In this post, I will discuss the key elements every cyclist needs to know about undertaking weight training. These ‘key elements’ are all withdrawn from my personal experiences working as a Cycling Strength & Conditioning Coach with many semi professional and professional cyclists around the world, in addition to my PHD studies – at the University of Sunshine Coast – in cycling and load management.
Some of the main points we will cover include:
- Why weight training is important and how it benefits cycling
- When to integrate weight training into your cycling training
- How often to perform weight training
- What weight training exercises to consider
- How many weight training exercises to perform
- How many sets and repetitions to perform on each exercise
Everything I discuss here is based on previous research and a decade of experience working as an exercise physiologist and strength coach with hundreds of athletes.
So whether you are a seasoned gym junkie or a beginner, I am confident you will take away a wealth of information from this post.
Let us begin!
Key terms (2)
Please be sure to familiarize yourself with the following terms to get the most out of this blog post:
- Functional overreaching
- An athletic state characterized by temporary performance decrements in response to training load increases, followed by performance improvements during recovery periods (reduced training load)
- In this blog post, when intensity is used in the context of weight training, it describes the weight prescription for an exercise
- For example, low-intensity describes an exercise prescription involving the lifting of a relatively light (or easy) weight, while high-intensity describes prescriptions involving a relatively heavy weight
- Repetitions (or reps)
- A single execution of a given exercise
- For example, performing one push-up is equivalent to one repetition, while performing 10 push-ups (consecutively) is equivalent to 10 repetitions
- A group of repetitions
- For example, three sets of 10 repetitions on the push-up exercise means you will complete a total of 30 push-ups by completing 10 repetitions at a time (with a rest between each set of 10 repetitions)
- Physiological adaptation to training load resulting in performance improvements
- A planned reduction in training load to induce performance improvements
- Training load
- Physical work (e.g., cycling, weight training) completed and the resulting physiological and psychological stress
- Weight training
- Synonymous with resistance training, gym training, and strength training (though the latter can also describe a training phase focusing on peak strength development)
- Describes an exercise mode that uses body-weight or added external weight during specific movements to stimulate improvements in physical function
3.1 Cycling benefits
Performing lower-body weight training two to three times per week over eight to 20 weeks improves leg strength and both time-trial and sprint performance.1–5 While it is easy to solely attribute these cycling performance improvements to increases in leg strength,6 the associated improvements in cycling economy (the oxygen cost of cycling) and efficiency (the energy cost of cycling) that result from weight training,1,2 are among the underlying factors. Therefore, by increasing lower-body strength and reducing the oxygen and energy cost of cycling, weight training increases both aerobic (endurance) and anaerobic (explosive) cycling performance.
3.2 Healthy aging
3.2.1 Bone health
The density of your bones changes over time, with peak bone density occurring between 20 and 30 years of age, followed by a perpetual steady decline as part of the aging process.7 As individuals with relatively low bone density have an increased risk of bone fractures,8 exercise and sport participation is recommended for improving bone density.
While cycling is a healthy exercise mode, several research studies have reported that cyclists have either lower or the same bone density as sedentary control subjects,9 which may or may not be due to the low impact nature of cycling. Regardless of the cause, low bone density in cyclists is concerning because crashing is an unfortunate part of cycling, as is the occasional fall in day-to-day life. Therefore, in alignment with previous recommendations,10 I recommend cycling athletes engage in weight training to improve their bone density, ultimately helping reduce their risk of bone fractures.
