Cycling + Strength Training: How Important is it to Do Both?
Cycling is a great activity for health, fitness, and weight maintenance. It’s also fun, especially when you take it out of the gym and into the real world. If you or your clients enjoy cycling, you’re getting a lot of important benefits:
- Cycling is a great cardiovascular workout. It elevates the heart rate and leads to improved cardio fitness.
- For anyone with joint pain, cycling is easy on the knees and hips.
- Although not adequate alone as strength training, cycling does build muscle.
- Cycling also builds bone density as you push down on the pedals.
- Studies have found that cycling rather than driving to work reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and even extends life expectancy (1).
But, keep in mind that the best way to overall fitness includes variation. Don’t forget about weight training. Building muscle will provide many benefits, including improved cycling performance, endurance, and speed. It can also help you reverse the few negative consequences of spending a lot of time on a bike.
Remind your clients how important cross training is. It’s great to get enthusiastic about a sport like cycling, but variation and cross training improves performance and overall fitness measures.
Do Cyclists Need to Strength Train?
Yes. Of course, everyone needs to incorporate strength training into their regular exercise routines, but there are some particular reasons for cyclists to prioritize it. As with any other sport, including regular resistance training will make you stronger, which in turn improves performance. Cycling is so much about leg strength, so why not build that when not on the bike?
Less obvious reasons strength training is important have to do with some of the harm that cycling can cause. Again, this isn’t unique to cycling, but with any sport, too much of one movement can create overuse injuries, muscle imbalances, and pain. You need to include strength training to mitigate these.
Certain groups need strength training more than others. Everyone should be doing it, but older cyclists, for instance, really need these exercises to counteract the natural effects of muscle loss. Cycling helps build muscle, but it isn’t enough. Aging naturally leads to declines in muscle mass that can be slowed and even reversed with the right training.
The Major Benefits of Both Cycling and Strength Training Exercises
Cyclists may focus on getting in miles on the bike, but they will also get serious benefits by spending some time in the gym. Regardless of the type of cardio activity or sport a person is involved in, strength training is important.
The right strength workout will improve and increase muscle mass, build bone strength and reduce the risk of injuries, improve flexibility in joints, help manage weight, shift to a healthier body composition, and just make everyday, functional movements easier. For cyclists in particular, there are specific benefits that come from adding in appropriate strength exercises.
More Muscle, Better Performance
One of the most motivating factors in getting clients to add strength training is the potential benefit to performance. This is especially true for your competitors. Cyclists who participate in races, including endurance racing, will definitely see improvements in power, speed, and race times when they strength train regularly.
Cycling is largely a cardio sport, but to go fast and to go long you must have strength, especially in leg, core, and glute muscles. Strength training builds muscle, which in turn improves cycling performance measures. There are several studies to back this up:
- Improved leg strength and power. A study looked at a group of cyclists training for 12 weeks and then participating in a racing season for 13 weeks. They were divided into two groups based on training. One group only did endurance training, while the other included strength training as well. During the competition phase, those who did strength training had significantly greater improvements in leg strength power as compared to the other group (2).
- Faster, more powerful race finishes. In a similar study, cyclists were again separated by endurance training only and endurance along with strength training. The test at the end of the training period was an endurance ride ending in a sprint. Those who strength trained had lower heart rates and rates of oxygen consumption during the sprint. They also had more power (3).
- Increased force, efficiency, and endurance. Another study measured several other factors in two groups that used either endurance or endurance and strength training for race preparation. The strength training group saw big improvements in cycling economy, work efficiency, time to exhaustion, and development of force. All of these were significant compared to the control group and helped improve cycling performance (4).
Don’t forget about nutrition for your endurance athletes. Fueling the right way for long rides is essential.
Core Strength for Stability and Endurance
Don’t make the mistake of focusing solely on the powerful leg muscles. Cyclists also need core strength. On a bike you have to hold your body up and balance. This requires core strength. Targeted, regular core work will develop those muscles. This will help you stabilize better on the bike and be able to hold good form longer. Fatigue in the core can easily set in when doing long rides, which interferes with speed, power, and the ability to keep going.
Cycling and Strength Training Boosts Overall Fitness
Strength training for anyone is good for overall fitness. The obvious result of including resistance and strength exercises is building strength. Muscles get bigger and stronger when you work them in the right ways.
