background in this area whatsoever…

I was heartened to read the following review paper on this topic, from which I will shamelessly heavily cut and paste from;


Equivocal reports exist for the effect of concurrent strength (S) and endurance (E) training on adaptive changes in aerobic capacity, endurance performance, maximal muscle strength and muscle morphology. Thus, previous studies have reported a diminished range of cardiovascular and musculoskeletal adaptation, respectively, when S and E training regimes were combined.

In contrast, other data have suggested that concurrent endurance and strength (resistance) training can lead to similar cardiovascular or musculoskeletal adaptations compared with either training regime alone, or that concurrent endurance and strength training may even increase endurance performance beyond that achieved by endurance training alone.

However, the effect of concurrent S and E training on endurance capacity in relation to muscle morphology, fiber type composition and contractile muscle function have not been examined previously in top-level endurance athletes.

As I’ve outlined in my previous series, the structure of some of the strength training protocols used, and the methods by which performance changes have been measured, have left a lot to be desired – often asking a novice to weight training to complete heavy leg extensions for 10 repetitions, several times per week, whilst maintaining a high volume of riding, and then measuring performance changes by a time-to-exhaustion test riding at a constant output.  This just isn’t real strength training, nor is it a real test of how strength training might benefit performance.

A track cyclist coming up to full power.
Looking at joint angles.
Rotate the image and what movements can we see that can be strengthened in the gym.

As per my experience with track cycling sprinters, it would seem (and is patently obvious when you understand the underlying physiology – due to a greater reliance on fast twitch fibres in these longer events), that concurrent strength and endurance training is of benefit to performance.

Concurrent SE training has been reported to lead to improved short-term (<15 min) endurance capacity measured as an increased time to exhaustion during treadmill running or ski ergometer testing in untrained subjects, well-trained recreational endurance athletes, well-to-highly trained cross-country skiers and well-trained distance runners and competitive cyclists.

But what about longer duration events – those over 30 minutes?  The authors state that long-term endurance performance has almost exclusively only ever been examined in untrained individuals, with only one study looking at highly-trained endurance athletes.  So they went on to look at this area themselves;

We recently examined the effect of strength training on short/long-term endurance capacity, mechanical muscle output, skeletal muscle fiber size, fiber type composition and muscle vascularization in top level endurance athletes, where a regime of heavy resistance strength training was found to result in enhanced long-term endurance capacity (improved 45-min time trial performance) in highly trained National Team cyclists (VO2max ~71–75mLO2/min/kg).

These changes were accompanied by an increased proportion of type IIA fibers and reduced proportion of type IIX fibers, elevated maximal muscle strength (MVC) and increased rapid force capacity [elevated rate of force development (RFD)].

Importantly, the regime of concurrent strength and endurance (SE) training did not result in cellular muscle hypertrophy or reduced muscle capillary density in the group of highly trained endurance athletes.

The authors comment that short-term, low-load strength programmes have failed to achieve any benefit to endurance performance.  Yet, this is the predominant type of training I have seen utilised by those riders (and many coaches), who have dabbled in strength training – typically 6-8 weeks of strength work in the ‘off-season’, performing 15-20 reps on the basis that higher reps are more in-line with endurance training and will not lead to large increases in muscle mass development.

Interestingly, improved long-term endurance performance has failed to be demonstrated in studies using low-volume (<8 weeks duration) and/or low-intensity (<80% 1RM loadings) strength training, which typically have comprised use of a single exercise, low-training intensity (<60% 1RM) and/or short-duration exercise periods.

Taken together, the available data suggest that a high muscle loading intensity (85–95% 1RM) and/or a large volume of strength training need to be performed before a benefit on long-term endurance performance can be achieved. Importantly, maximal (~85% 1RM) and/or explosive-type strength training appears to be more advantageous in endurance athletes (well trained to top level) than the hypertrophic type of training.

In other words, heading down to your local Globo-gym and getting a body building programme from the head meat-head there, ain’t going to get your skinny/fat butt up the hill any faster.  But again, this is one of the predominant programme-types that have been tried by cyclists, cycle coaches, and trainers who think they have written a cycling-specific programme (don’t get me started on trainers handing out 3x 10 rep programmes…).

