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If you’re like most cyclists, you know you should lift, but it’s not at the top of your priority list. And when you do make it to the gym, concerns about potential injuries probably steer you away from the heavy weights. While those concerns are legitimate (more on that later), you’re leaving significant health and performance benefits on the table every time you opt for light or moderate weights—or worse, avoid resistance training altogether.
While any type of lifting helps build bone density, prevent injuries, and complement your endurance training, research is beginning to show that heavy lifting can unlock another level of benefits for cyclists.
We talked to experts to find out why heavy lifting works, what it actually means to lift heavy, and what you need to know before you start loading your barbell.
The Benefits of Lifting Heavy Weights for Cyclists
“We look at bike riding as an opportunity to build our bodies, but bottom line, it’s a highly irregular position,” Menachem Brodie, C.S.C.S., USA Cycling expert coach, head strength coach for the Israel Cycling Federation Track Program, and author of Strength Training for Cycling Performance.
To build bike fitness and improve longevity, you need to put your body in different positions and put novel forms of stress on your tissues. In other words, “[It needs to be] different from what you’re already doing for tens of thousands of repetitions on the bike,” Brodie says.
Improved Performance on the Bike
Whereas cycling demands relatively low force over a long time period, lifting requires your muscles to generate a high level of force over a very short interval. While there’s nothing wrong with lifting lighter weights, or even doing bodyweight moves, that doesn’t put the same demands on your body—even if it exhausts your muscles. Although “it’s better than doing nothing,” you’re generally better off considering it a form of cross training versus true strength training, says USA Cycling certified CTS coach, Adam Pulford.
“Lifting heavy weights in lower rep ranges provides a bigger stimulus that will give you better gains in the way of actual strength development, as opposed to performing more reps of lighter weights, which builds muscular endurance, something endurance athletes get plenty of anyway,” says Pulford.
Even if you don’t gain muscle mass, “lifting heavy stimulates a dose-response adaptation that happens at the neuromuscular level,” says Pulford. In other words, your muscles adapt to the stress of heavy lifting by becoming stronger and more efficient, regardless of whether they get bigger. And if bulky muscles is something you’re worried about, you probably shouldn’t be. “Everyone thinks, ‘if I look at a heavy weight, I’ll turn into Arnold.’ But it’s so hard to do that,” says Brodie.
The improved strength and efficiency you gain from heavy lifting translates into the ability to produce more power during intense efforts on the bike. Whether you’re charging up a hill or sprinting to the town line on your group ride, those pushes engage your anaerobic energy system. “And that anaerobic energy comes from being strong,” says Pulford. “So if we can develop strength and we’re still riding our bike three to four times a week, that will translate [to better performance on the bike].”
Lifting heavy weights also teaches your body to create proximal stiffness, which helps you generate power on the bike. “The spine, ribcage, and pelvis are locked together to get movement from the shoulder and the hips,” says Brodie. Without stability throughout the rest of your body—not just what we traditionally think of as the core—you waste power with every pedal stroke. To push higher wattage with less effort, you need to strengthen not just your abs, but “everything between the neck, elbows, and knees,” says Brodie.
Research bears out the benefits of heavy lifting specifically for cyclists: One study looked at 15 competitive road cyclists who performed endurance training only versus those who did endurance training along with a heavy lifting program. Over a 20-week period, those in the strength training group demonstrated significant improvements in their bike-specific explosive strength and VO2 max, versus those in the control group.
Long-Term Health and Injury Prevention
“If all we do is ride and sit at our desk, we don’t stress our ligaments, tendons, bones in a proper way to keep them strong and functional for all the ranges of motion [required] of everyday living,” says Pulford.
The bone health piece is especially important for cyclists. While bone density naturally declines with age, this issue is of particular concern for cyclists. Multiple studies have shown that cyclists have lower bone density compared to other active groups. While the non-weight-bearing nature of cycling makes it easy on the joints, to stimulate bone growth, you need the loading that lifting provides, says Brodie.
By bringing your body into different positions and planes, lifting also helps you maintain healthy fascia. Fascia is the spiderweb-like fibrous layer of tissue that encases all your muscles and connects them to one another. Spending hours on the bike in a hunched position creates what Brodie calls “traffic jams” in your fascia.
Over time, those jams can create biomechanical imbalances that can lead to pain and injury. By putting force through your tissues in functional positions, lifting helps to unblock those jams, says Brodie.
