What is the best strength training for cyclists?

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Which strength training will make you ride faster?

As a cyclist, what strength training do you benefit from strength training and which strength training exactly? This article discusses which strength training can contribute to a better cycling performance. The overview at the end of the article can help you on your way to selecting the best method for you.

Why do you need strength for an endurance sport like cycling

Cycling is an endurance sport. During training sessions or races long distances are covered, where the average power is relatively low. The aerobic energy system in particular is trained. After a period of training, the capillarity (number of small blood vessels) increases and so does the exchange of oxygen, from blood vessel to muscle. Because the muscles have more oxygen at their disposal, they are able to burn more fats and carbohydrates and thus supply more energy. Strength training increases muscle volume, which hampers the exchange of oxygen between blood vessel and muscle. You could therefore say that intensive strength training is at the expense of endurance. In addition, an increased muscle volume results in a higher weight, which is not always ideal for a cyclist.

Most decisive moments are based on strength

However, cycling nowadays is much more than an endurance sport. Races are often decided in a sprint or an ultimate demarrage. Components in which you can excel if you have a decent amount of power. However, strength can also be a limiting factor when riding a long time trial or climb. So strength training definitely makes a meaningful contribution to cycling performance, but the danger lies in the fact that strength training can limit aerobic fitness and increase weight. You can still be such a strong sprinter, but you have to get to Paris to win the Champs-Elysées. Searching for the right shape and adjustment of strength training is therefore crucial for a cyclist.

What muscle fibers does a cyclist needs to train

The human body contains 3 different types of muscle fibre: slow (type I), fast (type IIA) and very fast (type IIB). The type I fibres can deliver little strength, but can sustain this for a very long time, while the type IIB fibres can deliver a lot of strength, but can sustain this for a very short time. Every human being is born with different proportions between these muscle fibres. For example, sprinters naturally have a lot of type II-B fibres, while endurance athletes naturally have a lot more type I fibres. By doing a lot of endurance training, especially the type IIA, but also the type IIB, can be tuned to type I fibers. In other words, endurance training makes you limper. To date, no convincing scientific evidence has been provided for the opposite, the tuning of slow to fast fibres. In order to make the different muscle fibre types stronger, they will also have to be trained in different ways, bearing in mind that improving the properties of one type of fibre may be at the expense of the other. Before a rider starts strength training, he should therefore think carefully about the purpose for which he wants to use this strength training and how his own body is made up.

What strength training is there for different muscle fibre types

Type IIB
The type IIB fibers have properties that they can deliver a lot of power, but can not last long. Particularly during sprints, and short demarrages, they are used. Strength training has a lot of effect on this type of muscle fibres. The muscles can deliver much more strength and increase in size (hypertrophy). The consequence of this is a negative effect on endurance and a considerable weight gain. A sprinter who wants to survive a hill will therefore have to be careful with this form of strength training.
To make the type IIB fibres stronger you will have to perform exercises of 3-8 repetitions with as much weight as possible. This requires a lot of strength as well as neuromuscular control. It is therefore impossible to start with this form of strength training immediately, because the risk of strain on tendons and joints is far too high. In addition, the muscles will not be able to cope with such a strain from one day to the next and the chance of muscle damage is also very high.
Type IIA
The other fast muscle fibers, the type IIA fibers have not only fast but also slow muscle properties. This means that they can deliver less strength, but can keep this up for longer. It also means that these muscle fibre types are extremely trainable. After a period of endurance training, it is mainly these muscle fibres that acquire slow properties. The type IIA fibers are mainly recruited during efforts of submaximal level, around the tipping point. Think of efforts such as riding a time trial, riding a long climb, or forcing a gap between the leading group and a peloton. After a period of strength training, this muscle fibre type becomes stronger and also increases in volume, albeit to a lesser extent than the type IIB fibres. In order to increase the strength in the type IIA fibres, the number of repetitions of an exercise will have to be between 12 and 18.
Type I
Finally, the slow type I fibers. These fibers are used during prolonged efforts where the power is relatively low. They have little power, can provide little energy, but on the other hand are capable of sustaining an effort for a very long time. Nevertheless, these muscle fibres can also benefit from strength training and become stronger. Strong slow muscle fibres can make all the difference, especially when climbing for long periods of time. Slow muscle fibres can deliver optimum power at around 80 RPM, because the contraction rate of type I is much slower than that of fast muscle fibres. When riding long climbs, the peak force per pedal stroke becomes so high that the fast muscle fibres will have to be used. By strengthening the slow muscle fibers, they are able to keep supplying energy during climbing, so that the fast muscle fibers can be spared. In order to strengthen the slow muscle fibres, a lot of repetitions will have to be chosen, which is between 20 and 30. But strength training on a bicycle with a heavy gear high power uphill cycling also works very well to improve these muscle fibres.

Which strength training is right for you?

Strength training can make a positive contribution to the cycling performance. However, it is important to choose the right form of strength training, taking into account the characteristics that need to be improved. Depending on what you want to improve you choose the right exercises and the number of repetitions. The question of whether you can do the exercises with your own weight at home or whether you need a squat rack at the gym also depends on this question. The strength training will have to be as specific as possible. This is precisely why when improving Type I muscle fibres, strength training on a bicycle is preferable. The muscle groups that are strengthened should be the same and should be trained as much as possible in the same way as on a bicycle. The best exercises at home or in the gym are the squat and step-up. Training with free weights is always preferable to fixed weights, as several muscle groups that also take care of coordination and balance have to be controlled. Simultaneous training of your core is essential. As a beautiful expression explains in English: “You can’t fire a canon from a cannoe”. So avoid exercises such as the leg-press. After a period of strength training there is not only an increase in strength, but also a change in the coordination pattern on the bike. In any case, never start strength training too fanatically, but first make sure that you fully master the technique behind the exercises. Then build up the weight carefully.
Below is a brief overview of various studies into different forms of strength training and the degree of improvement in different areas. Maybe this can help you a little bit more to do the right strength training this winter.

Study Subjects Method Research Result
R.C. Hickson 8 trained cyclists 3 days/week, 10 weeks
Squat exercises 80% 1RM
Influence strength training
on power, short time trial and submax power
Leg strength + 30%
4-8 min + 11%
80% VO2 max-
71 to 85 min
E.J. Marcinik 18 untrained men 12 weeks training, 12-15 repetitions Strength training on LT and endurance +33% at 75% VO2
+ 12% LT
B.R. Ronnestad 20 trained cyclists 12 weeks 3x 4-10 repetitions 2/week 5 min all out after 180 min endurance effort From 371 to 400 W.
J. Bastian et al. 14 trained cyclists 9 weeks, 30/40 repetitions Effect on endurance and maximum power. Power output maximized and increased during time trial.
Paton and Hopkins 18 well trained cyclists 5 weeks, 12x 30 min. Jumps with 1 leg and 30 sec. Strength training on bicycle. Replacement of part of endurance training by strength training 8.7% more power during 1 km time trial. 8.1% more power during 4 km TT

If you are interested in getting more advice about training you can always contact us and see what we can do for you. You can also check out our training application JOIN Cycling that provides you with a tailor-made training plan.