Notably, concurrent S and E training can lead to elevated maximal muscle strength even in the absence of muscle fiber hypertrophy or gains in anatomical muscle cross-sectional area. The latter finding is especially important to top-level endurance athletes, who typically intend to avoid gains in muscle mass, as elevated muscle mass is thought to be detrimental for an optimal endurance capacity within endurance sports where muscle forces are generated to support the body mass against gravity (i.e. running, cycling).

Also, cellular hypertrophy effects are often undesirable in the top-level endurance athlete because an increased single muscle fiber area would lead to an increased diffusion distance from the exterior to the interior (central portions) of the muscle cell, thereby potentially compromising the transport of glucose and free fatty acid (FFA) from the capillary bed into the muscle cells as well as potentially leading to a reduced removal of excessive heat production from the working muscle(s), altogether resulting in impaired long-term endurance capacity.

This latter point regarding capillary density potentially being reduced was one of the major reasons promoted during my exercise physiology studies against undertaking forms of training that might create a hypertrophic stimulus in endurance athletes.  The authors of this review, however, suggest that the opposite might hold true;

Longitudinal data obtained in previously untrained individuals suggest that resistance exercise (i.e. strength training) per se may provide a stimulus for capillary neoformation and capillary density (cap/mm2) appears to remain unchanged or even increase despite the presence of cellular muscle hypertrophy.

The above findings suggest that resistance exercise (strength training) may provide an effective stimulus for angiogenesis, which may hold true even for high-level endurance athletes despite that these subjects are already characterized by a very high degree of muscular vascularization. Importantly, concurrent endurance and strength training can diminish or fully blunt the muscle hypertrophy that normally occurs with strength training, while increases in maximal muscle strength are still observed, the latter likely as a result of neuromuscular adaptation.

One thing I try to convey to the people I work with, is that muscles are entirely a slave to the nervous system, in the same way that the brightness of a light bulb is a slave to having electricity supplied to it.  On the basis of neuromuscular adaptations (as opposed to simply making muscles bigger), we can exact large increases in strength and power by the way the nervous system co-ordinates and fires a muscle (or group of muscles) with minimal increases in muscle size.

For example, the quads provide a significant amount of power to each pedal stroke (not as much as the glutes, which hardly anyone seems to have these days [yet another rant for another time]).  If the quads contract at high forces, repetitively, without a good co-contraction from the hamstring group of muscles, this can create an imbalance of forces across the knee joint and cause problems.  Your nervous system understands and monitors this better than you do and will put the handbrake on how hard you can fire your quads if your hamstrings aren’t up to spec to balance the power out.  If you want more power out of your quads, you need to strengthen your hamstrings (see reciprocal inhibition).  So exercises such as heavy dead lifts become better options than simply performing leg extensions.  All of this is manipulation of the neuromuscular system.

This gain in mechanical muscle output in the absence of cellular hypertrophy may also result in enhanced short-term and long-term endurance performance in highly trained endurance athletes.

At the risk of being highly-repetitive with my previous posts on this topic, I have long-argued that endurance sports, such as cycling (perhaps more so), are sports that are won and lost on the basis of fast twitch fibres (fibres that we have previously discovered can be fat-adapted).  The decisive parts of a bike race are the surges, the breaks, the climbs, and the sprints – all of which need to be powered by a high output from fast-twitch fibres.  I have seen many sportive cyclists rolling around on the side of the road, full of cramp, in races on courses that they have ridden every weekend for years.  I am convinced this is due to their training being largely based around tuning up their slow twitch fibres, but on race day they have over-taxed under-developed fast-twitch fibres.

This belief is reinforced by the author’s discussion around the potential adaptive mechanisms;

The likely candidates for the observed improvement in long-term endurance capacity comprise an increased proportion of type IIA muscle fibers that are less fatigable and yet highly capable of producing high contractile power. In addition, concurrent SE training led to substantial gains in maximal muscle strength (MVC) and rapid force capacity (RFD) in top-level endurance athletes (National Team cyclists), which are likely to have contributed to the observed increase in long-term endurance capacity manifested by a 7% increased mean Watt production in a standardized 45-min time trial performed in the lab.

