Strength training for cyclists is absolutely critical. If you’re a recreational cyclist who does low to moderate weekly mileage, strength training is an optional extra but certainly not a must. However, for competitive cyclists and those looking for ways to improve performance and reduce injury risk, it is a very valuable form of cross-training.
Research evidence also suggests that older cyclists are likely to benefit more than those in their physical prime. Furthermore, strength training is becoming more and more important in the treatment and rehabilitation of muscle and tendon injuries such as tendinopathy, often in favour of stretching and flexibility exercises. It has been shown to help re-strengthen damaged tissues while decreasing the likelihood of a recurrence of the injury.
Why strength training for cyclists?
Muscles in the trunk, shoulders, arms and hands are important to stabilise the bike and provide a firm base from which leg muscles can produce power. Strength training has multiple benefits and can improve certain aspects of performance and reduce injury risk. That said, it isn’t a priority for everyone and you can get by without it, but if you have the time to it, go for it!
The hamstrings are one of those muscles that no one seems to know too much about. We all know that squats work your quads, bench presses hit your chest, and planks train your core, but hamstrings? For most guys, the leg curl’s probably as far as they get with hamstring training, and it’s not a bad exercise, but if it’s the only thing you do for your hammies, then you’re selling yourself short.
The hamstrings are actually three different smaller muscle groups; the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris. Together, they work to perform two main actions – knee flexion (think lifting your heel towards your bum,) and hip extension (kicking your leg backwards.)
Cycling may be more of a quadriceps-dominant activity, but that doesn’t mean that your hamstrings are unimportant.
Strength Workouts for Cyclists
Before doing any of the fancy stuff, you need to nail the glute bridge raise. While the name may imply that it’s more of a glute exercise, your hamstrings play a big role too. Lie on your back with your knees bent to roughly 90 degrees, and your heels pressed firmly into the floor. With your hands at your side, push your hips off the floor as high as you can, all the time squeezing your hamstrings and glutes.
Glute Bridge Raises. While the name may imply that it’s more of a glute exercise, your hamstrings play a big role too. Lie on your back with your knees bent to roughly 90 degrees, and your heels pressed firmly into the floor. With your hands at your side, push your hips off the floor as high as you can, all the time squeezing your hamstrings and glutes.
Glute Ham Raises. If you train in a commercial gym, you probably aren’t too familiar with these, which is a shame, because glute ham raises offer a multitude of benefits. They’ve long been used by powerlifters for strengthening the group of muscles known as the posterior chain, which comprises the hamstrings, glutes and lower back, and are an absolute must for any woman looking to target those pesky saddlebags and butt muscles.
Classic pull up. Make sure your palms are facing away from you for a pull-up. If they're facing toward you, then you're doing a chin-up.
Bodyweight Leg Curls. Most gyms carry at least one leg curl machine – usually a lying or seated version, although kneeling and standing ones are also pretty familiar sights. The trouble with leg curl machines though, as with most resistance machines, is that they’re very much designed in a “one size fits all manner,” which, as we know, certainly isn’t the case. Due to limb length, biomechanics, and muscle origins and insertions, machines may not be the most comfortable way to perform an exercise, or the most beneficial. There are ways to perform leg curls though, which make them far more applicable and to you.
Gym Ball Leg Curls. Lie on your back with your legs straight, and heels on a Swiss ball. Lift your hips off the floor, squeeze your hamstrings and glutes, and bend your knees to bring the ball in towards you. Once you can’t bend your knees any further, pause for a second, and squeeze your hamstrings as hard as you can, then slowly straighten your legs again.
How to become a better cyclist
Approach hills with equal effort, not equal speed. When going over rollers, you don’t have to maintain the same speed as you were in the flats. This causes your power to skyrocket and then you have to find recovery going downhill. Instead, maintain momentum by keeping consistent power over the rollers and through the flats.
Train in bibs, not shorts. The chamois tends to be more comfortable in bibs than shorts, and if you don’t have to swim in your shorts first, you might as well go for relief and style (chamois crème also helps). Bibs also help with that “muffin” top occurrence by keeping the unity of the fabric thus increasing form and function.
Shifting.. You do not need to stay in your big ring. You have a little ring too. By utilizing all the gears you have, you are able to spin your way up and down climbs in order to maintain a consistent effort, and use cadence to save your legs instead of mashing or grinding your gears. Shifting is a valuable skill to learn, and you should utilize it to be the most efficient cyclist. An efficient cyclist will have more energy for those other activities you have following your ride.