3.2.2 Maintaining function
The decline of muscle mass and strength typically commences in adulthood and continues throughout your lifespan as part of the aging process.11 This steady decline leads to reduced physical function, decreasing an individual’s ability to tolerate life stressors and increasing susceptibility to catastrophic life events.11 Therefore, weight training should be considered a valuable tool for combating the adverse effects of aging due to its ability to help maintain physical function and increase physiological resilience.11
3.3 Pain and injury prevention
As prolonged cycling is inherently fatiguing, with elements such as sprinting and climbing increasing the demand and subsequent fatigue of core musculature, the risk of knee pain or injury likely increases while fatigued.12,13 Therefore, engaging in weight training designed to improve core strength, and reduce core fatigability, is warranted for reducing knee pain and injury risk in cycling athletes.12,14 Lastly, given the above benefits of weight training and their positive effect on cycling economy and efficiency (which moderates fatigue), it is unsurprising that the world-leading researcher on athlete monitoring, Dr Tim Gabbett, has highlighted the importance of lower-body strength for improving an athlete’s ability to tolerate relatively high training loads and reduce injury.15,16
If you have had some extended time off weight training (> 6 months) or have minimal experience with it, then I suggest you avoid integrating it during intense cycling training phases. This recommendation is because your body is already experiencing high training demands, so the addition of weight training may not always be well tolerated by the body during these types of phases. Therefore, off-season or general preparation phases (with characteristically more base training) are a better time to start integrating weight training. This approach will allow your body to become familiar with the exercise mode and the associated muscle soreness (which is more pronounced early on in your weight training campaign), while the bike intensity is inherently low to moderate.
5.1 Lower-body weight training
Among the most common requests I get from cycling athletes is that they want to perform weight training four to five days per week. While I admire their enthusiasm, I respond by stating that research typically supports two to three weight training sessions per week, comprised of exercises targeting the lower-body musculature.1,3,5,17 Though, once an athlete has completed 12 weeks of lower-body weight training (twice per week with a strength focus), subsequent training plans involving lower-body weight training sessions once per week for up to 13 weeks are suitable for maintaining lower-body strength.4 The latter is beneficial for managing your training load during competition phases or phases with high training loads.
5.2 Upper-body weight training
Those of you wanting to include additional upper-body and core training may wish to do so by incorporating them into the lower-body training sessions or performing them on separate days. The main thing is to consider your time and the resulting fatigue response from the added training. Moreover, do not let weight training soak up all your rest days! When incorporating weight training into your cycling training, I recommend you still have at least one non-exercising day per week.
5.3 Planned breaks
You must have periods throughout the year where you take a break from weight training. These breaks might be part of your off-season or a pre-planned one- to two-week break following an intense weight training phase. Now, this is where art meets science, so I am not citing a specific cycling researcher(s); just in my experience, I generally find athletes need a week or two break from weight training every two to three months. Interestingly, I often see this happen organically due to athlete life commitments or travel for competitions, though I preemptively plan these breaks as part of their periodization.
This question is easier to answer by initially highlighting days to avoid weight training while also providing considerations for performing both cycling and weight training on the same day.
6.1 Non-consecutive days
Avoid training the same muscle group (i.e., lower-body muscles) on consecutive days if the weight training intensity is moderate to high. This recommendation is because weight training-induced lower-body fatigue is evident for at least 24 hours, regardless of the exercise velocity.18
6.2 Not the day before a challenging cycling session
Due to lower-body fatigue persisting for up to 24 hours after moderate- to high-intensity weight training,18 I recommend avoiding moderate- to high-intensity weight training the day before a challenging cycling session (e.g., cycling test, hill climbing efforts, sprint efforts, race).
6.3 Try to preserve your rest days
Preserve your rest days if you only have a few to start with. For example, if you have four rest days per week, then using one or two of those days to perform weight training on is not the end of the world as you still have two remaining (though you would need to try that out to see if your body copes). However, if you only have one to two rest days per week, adding weight training to them is not a long-term solution for integrating this training mode.
6.4 Cycling and weight training on the same day
You can perform these exercise modes on the same day, though there are caveats regarding the order of their performance and underlying intensity. Given that weight training can cause fatigue in the lower-body and core,12,18 which leads to concomitant changes in pedalling mechanics associated with injury,12 I recommend you complete your cycling session first, followed by your weight training session later in the day. How much later in the day? The answer largely depends on the cycling session duration, intensity, and resulting fatigue. So I can only tell you that 80 mins of cycling at 70% effort results in lower-body strength and power decrements between 10 and 25% for at least 30 mins.19 Therefore, it is up to you to try different time gaps between cycling and weight training to see what works best for you (and what is practical) when performing these exercise modes on the same day. Furthermore, given the fatiguing effect of cycling on spine and pelvic control and lower-body performance,13,19,20 I recommend reducing your planned weight training intensity by at least 10 to 20% if the cycling session was particularly long, intense, or fatiguing (relative to your typical rides).