They go on to discuss why some studies have failed to show any improvements in well-trained cyclists and triathletes following 6-weeks of strength and power training;

…these negative findings may have been caused by the use of short-term (9 weeks), low-resistance (i.e. ‘‘power’’ type) strength training, rather than long-term (>12 weeks), heavy-resistance training that appears to be more optimal for eliciting neuromuscular adaptation and inducing shifts in fiber type composition.

So it would seem that fibre-type changes are an important part of the mix.

For cycling athletes, the increase in maximal muscle strength observed following concurrent SE training means that when producing a pedal thrust force of a certain magnitude (corresponding to a given Watt production for a given pedaling cadence), this will represent a reduced relative load (relative to max), which in turn may have contributed to the observed enhancement in long-term endurance performance.

Further, an increase in rapid force capacity (RFD) also was observed following concurrent SE training in top-level cyclists, which may also contribute to a reduced degree of muscle fiber exhaustion for a given cycle power output during long-term endurance (time trial) events. Thus, the observed increase in RFD following strength training would enable cyclists to more rapidly produce pedal force and thereby allow for a more prolonged relaxation phase in each pedal revolution.

If we go back to my observations of many cyclists pulling up lame after hammering themselves harder than they are used to, in order to stick with the surging bunches, going with breaks, pushing hard on climbs, etc, they are forcing all of their fibres (not just the type-2’s) to work at a higher rate than they are used to, potentially sitting at 90-100% of capacity, with shortened relaxation phases.  This would see these muscles draining the fuel-tank very rapidly, forcing the rider to slow down in order to supply enough energy to the contracting muscles at a slower rate than racing requires, and, if they continued to try to push it, it would see them more likely to develop cramp.

You can imagine the performance benefits you can get if you have your type-2 fibres, which are capable of generating very large forces for prolonged efforts, effectively just idling at power outputs that have other riders on their limit, AND, having these fibres able to idle whilst consuming a large proportion of fat in their fuel mix, saving their high-powered glycogen stores for when it really counts.

The prolonged muscle relaxation phase would reduce the time of contraction-induced muscle occlusion, and hence increase the time of muscle perfusion given the prolonged relaxation phase, thereby increasing the mean capillary transit time (MTT). Thus, a prolonged muscle relaxation phase potentially would allow for an increased MTT per pedal revolution.

In turn, due to the relatively large molecular size of FFAs, it has been suggested that an increased MTT could enable an increased diffusion of FFA into the muscle cells, hence potentially sparing the rate of muscle glycogen breakdown and thereby delaying the onset of muscle fatigue.

Further, a longer MTT potentially could lead to an enhanced removal of metabolites produced by the contracting muscle fibers, which might contribute to the enhanced long-term endurance performance that was observed in top-level athletes in response to concurrent strength training.

One suggested mechanism for performance improvements has been improvements in economy – the metabolic cost of a particular output.

Cycling economy did not improve in top level (National Team) cyclists following 16 weeks of concurrent strength training. It is possible, however, that cycling economy may already be highly optimized in top-level cyclists and therefore highly difficult to improve, at least within weeks and months of training.

In a recent study conducted in well-trained cyclists (VO2max ~66–70mLO2/min/kg), Raastad and colleagues demonstrated that cycling economy was improved to a greater extent by concurrent strength-endurance training than endurance training alone during the final hour of a 185-min long cycling test, which was accompanied by a reduced rise in heart rate and blood lactate, respectively.

Furthermore, all-out cycling performance measured during a 5-min max test conducted immediately at the end of the 185-min cycling was substantially improved following strength training while unaffected by endurance training alone (7% improved average power production), suggesting that sprint capacity in the final phase of a race can be enhanced by strength training.

