Are you ready to jump into the rabbit hole that is strengthening for endurance athletes with me? Never has a topic had more articles written about it and research conducted that leaves athletes and coaches alike scratching their head as to if it is in fact beneficial to use precious training time focusing on not continuing to strengthen the cardiorespiratory system, but instead building muscular strength and power off bike. I will attempt to let both sides of the strengthening argument be heard, support these arguments with available research, and finally give my opinion on what has worked for myself and my athletes. Before we can begin anything though, let’s define what conventional strength training is to me.
Conventional strength training is using a mass (barbell, straight bar, kettle bell, body weight, sand bag, even a tree stump if you’re Rocky!) to induce a muscular group contraction and create an overloading of said muscle group. This overloading causes microtearing of the muscle. This microtearing signals the body to heal the muscle so it is better able to handle the stress previously placed upon it, i.e., become stronger.
Why Strength Train?
Strength training is used to improve neuromuscular power, anaerobic energy system production, muscle size (hypertrophy), bone density, ligament/tendon strength to help prevent injury, and for a feeling of general well-being. Usually, strength training is performed in the off-season during the preparation phase and sometimes during the base and build phases of the training periodization cycle.
What Does The Research Say?
Minahan and Wood (1) took 8 previously untrained men and had them perform an 8 week conventional leg-strengthening program (squats, lunges, etc). The men exercised 3 times per week. After 8 weeks of strengthening they saw “a significant increase in time to exhaustion at 120% VO2 max as well as an increase of oxygen uptake”.
Sunde et al. (2) took 16 competitive cyclists and, similarly to Minahan and Wood, had them perform 8 weeks of maximal strengthening. They took it a step further though by including a control group that did not perform any exercise except for their normal endurance training. They found that the exercise group had an increase of squat 1 rep max of 14.2%, squat rate of force development increased by 16.7%, and time to exhaustion at pre-intervention maximal aerobic power increased by 17.2%. The control group improved in work efficiency by 1.4% and no other significant changes were found.
Numerous other studies have found an increase in cycling economy, work efficiency at 70% of VO2 max, lactate power profiles, increased oxygen consumption, peak power outputs during a 30 second sprint, increased average power for shorter TTs ranging from 1k-5k, and an increase of time to exhaustion at 85% of VO2 max in both trained and untrained participants (3), (4).
This all sounds fantastic, right!? No matter how trained or untrained you are, you can benefit from strengthening to basically improve all the determining factors that make-up a good cyclist. However, there is another camp of athletes and coaches who think strengthening is a total waste of time…
Why Not Strength Train?
The body does not like quick changes in anything, and will respond usually negatively, if a new stress is placed upon it rapidly. Mackinnon (5) suggests that “prolonged periods of intense training may lead to slight impairment in immune parameters such as neutrophil function, serum and mucosal immunoglobulin levels, plasma glutamine concentration, and possibly natural killer cell cytotoxic activity”. That is a mouth full, but basically means that intense exercise (weightlifting in our case) can actually suppress the immune system and lead to illnesses whereas moderate to low intensity exercise can help boost immunity. If the immune system is suppressed enough it will lead to illness which will force the athlete off the bike to recover and lose hard earned fitness as a result.
Another bullet in the chamber for the anti-strengthening group is that exercise causes too much overloading on the joints, ligaments, and tendons which can lead to injuries (think tendinitis) and overuse/over-training symptoms. Plus, if the athlete does not know how to perform a squat, lunge, dead lift, etc. they will be placing stress and strain on structures that are not supposed to be used during the lift. Injury is obviously something we as coaches and athletes do not want to deal with. Also, if the athlete is sore for a few days after their strengthening workout and cannot ride their bike due to it, is the cardiorespiratory strength loss worth the increase of power and force?
Finally, no matter what exercises you do, they will never be able to mimic the turning of cranks. Yes, you can build quadricep, hamstring, and glute strength individually, but does this mean you can generate increased power to the pedals when you need it? The above studies have all demonstrated increased 1 rep max, cycling economy, and increased power <3-5 minutes on fresh legs, but most cyclists compete for hours and are not able to generate their true maximum power due to built-up muscular fatigue accumulated over the course of a race. So, if you are training to improve your overall power for short bursts, but won’t be able to unleash a sprint until 3 hours into a race, is strengthening worth it?
What Do I Think?
I think conventional strength training is appropriate for the vast majority of the athletes I work with, but also inappropriate for others. Again, conventional strength training involves the use of weights and is done off the bike, this does not mean that only certain types of athletes will benefit from strength training however. Track cyclists, cyclocross racers, criterium specialists, and sprint specialists all have to be able to generate tremendous amounts of power repeatedly, but for a short period of time. These types of competitive cyclists will benefit from conventional strength training to enhance their power and force as well as compliment their endurance exercise done on bike. Athletes new to the sport of cycling who do not have years of training under their belts to strengthen the tendons and ligaments in their hips, knees, and ankles also benefit from strength training as it will enhance power and force, but with the added benefit of preventing injury as it will strengthen the aforementioned structures.
However, seasoned road racing cyclists, IronMan athletes, climbing specialists, and randonneurs (to name a few) do not need to produce vast amounts of power for short durations. Instead, they need to be able to produce power over the long term as well as be able to conserve their energy until it is needed most. This means, to me, that they will benefit more so from on bike strengthening to increase their muscular endurance and better mimic their events and races. I will still prescribe strength training to these athlete types in the off-season, but more so for balancing the muscles not used in cycling and for core strength and stability. I also will include 6-10 weeks of conventional strength training for these athletes if they are returning from injury, are mentally exhausted from a long season, or just need a break from the bike to keep their joints, ligaments, and tendons healthy as well as maintain/regain their muscular strength.
So, is conventional strength training beneficial for cyclists and endurance athletes? Yes and no. Cyclists who rely on massive power for short durations for their competition heavily benefit from conventional strength training. Cyclists who rely on their endurance and FTP for the final climb of their competition, are too busy and have limited training availability, or performing extreme cycling/training volume for an IronMan / randonee, will benefit more from on bike strength training and continued endurance work. However, the vast majority of the athletes I work with (and the athletes who are reading this) should spend time this off-season performing a dedicated strength training program. Your spaghetti arms will thank you 😉
Check out the GC Coaching Strength / Preparation Phase Plan here!
(1) Minahan, C., & Wood, C. (2007). Strength training improves supramaximal cycling but not anaerobic capacity. European Journal of Applied Physiology Eur J Appl Physiol, 659-666.
(2) Sunde, A., Støren, Ø, Bjerkaas, M., Larsen, M., Hoff, J., & Helgerud, J. (n.d.). Maximal Strength Training Improves Cycling Economy in Competitive Cyclists. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,2157-2165.
(3) CD Paton, WG Hopkins, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2005, 19, 826 – 830.
(4) BR Ronnestad, EA Hansen, T Raastad, European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2010, 108, 965-975.
(5) Mackinnon, L. (n.d.). Chronic exercise training effects on immune function. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.