What It Means to Lift Heavy
So what does it actually mean to lift heavy? It depends on a wide variety of factors—most importantly how you feel during your workout. “Heavy is relative to where you are on that day—mentally, physically, and emotionally,” says Brodie.
Generally speaking, that means finding a weight that you can lift four to eight times with two repetitions in reserve (RIR). In other words, when you hit that final rep, you’d stop knowing you could only do two more with good technique and with a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of around eight or nine out of 10. “Heavy doesn’t mean you’re crawling out of the gym,” says Brodie.
While lifting programs traditionally base weights on a percentage of your one-rep max (1RM; the most weight you could lift one time), your 1RM for a particular exercise can vary significantly from day to day, says Brodie, which is why it’s not always the best indicator of how much to pick up.
4 Tips for Lifting Heavy Weights Safely
Before hitting the heavy weights, make sure your program includes a gradual build, a strategic training plan, and, most importantly, that your technique is solid. “You earn the right to lift heavy stuff. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself broken,” says Brodie.
To make sure you’re doing it safely, follow these tips:
1. Ease Into It
When you’re new to the world of heavy lifting, the advice is simple: “Start low, go slow,” says Pulford. That means establishing a solid foundation with lighter weights and giving your body plenty of time to adapt to the stress of heavier loads.
At the start of your offseason, Brodie suggests beginning with the phased approach below:
Anatomical adaptation: Spend the first two to four weeks lifting light weights. The focus is on technique and “working on the kinks you developed during the season and working on the fascia,” he says.
Hypertrophy: Over the next four to eight weeks, you’re using heavier weights to build muscle. You could lift these five to 15 times with two or three reps in reserve, with an RPE of seven or eight.
Max strength: This phase lasts four to eight weeks and coincides with the early part of your cycling season. Here, you’re doing sets of three to six reps with one or two reps in reserve.
High performance recovery training: If done correctly, heavy lifting can help you recover from high cycling volume and/or intensity. Here, you’ll do two or three sets of three to five repetitions with a heavy weight, focusing on the concentric (upward) part of the lift. For example, during a squat, you’d lower down into your squat quickly but with control, and then pop up with a quick, explosive motion. You can focus on this approach during race season.
2. Be Strategic
While the phases outlined above can give you an idea of what a weightlifting progression can look like, it’s important to employ a periodized, systematic approach. “Buy into a system, whether it’s a personal trainer, a book, or a well-known coach, that’s talking about tissue preparation, proper technique, and progression,” Brodie tells Bicycling.
When it comes to strength training for cycling performance, more volume and intensity isn’t necessarily better. In other words, you shouldn’t have trouble going up the stairs after your workout for it to be effective, and you generally don’t need to hit the weights more than once or twice per week, says Brodie—especially during high volume training on the bike.
One small study had 20 cyclists add either two sessions per week of heavy lifting or sprint training to their ride training. Over just seven weeks, the heavy lifting group experienced significant reductions in body fat and improvements in muscle strength and power that the sprint training group did not. And that was just with two strength workouts a week.
3. Train Your Whole Body
Make sure your lifting program includes both your upper and lower body. You don’t necessarily have to hit every muscle group in every workout (unless you’re strength training once a week), but you do need to cover all of the basic movements: squat, hinge, push, and pull.
When you hit a major muscle group, particularly your legs, you don’t have to target it with a huge selection of exercises, especially if you’re short on time. For example, if you perform a back squat, you can complement that with a leg curl and then move on to your upper body exercises, says Pulford.
Don’t skimp on developing upper body strength though. For cyclists, “upper body strength is just as important as lower body,” says Brodie, noting that you rely on upper body strength every time you grab the handlebars to climb, to stay in the drops, and to brake during descents. “That doesn’t mean you need to do a million pounds of rows, but you need to train it,” he says.
4. Enlist Professional Help
To get the benefits of lifting, good technique is imperative. And while there might be an app for just about everything, for a reliable form check, you need to enlist professional, real-life help, says Brodie. He suggests working with a reputable personal trainer or strength coach.
When you’re looking for the right professional, remember: “It’s not the certificates on the wall. It’s the results they’ve produced for other clients.” (Though you also want to make sure they’re certified with the knowledge to help you!)
Don’t worry about purchasing an expensive package; a few sessions is often enough to ensure you can execute the basic movement patterns with good technique. Once you’re confident you can do the foundational movements properly, you can start to add the heavier loads to your routine—and reap the benefits heavy lifting offers.
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