Not only does concurrent strength and endurance training not lead to muscle hypertrophy (effectively shooting down one of the main arguments given by cyclists and their coaches against this type of training), but endurance training alone is likely a stimulus to lose muscle mass – not the best thing for health or performance, one would think;

The elevated percentage of type IIA fibers appeared to occur at the expense of reduced type IIX area. Notably, no signs of quadriceps muscle fiber hypertrophy were detected, despite the prolonged period of heavy-resistance strength training, and muscle fiber capillarization also remained unchanged with either strength or endurance training.

In accordance, no signs of muscle fiber hypertrophy were observed in a group of moderately trained female cyclists in response to a protocol of low-volume strength training while anatomical quadriceps muscle cross-sectional area remained unaltered after 12 weeks of concurrent strength training in elite cross-country skiers.

Recent studies have shown that distinct cell signaling events involving the Akt/mTOR or AMPK pathways appear to become activated by resistance or endurance training, respectively, and that inhibitory cross-talk exists from one pathway to the other. Consequently, the endurance training stimuli delivered to the muscle cells during concurrent strength training may effectively blunt the muscle hypertrophy response that is normally observed in response to heavy-resistance strength training alone.

In further support of an atrophy stimulus provided by endurance training, a reduction in muscle fiber cross-sectional area (atrophy) has been observed following intensive endurance training.

I have never claimed that cyclists (or other endurance athletes, for that matter), can be made in the squat rack, or even consider doing the majority of their training off the bike.  But here we have a mode of training that can increase power and show no signs of the commonly held negatives when instituted alongside concurrent endurance training.  Add to this the fact that this form of training also helps with injury and disease prevention (cyclists and osteoporosis anyone?), and generally helps keep cyclists looking healthier than many actually do.  It should become more of an argument of why cyclists shouldn’t rather than why they should strength train.

Overall, it further adds to the evidence that a primal/paleo lifestyle can add to improved performance when we take aspects like training easy or training hard, but avoiding Goldilocks training, lifting heavy things, eating a high-fat diet, maintaining testosterone levels, not to mention sleep and sun exposure also helping.

As I have drawn heavily on this review paper, I will give the authors the last word on why strength training is likely beneficial to endurance athletes;

Experimental data demonstrate that strength training can lead to enhanced long-term (>30 min) and short-term (<15 min) endurance capacity both in well-trained individuals and highly trained top-level endurance athletes, especially (but not exclusively) when high-volume, heavy-resistance strength training protocols are applied.

The enhancement in long-term endurance capacity appears to involve training-induced increases in the proportion of type IIA muscle fibers as well as gains in maximal muscle strength (MVC) and rapid force characteristics (RFD), while also likely involving enhanced neuromuscular function.

*Grumpy-bastard syndrome

4 thoughts on “TdF-Inspired Cycling Post #2 – Strength Training for Cyclists

  1. Anonymous

    So what are your four or five heavy, explosive lift recommendations that might enhance one's cycling and general physical power. I'll guess you'll start with dead lifts… Thanks for the post but I'll be seeking a little technical interpretation of the article. kem

  2. Jamie Scott

    Hi KemMy goto exercises are;- Olympic Deadlift- Squats- Lunges- Overhead Press- Pull UpsThe core of my days in the gym (3 currently, but possibly dropping to 2 in the warmer months), is built aound these lifts, with a small handful of accessory movements rotated around these.Cheers,Jamie

  3. Lindsay

    So what is your opinion on Olympic lifts like clean and snatch variations for cycling? I know the article from Australian track cycling coach you posted a few months ago said they were too technical for maximum loads, but those were his words not yours (he also suggested eating cake, you know).

  4. Jamie Scott

    Hi LindsayIf a cyclist can execute some of those lifts well, then I don't see too many issues for using them as part of general conditioning. But on the whole, I'd tend to agree that they are unnecessarily complex for your average cyclist. The amount of gain between an ODL and a clean or snatch, would be minimal for a larger amount of time invested in executing the movements with safety and skill.At the end of the day, you are strengthening cyclists for force production at a given hip angle. Squats, ODLs, lunges, step ups, etc, all lend themselves to that slightly better and more specifically than the Oly lifts. With the Oly lifts, you can certainly move with speed and power, but in terms of driving a large gear from top dead centre, I don't think they are that good.

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