The weight training exercises to include in your program will largely depend on your current levels of physical function, injury history, technical proficiency, medical history, age, training history, goals, and training phase. Though to get your imagination going, in cycling research, the exercises I primarily see getting used include the following strength, power, and core exercises1,3–5,14,17:
- Lower-body strength prescriptions
- Lower-body power prescriptions
- Core prescriptions
7.1 Common themes
So, what is the common theme with the lower-body exercises listed above? They are predominantly multi-joint (or compound) exercises, meaning they involve more than one major lower-body joint (i.e., movement about the hip, knee, and ankle joint during a single exercise). That means when designing your weight training program, you do not necessarily have to include the exercises listed above; just ensure you have some multi-joint lower-body exercises within the program (provided there are no physical contraindications to that).
7.2 Core training
There is also nothing magical about the core exercises listed above. Simply ensuring you have one to six core exercises involving the glute complex (rear and side of your hip) and/or trunk muscles (front and back of your trunk) will help you get the most out of your weight training sessions. I recommend performing core exercises at the end of your weight training sessions; however, low-intensity balance-demanding core exercises should be performed at the start.
When selecting weight training exercises, it is usually best to include ones you enjoy doing. If you feel weird or uncomfortable with a given exercise, get a technique check and correction (if required) by a qualified professional. After that, if you still do not enjoy the exercise or feel uncomfortable while performing it, chances are you will not be particularly consistent with it. In these cases, I suggest you replace the exercise with one you can see yourself doing (and enjoying) over the medium- to long-term.
Generally, the “meat and potatoes” of your weight training will include approximately 30 to 60 mins of work involving four lower-body exercises,1,3–5 with the time required for warm-ups and cool-downs on either side. However, this recommended number of exercises does depend on your technical proficiency, training phase, goals, time allocation, injury history, medical history, and general physical function. Personally, my prescriptions typically range from two to four lower-body weight training exercises per session, depending on the factors above. Also, given the negative effect of core fatigue on pedalling mechanics,12 including one to six core exercises, targeting the glute complex (rear and side of the hip) and/or trunk muscles (front and back) at the end of your sessions would likely be beneficial.5,14
The number of sets and repetitions to perform on an exercise depends on the training phase, exercise, your characteristics, and goals. In research, lower-body exercise prescriptions range from two to three sets of three to 20 repetitions.1,3–5,17 The higher repetition ranges have been prescribed for moderate-intensity (moderate weight) strength exercises5 and body-weight (i.e., no extra weight) power exercises.17 In contrast, lower repetition ranges have been prescribed for high-intensity (relatively heavy weight) strength and power exercises.5 However, this is not always the case, with Rønnestad et al.,1,3,4 prescribing high-intensity weight prescriptions over four to 10 repetitions, which also resulted in increased lower-body strength. Additionally, Beattie5 used relatively lower repetitions (three) for both low- and high-intensity power exercise prescriptions (squat jumps). For dynamic (movement) core exercises,14 two sets of 10 to 14 repetitions appear adequate, as are two sets of 20 to 45 secs for static (non-movement) core exercises.5
Given the above evidence, four to 10 repetitions may be more appropriate for high-intensity prescriptions, where the main goal is to increase lower-body strength. In contrast, repetition ranges around 12 have applications in moderate-intensity prescriptions. Moreover, repetition ranges as low as three and as high as 20 appear to have applications in low-intensity lower-body power exercises (body-weight only), while low repetitions (three) appear suitable for high-intensity power prescriptions (relatively heavy weight used in the exercise). Lastly, the amount of rest you take between sets will largely be governed by the exercise intensity and complexity. Therefore, relatively high intensities aiming to build peak strength or power typically require at least three minutes of rest between sets. In contrast, 45 seconds to two minutes of rest may suffice for low- to moderate-intensity exercises. However, a complex exercise requiring high amounts of balance and/or stability may need longer rest periods between sets, regardless of the intensity prescription, to help maintain correct technique.
