Photo: Mike

Strength Training For Cyclists

Becoming a better cyclist involves working hard off the bike, too

If you love riding your bike, you’re probably looking for ways to get stronger and faster. For many cyclists, that means increasing time in the saddle, the number of rides they take, and how frequently they ride. But what you do off the bike can have a big impact on your performance, too. Strength training is a great way to improve your sprinting power, your success in attacking hills, and your ability to avoid injury. To do it successfully, though, you’ll need a solid strength training plan. Here’s what you need to know to strength train off your bike so you can improve your performance on it.  

Questions To Ask Yourself

Before starting a training regimen, it’s important to set goals and consider how you’ll achieve them.

What am I looking to get out of this?

Knowing your goals will help you stick to your training plan. 

What resources do I have at my disposal?

Know what kind of spaces and weights you have at your disposal. Don’t build a plan that requires lots of free weights if you only have one kettlebell.

Am I prepared to stick with a plan? 

Don’t set yourself up for failure—create a plan that’s realistic and that you will have time for. 

Where am I in my season? 

Weight training should change depending on where you are in your riding season. If you are gearing up for your riding season, you can afford to lift heavier weights and lift more frequently (two to three times per week). If your cycling season has already begun, lift only one to two times per week with lighter weights to build muscle without overtaxing your body. 

How To Build a Training Plan

A good place to start your training is with a 12-week plan that gradually ramps up in intensity as you gain strength.

Exercises That Work With How You Ride

Cycling uses many different muscle groups in your legs. For leg strength, focus on exercises that extend and flex your knees and your hips. Meanwhile, strong ankles and a strong core will keep you in the correct riding position. Don’t be afraid to mix up which exercises you do over the course of a multi-workout peak, just be sure to track the weight you’re lifting to avoid guesswork and losing any gains. Pick and choose from these leg-lift standbys to make your 12-week plan:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Leg extensions
  • Lunges
  • Box jumps
  • Calf raises 
  • Deadlifts (either with a bar or kettlebell)

Include exercises that help with ankle stability to maintain bike balance and control:

  • Standing one-leg balance
  •  Ankle rotations in either direction
  • Ankle alphabet

Don’t ignore your core—essential for cycling control, power, and comfort. Mix in a few of these each workout as well:

  • Crunches
  • Russian twists
  • Planks
  • Standing single-leg toe touch (also helps with ankle stability)
  • Penguin taps
  • Toe touches
Photo: Prostock-studio

Weeks 1–2: Getting To Know Your Lifts

For the first two weeks, learn the exercises you want to use, like squatting, and focus on perfecting the technique and building a routine. During this phase, go through each move with just your body weight—that’ll help you build the necessary muscle memory to maintain the right form when the loads get heavy. It’ll also help ease your body into the new demands of the movements.

Weeks 3–6: Adding Weight

After learning your lifts by the end of Week 2, start adding weight over the next four weeks. For each move, aim to lift about 75 percent of your one-rep max in 3 sets of 6–12 reps. If you aren’t sure what your one-rep max is, choose a weight where the last few reps of the set are a struggle to complete. As the sets become easier, add more weight. Make sure to rest for three minutes between each set. 

Weeks 7–10: Building Strength

After the end of Week 6, this next phase has you building strength by increasing the weight and reducing the number of reps. Aim to lift about 80 percent of your maximum for 3–6 sets of 3–6 reps each (the final reps in each set should be a struggle). Do this for four weeks. As always, listen to your body, and lower the weight if necessary.

Weeks 11–12: Maintaining Your Gains

After building muscle in the prior weeks, the goal of this final two-week phase is to maintain that  strength so you can reap the benefits on your bike. As you go through your routine, focus the motion of each exercise and isolate your muscles without straining them to complete exhaustion. Working like this will help you cement your gains for even more power on the bike. 

Tips for Success 

As you move through your training plan, keep these tips in mind to maximize your gains.

Don’t Burn Out: There’s only so much gas in your tank; know your limits to avoid burnout. If you are riding hard and long and want to strength train to get more out of your rides, decrease your mileage. Trying to lift without adjusting your riding will leave you with heavy, “dead” legs and rides that only feel disappointing. Give yourself time to recover, and don’t try to do too much. 

Warm Up: Just like you wouldn’t hop onto a bike and start sprinting, you shouldn’t jump right into your heavy lifts. Be sure to warm up your entire body, and then focus on warming up the specific muscles you plan to train. One good warm-up idea: Start by doing that day’s exercises with only a small fraction of the load you plan to lift. 

Consider Training Your Legs Individually: Your legs work individually on the bike, so consider training them individually. Rather than doing squats or leg raises with both legs, do single-leg squats or leg raises to better imitate what happens on the bike. 

Don’t Lift Like You Ride: If you are a serious cyclist, you probably love the grind of hopping on your bike and pushing for dozens of miles or pounding away at the pedals for a big climb. But that’s not the right strategy for strength training.

Rather than grinding through a large volume of reps without rest, focus on powerful lifts with three minutes of rest between sets (as outlined in Weeks 7–12). By challenging your legs with short bursts of heavy lifting, you’ll build more explosive strength, and that’ll help you achieve punchier acceleration on the bike when you need it. 

Space Out Your Rides and Lifts: If you’re riding and lifting on the same day, ride first and give yourself at least six hours between the end of the ride and your first lift. That way you won’t be fatigued when you hit the gym. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.