What exactly is strength? For our purposes, I would define neuromuscular strength as: The ability of the muscle fibers to produce force. In the case of a cyclist this would be the force against the pedals. Endurance cycling doesn’t require much strength. From a practical and mathematic standpoint: The force required to push against the pedals while doing a 40K TT at 90 RPM in under an hour is less than 45lbs of force. Strength and force production simply aren’t a limiting component of putting out the power required for endurance performance. From a pure scientific standpoint: I am aware of no peer reviewed studies that indicate strength training in trained cyclists improves endurance performance, and I’ve seen several that show no increase. There is a preponderance of evidence to show that strength training will not improve your 20 or 40K.
But you should probably do it anyway.
One reason is that bike racing requires more than just steady power outputs and strength training CAN improve sprinting performance. The US racing scene is dominated by criteriums, which require frequent hard accelerations out of corners and almost always come down to a sprint, even if it is only between a few riders. Non racers enjoy sprinting too, and we all know that every club rider wants to throw down in the sprint for the city limit sign. Even if you don’t consider yourself a sprinter, most races will involve some sort of sprint. Very seldom does a rider just roll away from his or her rivals, so even the 135lb climber is probably going to have to sprint against someone to get the win. For a mountain bike racer, a finishing sprint may not be important. But improved strength can help power over that log, rock, or step up.
Another reason to do strength training is that it can help with your bone density and therefore your long term health. In 2003 when I was studying exercise physiology at San Diego State University, two of my professors authored a paper titled, “ Low bone mineral density in highly trained male master cyclists.” The take away message from study was that cycling may keep you fit, but it doesn’t keep your bones strong. What does keep your bones strong is weight bearing activity, so most cyclists ( men and women alike) would be well served by adding strength training or other bearing activity to their fitness regime.
Besides improving sprinting performance and increasing bone density, a little strength training can also help prevent injuries, and just make you an overall healthier person. A little shoulder and core strength can help you maintain that aero position longer and more comfortably, or prevent back pain that some riders get on long rides, especially hilly ones. You aren't going to be come an amazing climber by doing crunches, and core work is not going to win the race for you. But weakness and back pain can very easily kill your race. One of my favorite reasons to strength train is another one altogether: Sometimes it feels good to just go to the gym and lift heavy stuff.
So if some weight training is appropriate for most riders, that just lead to many more questions such as: How Much? What type? and When? The details of this can be a bit more complicated and must be a tailored to each individual rider. It is important to remember that the best way to get better at riding your bike is to ride your bike. So for a committed bike racer, on “on the bike “ training is going to take precedence. Most riders will benefit from doing most of their strength training during the winter, when it is the off season, the days are short, and training volume goes down. The weight training will help you stay fit through those winter days, and strength training for only a short time each off season can pay dividends all year around. Some cyclists, such as track sprinters and even some criterium specialists, may do weight training even during the racing season. Cyclist will also have to balance their overall training stress, the total time they have to train, possible weight gain, their natural abilities, their desire to be more well-rounded as an athlete, and many other factors.
We are coming up on the shortest day of the year, so it can be tough to get in weekday rides. If you haven’t already begun an off season weight training program, now may be a good time to start. Talk to a coach that is well versed and educated on strength training as well as cycling, do your own research, or find a well-qualified strength coach to help you develop your plan*.
Sean Burke is the head coach for Crank Cycling.
*If you choose to go with a strength coach rather than a cycling coach, I would suggest going with someone with a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist ( CSCS) certification. CSCS is the gold standard for strength and conditioning coaches