10.1 The evidence
The intensity you train at depends on the training phase, exercise, your characteristics, and goals. So while cycling research aiming to increase peak lower-body strength often uses relatively heavy loads (high intensity) over three to 10 repetitions (basically the most weight you can safely lift for the prescribed repetition range),1,3–5 low- to moderate-intensity prescriptions are also effective.5,14 Concerning core exercises, light to moderate-intensity prescriptions improve core fatigability,14 which would aid cycling performance and reduce injury risk.12
Provided there are no contraindications, I recommend you undulate your weight training intensity between phases, as it is unrealistic to maintain high-intensity weight training prescriptions all year. For example, you could use light to moderate weight training intensities for four weeks, developing lower-body stability, exercise technique mastery, and foundational strength. This could be followed by four weeks of moderate- to high-intensity prescriptions with the goal of increasing muscle mass, with a subsequent four weeks developing peak strength using high-intensity weight training prescriptions. This process could then be repeated after a one- to three-week break.
Another recommendation is to consider undulating your weight training intensity between sessions. For example, if the goal is maintaining strength (rather than increasing it), during your two weight training sessions each week, you could include high-intensity prescriptions in one session and low- to moderate-intensity prescriptions in the other.4,5
Train with RPE (11)
11.1 Weight-based prescriptions are out
Due to the nature of cycling, your legs will not feel the same every day. Sometimes you take the stairs; other days, the elevator and escalator. Concerning weight training, there will be days when you feel like bending bars and days when you give the squat rack a wide berth. Therefore, it is hard to rationalize pre-planned weight-based exercise intensity prescriptions, such as percentage of one-repetition maximum (e.g., barbell squat: 3 x 8 @ 70% 1-RM) or raw weight prescriptions (e.g., barbell squat: 3 x 8 @ 100 kg) for cycling athletes. Moreover, it is even harder to rationalize repetition maximum testing for weight training exercises (for use in subsequent exercise intensity prescriptions) with athletes who have little to no history of training in a gym environment.21
11.2 RPE-based prescriptions are in
A more suitable method for prescribing your weight training exercise intensity is via the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) method combined with repetitions in reserve (or RIR) (Table 1).21 Via this method, you can achieve a consistent RPE training intensity for a given exercise, while the exercise weight that this equates to varies according to your fatigue levels. Ultimately, this method provides a more sustainable approach to integrating weight training into your overall cycling training as it better accommodates your pre-existing fatigue levels. Therefore, rather than using weight-based intensities, I recommend prescribing an RPE intensity to your exercises, along with the sets, repetitions, and rest period (and optionally, the lifting speed/tempo). As such, exercise prescriptions via this method would appear as something akin to this example below:
barbell squat: 3 x 8 @ RPE 7, with 180 sec rest between sets
Table 1. Resistance Exercise-Specific Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
|Rating||Description of Perceived Exertion|
|9.5||No further repetitions but could increase load|
|9||1 repetition remaining|
|8.5||1 – 2 repetitions remaining|
|8||2 repetitions remaining|
|7.5||2 – 3 repetitions remaining|
|7||3 repetitions remaining|
|5 – 6||4 – 6 repetitions remaining|
|3 – 4||Light effort|
|1 – 2||Little to no effort|
11.3 Science versus tradition
Some may disagree with this approach, believing that regardless of the high fatigue present, one must functionally overreach by striving to achieve weight-based intensities to induce super-compensation (physiological adaptation) at the cost of temporary performance reductions due to the resulting fatigue. While this perspective ignores the concept that fatigue superimposed over (and arising from) training load is amongst the modifiable causes of injury, pain, and illness,22–25 it is also a supposition rooted in tradition rather than sports science.26 Specifically, functional overreaching is associated with psychological, hormonal, cardiovascular, immunological, and metabolic detriments in athletes.26,27 Moreover, Bellinger26 concluded from their review that when a functionally overreached athlete does experience a performance increase (post-taper), it is not at a greater magnitude than that of the athlete who only experienced acute fatigue (no reductions in performance during the loading period). Therefore, I recommend using RPE-based intensity prescriptions in your weight training rather than weight-based intensity prescriptions to manage your training-induced fatigue levels and limit health detriments.
