Monday, June 24, 2013

Strength Training

Everyone needs strength training. Whether you're a couch potato or a marathon runner, there are always multiple reasons you should be adding strength training routines to your schedule at least once or twice a week. Flexibility should be included as part of the workout as the two go hand-in-hand: range of mobility needs to be developed in tandem with improved strength to perform those actions. Those with sedentary lifestyles obviously need to get out and get active first, but regardless of level of activity, adding an appropriate strengthening and stretching routine safeguards against injuries.

I don't aim here to give a complete manifesto on the virtues of muscular development though. I am just out to sketch a brief overview of my understanding of the subject for the benefit of those who are looking for some ideas on supplementary training for the cyclist or triathlete.

For the otherwise relatively inactive, the obvious purposes are to develop strength, mobility and good posture. Effective methods for achieving this would be yoga, pilates, and circuit training. Including a cardiovascular aspect to the workout is of obvious benefit in this case.

For the athlete it's a slightly more complex consideration. There are good reasons for adding power, speed, flexibility and strength training targeting the prime mover muscles involved in your sport. There are also great reasons for working on the strength of the muscles least involved in your sport, in order to avoid a lot of common injuries caused by an imbalance of strength around a particular joint.

There are even greater reasons for working on the core muscles - those muscles in your abdomen, lower back, hips, glutes, and at the side of your torso that hold your body in good posture, allowing your limbs ideal range - and thus application of power - to your movements.

OK - so what is strength training exactly, and how does it differ from other types of exercise which require strength to perform?

Simply put, strength training imposes an abnormally heavy contraction - or series of contractions - of the muscle in order for it to then adapt to the new demand, and grow in strength.

At the risk of over-simplification, those concerned with the pure strength and/or size of the muscle will benefit from isolating a muscle group and working several sets on the same muscle using a weight you can lift just a few times before failure in a slow and controlled way to maximize muscle stress, then allowing several days of recovery by focusing on other muscle groups before working that group or muscle again.

While there is still some argument for developing massive quads if you're looking to maximize anaerobic power for short all-out sprints, for those looking to be able to maintain power over longer distances, the general consensus in sport science is that 1-rep max strength has little bearing - if any - on sustainable power. Even the sprinter who works on maximal strength will have to adapt that strength to the needs of cycling.

For those who are looking to develop the explosive power and speed of a muscle contraction like that used for running, cycling, throwing etc, the type of strength training that will be of most benefit is referred to as ballistic. This type of training prioritzes the speed of the contraction and the development of the fast twitch fibres in the muscle. What is being developed is ultimately anaerobic power so there is still adaptation required to bring these benefits to your - largely aerobic - cycling power.

For a cyclist, it's possible to do a lot of the strength training targeting the development of the prime mover muscles on the bike by just increasing resistance to the pedals in a controlled way, thus increasing our ability to generate force in a very specific way. A big advantage of developing good cycling technique is that we utilise the leg muscles used throughout the pedal cycle which develops more broadly the muscles on the front and back of the leg, hip flexors and glutes.

What doesn't get much development on the bike is the rest of the leg muscles and the core muscles - used for stability and posture, and  - least of all - the upper body. This can cause all sorts of imbalances - especially beyond our mid 30s when our metabolism changes from being one that requires normal exercise to develop strength, to one that requires anaerobic exercise just to maintain strength.

Without going into the myriad options for routines and specific exercises to target the building of strength in these muscles, I'd like to share with you a recent discovery of mine that's a great full body workout for anybody, but with the right choice of exercises it can basically do all the stuff for your body that riding a bike won't, in a way that can be of really great benefit to a cyclist.

The use of the piece of equipment known as a Kettlebell is a very old form of weight training from Russia which was also more recently used by the Soviets for the conditioning of their army and athletes. It has even more recently become popular in the United States which means you can now find the equipment in many shops, and instruction manuals and video workouts online.

It is a type of single-handled cast-iron weight used for ballistic exercises involving explosive and  swinging movements that can be used to have both a strength and endurance training aspect utilising many muscles simultaneously, especially those in the core, legs and shoulders. It needs very good form for it to be safe and effective, which means you need to start with a weight you can easily manage until the correct form is learned before progressing to more challenging weights.

I have come across a particularly good series of videos on YouTube by a company called Fitness Blender. This one in particular has a great series of exercises that works on the full body but with great focus on the core. It should be within the capacity of most reasonably fit cyclists but don't try to do it as fast as the demonstration in the video.

It takes a while to get the form right so I stress that you must start with a fairly easy weight and make sure you're following the instructions - especially regarding posture for the lower back in the swinging exercises. It's tough so it may compromise your bike workouts a little to begin with until your muscles get used to performing all the movements properly.

They also have easier workouts for beginners and those who are not used to the relatively high intensity required here.


  1. Very interesting article you've written here.

    I've been incorporating strength workout with cycling for over a year and unfortunately many cyclist do not realise benefit of strength training and quite surprising some even think it's a waste of time.

    Anyway there is another thing I would like to add, besides kettle bell medicine balls are a great way to train your core . Google it and there are plenty of moves you can incorporate with your training . Core are a great to train immediately after you finish your spinning or any cardio vascular exercise. It's a bitch do it but trust me you won't regret it when your on the bike.

    Lastly I would add is you do not need equipment for strength training. Sometimes your body weight is good enough ! Do high rep with high set for extra intensity . Mix and match your pace of workout with high speed set and some low speed . One of my favourite workout which I highly recommend to are "Alternate Lunges" . A lot of cyclist needs to learn how to properly pedal and this is a great MOVE !

    Anyway have a great day and keep up the good job !!

    Later :)

  2. Hey Jake,

    Thanks for those ideas - great stuff! Yes, I have a couple of medicine balls lying around which I've used - they work great too. Do you have any recommended workouts on video?

    And you're completely right about body weight being enough for some types of strength training workouts.

    One consideration however is that if a rider is pressed for time to train, then it's sometimes a choice between the supplementary training and actual riding, so it's understandable that people would rather ride. As long as there's good structure to the riding I would usually agree, though I think the ratio of strength training should be higher in the early part of your season.

    It's good to find a short, hard workout that you can do once or twice a week, that doesn't impact too greatly on your riding, and doesn't fatigue the same muscles in the same way.

    Thanks for your comments - and keep them coming!


    1. Hey Greg,

      I don't really have a specific video to watch but you could try and youtube: "mma medicine ball workout" . I've learned how to do a lot of core workout from Les Mills Body Combat Classes, Bodypump, P90X, Insanity and many more. I sometimes combine what I read, watch and learn and make it my own . You could youtube few of those vids mentioned above sometimes youtube will delete the video for copyright violation but there will still be uploads.

      Being a clydesdale rider I've noticed that I've kept on training on hills it doesn't impact as much as I train strength in gym. I agree with your strength training ratio and for me as a general rule of a thumb always have 2 days recovery period for your legs after strength training before hitting your weekend ride. For example this is my training regime; I purely train strength for one hr on Thursday, Flush your legs on Friday with low resistance & high cadence spinning or treadmill run with high pace & low elevation and then FULLY rest on Saturday. On Sunday when you hit the hills , it will be your good friend instead of your enemy :)

      Muscle training until fatigue is sometimes a good thing. It will increase your lactic acid tolerant. Sometimes on random days try rep till fail on your squats. Give it a shot !

      Keep up the good write up of your blog ! Love it !!!


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