Strength Training for Cyclists

As an avid mountain bike rider, I spend a lot of time on the trails. I try to do a couple of races each year – at the participant level vs. the competitive level – and train year round to make sure I don’t shame myself too badly when the gun goes off and there’s a mad frenzy of riders hammering to be the first into the single track. The racing is a lot more fun when you’ve put the time into the practice and training. In fact, while races are won on race day, I believe they are actually won during the off season, in the gym, lifting weights and building strength. There has been a dramatic improvement in my performance once I incorporated strength training for cycling into my year round program. Below are 7 strength movements that a cyclist should perform if they are to hit their peak performance level. Note that this is not a workout, it’s a list of exercises, recommended rep ranges and my rational as to why a cyclist should use them.

1) Bulgarian split squats. Similar to a back foot elevated static lunge except the focus is on moving forward and back vs. up and down. It’s a great movement because it works each leg equally. It focuses a lot on the VMO which is critical for both peddle force production and knee stability – remember, you are going to fall and usually the only thing saving you from hitting the ground is being able to quickly put your foot on the ground to catch yourself. Knee instability at this point is going to increase the chance of falling and injury to your knee. Having the back foot elevated recruits more of the hip flexor muscles which are critical for the knee drive that pulls the peddles from the bottom to the top.

I like to work with a rep range of 12-15 for this movement.

2) Bent over standing hamstring curls – the reason you are bent over is to mimic riding position so aim for 45 degrees of hip flexon. This movement is critical because many riders do not have good hamstring recruitment – in fact, most people do not. Unless someone is moving quickly, these muscles play a role in maintaining knee stability. The hamstrings are made up primarily of fast twitch fibers so you need to focus on explosive contractions and controlled eccentric phases. Given that half of the peddle stroke is made up of knee flexon, you will need to learn how to powerfully recruit the hamstrings if you are to generate the most amount of force.

I work with a rep range of 6-8 for this movement.

3) DB bench press. Strong pec and anterior deltoids muscles are critical for holding the upper body in the right position when riding the rough trails. This movement is good at building this type of strength.

I work with a rep range of 6-10 for this movement and will alter the angle of the bench to include decline and incline pressing.

4) Bent over pronated (palms away) BB row. With trail riding, you are going to have to pull the front wheel off of the ground to clear logs and other obstacles. To do this, you will need a considerable amount of back strength. Bent over rowing is ideal for developing this. It is also great because being bent over places the upper body in the same position it would be in when riding.

I work with a rep range of 8-12 for this movement.

5) BB squat (front and back). The BB squat is one of the best strength movements someone can perform because it recruits muscles from the entire body, particularly the legs and core. Squatting deep is a fantastic way to develop the strength of the VMO muscles and it’s one of the best ways to develop eccentric strength that is needed anytime you put your feet on the ground to catch yourself from falling.

I work in a variety of rep ranges for these movements. With front squats I’ll do 3-6 reps and with back squats the range will be between 2 and 25. I’ll never do front and back squats in the same workout and like to change them up to keep my body adapting to the different movements.

6) BB deadlifting. I perform this movement primarily to work the core, lower back and glutes, but is also works the legs and upper back so it is a fantastic way to develop full body strength. It is particularly good at teaching you to recruit your glutes as you drive your hips forward to complete the movement at the top. These muscles are particularly important for force production when standing and sprinting.

I work with a variety of rep ranges ranging from 2 to 20

7) Power cleans. This is a movement used to develop speed because it is extremely difficult to clean a weight slowly – it’s impossible to be completely honest. Hip drive is absolutely critical with this movement so it’s a fantastic way to train your glutes to contract quickly. It’s also a fantastic way to training the upper back muscles to be faster along with your legs given that you are lifting the weight of off the ground from a dead stop.

I work with a variety of rep ranges with this movement but do not go above 6 reps. The goal when performing power cleans it to make the bar move as quickly as possible. To ensure that it helps to build speed, it is critical that a set end as soon as the bar speed drops by 10%. While this may seem like a tough thing to figure-out, you can feel any slow down and catching the bar on your shoulders is really tough unless it’s moving quickly.

I encourage you to incorporate some of these movements into your strength training program if you are a cyclist. You will notice an improvement on the trails and you’ll be riding faster than you ever thought you could!