12.1 The free pass
At some point during the training schedule, you are going to have life commitments, social engagements, other training demands, illness, injury, or fatigue prevent you from completing one or more planned weight training sessions. This is okay, you are human; give yourself a free pass. However, do not try to play catch-up in the subsequent training week (i.e. do not perform an extra weight training session on top of the planned sessions for a given week). Other than interfering with the weekly training structure, as each training session is carefully scheduled based on the previous and subsequent sessions, it can spike your acute training load, which is associated with illness and injury in sport.28
12.2 Missing a week or more of training
Suppose you miss an entire week or more of planned weight training sessions. In this instance, when you do return to your weight training sessions, I recommend reducing your planned intensity by at least 10 to 20% for every week you miss (this is from experience, not research). Stick with this reduced intensity for at least two weeks, then reassess whether you can safely tolerate higher weight training intensities, should the goal of the training phase require it. These recommendations are based on the detraining effect (deterioration of previously achieved physiological adaptations) that typically occurs when athletes have several weeks off training.29,30
12.3 Regularly missing training
When you miss weight training sessions often, it is a sign that your training schedule is not congruent with your life demands, activities, or ability to recover (should fatigue be the underlying reason for regularly missing sessions). So, if this sounds like you, then I recommend you (and your coach where required) return to the planning phase and develop a training schedule that mitigates the issues that prevented you from adhering to the previous schedule.
To add or replace? (13)
13.1 The contention
Sports science debates can reach a crescendo when one raises the point of adding weight training (with a strength or power focus) to existing cycling training or simultaneously dropping a portion of cycling training while also adding weight training. This debate point is due to evidence supporting the latter for improving time-trial performance and cycling power output,31 though the former is associated with these same improvements.3,5 One could likely write a thesis on this contention, so instead, I will highlight a few key points to consider.
13.2 Points to consider
Firstly, the weight training prescription, cycling training prescription, cycling phase, taper protocol, study duration, and subject training history are different between studies (provided the authors are not part of the same research project). Therefore, it is naïve to expect the same or similar study outcomes.
Secondly, the sample size, or the number of athletes in a study, can greatly impact the statistical analysis and subsequent interpretation of results.
Lastly, when adding weight training to existing cycling training, an athlete experiences a relatively large net increase in total training load compared to the athlete who has a portion of their cycling training replaced with weight training. These net differences in training load likely impact cycling outcome measures (e.g., sprint test, time trial), as we know that the initial response to increases in training load includes performance decrements.27,32
13.3 Recommended approach
So, what do you do with this information? I recommend you mix it up and see what works best for you. For example, if you have some strength-focused days on the bike, try replacing them with weight training sessions for a month or two. Then determine objectively (what does your bike data or race results suggest?) or subjectively (how are you feeling on the bike?) whether you had a positive experience. Alternatively, add weight training to your existing cycling training for a month or two, and determine whether the experience was positive.
14.1 Concerning recommendations
Those familiar with weight training research on cycling athletes will note that strength- (high intensity/heavy weights) and/or power-based weight training exercises seem to increase anaerobic and/or aerobic cycling performance after four to 20 weeks.1,3–5,17 Unfortunately, these research findings have been misused and abused. I have seen high-profile sporting bodies recommending cycling athletes undertake heavy or explosive weight training as generic advice. While well-meaning, this type of advice does not consider the technical proficiency, current physical function, training history, age, injury history, medical history, or training phase of an athlete. Moreover, nor does it address or consider the time-course (i.e., variation in the amount of training over time) of the weight training. As such, generic recommendations solely advocating for strength- and power-based weight training, in my view, are more harmful than helpful.