But there are other fitness benefits too. Adding muscle mass increases metabolism, which in turn helps burn more fat. Changing body composition through strength training helps improve all areas of fitness. Strength training also improves cardiovascular fitness. If you’re doing it right, your heart rate will get up and give you a good cardio workout. Strength training also helps improve general mobility and flexibility, including in the joints.
Correct Muscle Imbalances
Any type of repetitive activity, like cycling, will lead to imbalances in muscle strength over time, unless you correct for it with targeted training. When muscles are imbalanced it can lead to injuries and also significant pain.
Regular cycling tends to develop more strength in the quads and glutes. The hamstrings and hip flexors generally fall behind. Strength training that focuses on these muscles can help to avoid or correct problematic imbalances.
Improve Cyclist Posture
Another issue cyclists often face is poor posture. After spending so much time hunched over a bike, it’s not surprising that you tend to develop a rounded, shoulder-forward posture. Specific strength and posture exercises will help correct this problem, which otherwise can lead to neck and back pain and tension.
Developing a Strength Training Plan
A strength training plan for cyclists should include overall body exercises but with a particular focus on lower body, core, and posture exercises. Change things up to hit all the important muscle groups. Some good exercises for lower body strength include:
- Straight-leg deadlifts
- Single-leg bridges
- Hamstring curls
A core workout should include a variety of moves to strengthen the abs and back:
- Planks and plan variations
- Push-ups to renegade row
- Russian twists
- Back extensions
- Boat pose
- Bicycle crunches
To work on posture when not cycling, focus on stretching the chest and using these exercises to strengthen the back and shoulders:
- Reverse fly
- Lat pulldowns
- Renegade rows
- Overhead presses
- Bent over rows
Don’t forget to add in some upper body training as well. It may not be as important for cycling, but arm, chest, and back strength is still beneficial, especially for posture and avoiding fatigue on long rides. Include stretching too. Cycling is like sitting for long periods of time in that it tightens up the hips. Do targeted hip stretches after every workout.
Making Time for Strength Training
Being enthusiastic about cycling is great. It’s a sport that provides so many health and fitness benefits. But it can also take up a lot of your time. If you love to cycle, especially if you compete, you want to get out there and do as many miles as possible. It can be hard to justify time spent in the gym when you have other responsibilities.
- Use compound movements to make strength sessions more efficient and quicker.
- Find short times during the day to do just a few exercises at a time. For clients who work at a desk, getting up occasionally for strength training will benefit their hips too, giving them a chance to stretch and loosen the joints.
- Do strength training in the living room during TV time.
- Add in a few moves before and after each ride as a quick warm up and cool down that also become strength training sessions.
- Use rest days from cycling as strength training or gym days.
- Spend less time strength training without focus. A few exercises with perfect form and with an emphasis on the most important moves is much better than long sessions done without much thought.
Cycling is a great sport that many people enjoy. If you love to cycle or have clients who are enthusiasts, keep pushing for strength training. Two sessions a week will help improve fitness and strength, performance measures, and muscle imbalances and poor posture. It can be easy to get focused on cycling only, but you won’t regret making time for strength training too.
Are you a cyclist who dreams of a career helping other people meet their fitness goals? Check out the ISSA’s Certified Personal Trainer Self-Guided Study Program that can help you become a trainer at your own pace.
- Celis-Moralis, C.A., Lyall, D.M., Welsh, P., Anderson, J., Steell, L. Guo, Y., Maldonado, R., Mackay, D.F., Pell, J.P., Sattar, N., and Gill, J.M.R. (2017). Association Between Active Commuting and Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cancer, and Mortality: Prospective Cohort Study. 357:j1456. Retrieved from https://www.bmj.com/content/357/bmj.j1456
- Ronnestad, B.R., Hansen, E.A., and Raastad, T. (2010, December). In-Season Strength Maintenance Training Increases Well-Trained Cyclists’ Performance. Eur. J. Appl. Physiol. 110(6), 1269-82. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20799042
- Ronnestad, B.R., Hansen, E.A., and Raastad, T. (2011, April). Strength Training Improves 5-Min All-Out Performance Following 185 Min of Cycling. Scand. J. Sci Sports. 21(2), 250-9. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19903319
- Sunde, A., Storen, O., Bjerkaas, M., Larsen, M.H., Hoff, J., and Helgerud, J. (2010, August). Maximal Strength Training Improves Cycling Economy in Competitive Cyclists. J. Strength Cond. Res. 24(8), 2157-65. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19855311
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