Strength Training in Cycling

August 09, 2022 5 min read

Strength Training in Cycling

Despite a stronger ride being a faster ride, there is more to cycling than simply power output. Strength, speed and endurance are essential. In order to increase your endurance whilst reducing your risk of injury, targeted strength training is advised. Cycling has been recommended as a means to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle by health experts for years. Yet studies in recent years have provided evidence to suggest that combining cardio with strength training will have maximum benefit results to your health.

Wanting more power on your bike should not be a cyclists’ only focus for incorporating a strength training program into their routine. These programs should leave you feeling your best both on and off the bike.

What is the problem with cycling?

As cycling is a low impact activity, it is a well known fact that this sport is good for your joints. However, it has negative impacts on your bone density as well as postural deficits. The repetitive nature of the movements involved in the cycling motion may lead to imbalances in the body. This is most commonly associated with the overdevelopment of the glutes and quad muscles along with the underdevelopment of the hip stabilizers and hamstrings. Furthermore, due to the nature of our day to day life styles, many of us do too much sitting down; something that is also involved when cycling. Thus, the correct posture and maintaining core strength is vital in order to prevent lower back pain and injury.

The gaps which cycling does not fill can be helped through strength training which also aids in preventing injury, improving coordination, building stronger bones whilst ultimately also providing more power on the bike.

Why is core strength so important?

The muscles that provide power on the bike need a stable platform in which to push against; this is provided by a silent upper body. The goal of strengthening the core is to make the core muscles function as a unit with established control. Although you may or may not see physical changes, you will feel better during your ride which is the fundamental end goal of building strength

What is lower crossed syndrome?

It is important to understand lower crossed syndrome in order to understand one of the most common causes of back pain experienced by cyclists.

The image above shows improper muscle loading which leads to discomfort and pain. During cycling, the inhibited muscles, glutes and abdominals are never fully engaged whilst the facilitated muscles, the quads, iliopsoas and thoraco-lumbar extensors are always engaged as well as often being overworked. Lower back pain is caused by cyclists constantly engaging these lower back muscles but without strong support from a stable core. 

When you complete the pedalling movement, the quad muscles pull the pelvis forward. Your lower back resists this pull in order to keep your body securely on the bike. This action is not inherent to the design of the lower back muscles and as a result these lower back muscles become overworked which may develop into pain.

However, there is a common misconception that developing glutes has not occurred because the glutes do not “fire”. The glute muscles help to maintain an upright posture, supporting us in our daily activities such as walking and standing and then exercising such as running. If your glutes did not fire then you would fall every time you took a step, this helps us to understand that if your glutes did not fire then you could be suffering from a spinal injury. Due to this, a better explanation is to say that contraction of the glutes is inhibited in comparison to glutes that do not fire. This is referred to as gluteal amnesia which is often caused by tightness in the muscles that flex the hip and also abduct the hip; this is generally a consequence of excessive amount of sitting. In the case of gluteal amnesia it is recommended from professional research that stretching should be the first course of treatment. If after stretching for 2 weeks, the problem remains, then glute activation exercises should be performed, mainly at the beginning of the workout, such as pelvic bridges.

The benefits of a targeted strength training programme for cyclists

  1. Strengthening coordination and balance – although cycling undoubtedly requires coordination and strength however it can become such a natural movement that your intramuscular systems are no longer challenged to the same extent they once were. Your coordination and strength can be improved through the use of resistance bands and weights. It is particularly important to keep on top of your coordination and strength as we age; this is because over time, our connections within the nervous system can weaken. 
  2. Preventing injury – most of the common injuries such as neck pain, knee pain, low back pain and ITB syndrome are caused by imbalances of the muscles. Your muscles and connective tissues can be strengthened to prevent these injuries by combining routine stretching with strength training. 
  3. Increasing power – the stronger your muscles are, the more power you will be able to exert on your bike. However, this can be difficult to develop on your bike and therefore incorporating strength training into your routine can help you to become a stronger climber and thus a more powerful rider overall. 
  4. Correcting muscle imbalances – strength training focuses on restoring muscle balance and deficiencies caused by the repetitive motion of cycling which often over develops the glutes and quads whilst the hip flexors and hamstrings lag behind. 
  5. Enhancing bone density – strength training is necessary to include in any training plan as it aids in maintaining healthy bone density as well as combating things such as osteoporosis. This is particularly vital for cyclists to consider as studies have provided evidence to show that some of competitive riders’ bone density is lower than their sedentary controls.

What mistakes do most cyclists make when starting strength training?

  1. Including the wrong exercises – strength training is not about replacing cycling altogether, instead it should be used to fill the gaps and bring balance to the body. Due to this, there will be certain movements which will be more beneficial to cyclists whilst those which focus on the wrong areas would not provide any benefit 
  2. Doing too much too soon – we have all burnt out half way through attacking a climb at some point, the same feeling you experienced doing this occurs often with strength training. Your training can actually be hindered rather than helping you move closer to achieving your goals if you go in too hard, too fast. For example, there is no need to be completing high repetitions of squats with an unsustainable choice. 
  3. Setting unrealistic goals – being realistic about the amount of time you are willing to dedicate to strength training will mean you are more likely to stick to the regime as you incorporate it into your life. It is simply not necessary to be completing 7 sessions a week when starting a strength training program. Furthermore, choosing to do this will only increase the likelihood of burnout or even altogether dropping the program.

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