14.2 The journey of a thousand miles…
In the field of strength and conditioning, we state an athlete must earn the right to progress. At a minimum, this means you must achieve an acceptable level of exercise technique mastery, load tolerance, and physiological adaptation that would allow you to safely and competently complete high-intensity, strength-based, and/or power-based weight training prescriptions. Depending on your characteristics, this could take weeks, months, and years before the inclusion of these elements become appropriate (if ever). Ultimately, this highlights the importance of sourcing an experienced and qualified strength and conditioning professional to determine your weight training progression and periodize accordingly.
Muscle soreness (15)
15.1 What is DOMS?
Like starting any new physical activity, or one you have not done in a while, your body will likely present with post-activity muscle soreness, termed delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS).33 The common signs of DOMS include muscle soreness, reduced muscle force, swelling, and restricted joint range of motion, all likely stemming from microdamage to muscle cells, with these manifestations peaking two to three days post-activity.33 Due to weight training exercises usually involving eccentric muscle contractions (lengthening of muscle-tendon units while contracting),34 this training mode is commonly associated with DOMS.33
15.2 Weight training and DOMS
Now that I have painted a lovely picture of weight training, this is an excellent time to highlight that not all your weight training sessions will result in DOMS. Provided you are on an appropriately progressed training program; usually, the first couple of training sessions involving new exercises will result in mild DOMS. As your body adapts to the new training stimulus and your muscle cells become adapted, the DOMS symptoms are barely noticeable after weight training sessions.35,36
15.3 Excessive DOMS
If you experience excessive DOMS, the weight training session was likely excessive in its volume (number of exercise sets and repetitions) and/or intensity relative to your current functional state. In these situations, I recommend that the subsequent weight training session have a greatly reduced (at least 30 to 50%) training volume and intensity, followed by slow volume (and eventually intensity) progressions in future sessions as symptoms allow.
15.4 How can I manage DOMS?
When DOMS presents itself, a few strategies might manage the discomfort, though research findings are inconsistent on their usefulness.37 So, while I present some of them below, I make no promises that they will help. Also, people with underlying medical conditions should speak with their doctor about implementing some of these strategies (including cold water immersion, heat therapy, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [NSAIDs]):
- Cold water immersion
- 11 to 15 mins in water temperature of 15°C (59°F)
- Either whole body in the water (minus your head and neck) or lower-body only (the latter aims to reduce lower-body DOMS)
- May provide a temporary analgesic effect
- Stretching and foam rolling
- Gentle stretching and rolling of the affected muscle groups as required
- May provide a temporary analgesic effect and increase joint range of motion
- Wearing compression garments
- Compression garments worn over areas where DOMS is present (e.g., wear a lower-body compression garment for lower-body DOMS)
- May result in an early reduction in muscle stiffness
Cycling Strength & Conditioning Podcast (16)
Weight training can improve cycling performance, reduce injury risk, and help maintain physical function throughout the aging process. These effects are primarily due to improvements in lower-body strength, bone density, and cycling economy and efficiency. Performing two to four lower-body weight training exercises, combined with core exercises targeting the trunk and hip musculature, is enough to elicit a cycling performance response over eight to 20 weeks. However, while much of these improvements are due to high intensity (relatively high weight) prescriptions, please ensure your weight training intensity is congruent with your physical function and training proficiency (you earn the right to progress).
So now I would like to hear from you:
- What are your favourite weight training exercises?
- How often do you perform weight training?
- Did this article get you thinking about starting weight training?
Please let me know in the comments below and if you’re interested in working with me directly, go here
Lastly, if you found this article helpful, please share it on social media, and be sure to subscribe to the RCA newsletter and YouTube channel for more cycling content.
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