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.