Race wheels are great for race day. It is acceptable to have training wheels that may not have any carbon on them. Leave the race wheels for race day and you will go faster.
Tubular wheels are meant for racing, not training. Your cell phone is not a flat fixing device, and I would not trust riding a tire at speed that I used residual glue or tape to adhere to my wheel. Tape or glue? Glue. Tape is slower anyway. It is recommended to train on clincher wheels.
Aero Helmets are worn only if you are being timed. Unless you are in a time trial or race, and being timed, don’t wear your aero helmet. Road helmets provide more ventilation and visibility.
Spend time in the aero position. It is important to train in the position you are racing in. Feel free to spend the necessary time in your aero bars in order to build the appropriate muscles to race to the best of your ability. Do these on safe roads and be very aware of traffic, other cyclists and possible hazards.
Basic bike handling skills go a long way. Invest time in your skills on the bike in order to capitalize on the time you spend riding. You will ride faster, more efficiently, and safer. Local cycling clubs often offer clinics to work on basic skills. We all need these skills and it is good to learn to perfect them. Practice makes perfect, makes you faster on race day, and also is better for those around you. Bike handling skills is a constant learning possibility.
Common mistakes to avoid
Not using gears. Your bike has gears for a reason; to improve the efficiency of your power over different terrain. Most bikes nowadays will have upwards of 20 gears, giving a very wide choice of ratios to suit all abilities. So, make sure you use them. At the other end of the spectrum you shouldn’t be heaving a large gear so your knees begin to hurt and every pedal revolution is like doing a weights session. Find a comfortable gear on the flat regardless of ability you should aim to turn at an rpm (pedal revolutions per minute) of around 70-90. Make sure you gear down (easier) for climbs and up (harder) for the flatter and downhill sections of road.
Saddle height. Aside from soft tyres this is the one main thing that makes you inefficient as a rider, as the power from the legs just simply isn’t being delivered properly because you’re positioned too high or too low. As a guide the optimum position leg wise can be achieved as follows; Ride along with your heel on the pedal. When your leg is at the very bottom of the pedal stroke your leg should be almost straight, but not quite. Set your saddle at this height. Then when riding with your foot in the ‘normal’ position (ball of big toe over centre of the pedal axle) you should achieve an efficient pedalling action, at an ideal height. Don’t be afraid though to adjust a little higher or lower from this point, just to fine tune things if needed. You should still be able to touch the ground with your toes either side of the bike whilst sat in the saddle.
Poor bike maintenance. Again, this is basic stuff but vitally important. Not just from a convenience point of view when having to get picked up from the roadside by a friend or family member, but more from a safety perspective. It’s good to get into the habit of regularly checking your bike and keeping it maintained. Focus on the brakes, gears, handlebars and tyres and regularly clean and lubricate the chain. Once in a while get your bike serviced, especially if you are unsure or in doubt re a more complex part of the bike. Don’t chance it.
Not fuelling enough. You may have heard of the phrase ‘hitting the wall’ in running, referring to the point when the body runs out of fuel/energy and basically grinds to a halt. Well, in cycling is the same way. It’s something that has happened to most riders, even those at the top level but it is one thing that’s best avoided if at all possible. Try and head out with a bit more food than you actually need and perhaps two bottles, especially if riding in more remote areas where there’s little chance of finding a shop. Having some food/drink in reserve is better than running on your reserve tank, so plan ahead.
Riding too far, too hard, too early. Know your ability and ride within it. There’s nothing wrong with aiming high but the key to achieving those lofty ambitions is to build things up incrementally. Cycling is a tough sport but wonderfully rewarding.
Braking in corners. This is very common error, especially amongst those new to cycling. The safest, most efficient technique is to brake before the corner, not actually through it, as doing this with your bike banked over at an angle will most likely result in the bike locking up and you losing control and crashing. So, on the approach to a bend gently brake and shave off enough speed to a point you can safely negotiate the bend. Practice makes perfect. Remember to start braking earlier in wet conditions as the stopping distance will be greater.
No spares. When embarking on a ride that’s going to take you a fair distance from home, you need to ensure that you’ve packed a few essential spares and tools. Take with you items that can be easily stowed in a small saddlebag under the saddle or distributed in your pockets (tubes, lever, patches, mini-pump, and tools).