A properly-designed strength training program is one of the most efficient and best ways to improve endurance performance. This is true for cycling as well, and this article will provide you specific information on how to take advantage of this aspect of training to optimize your cycling performance. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), resistance training has many performance benefits for triathletes:
- Improve body composition by maintaining or increasing lean body mass.
- Reduce delayed neuromuscular fatigue in extended endurance training and racing.
- Improve exercise economy, lactate threshold, and anaerobic capacity.
- Reduce muscular and joint injuries.
Strength Training Principles
There are two key training principles that are also important to understand in order to get the most out of your strength training:
- Progressive overload (stimulus beyond current capabilities) and training specificity (focused effort on targeted physiological and muscular components).
- Periodization of strength training so it progresses from an adaptation phase, through a progressive build phase where you increase the demands at an appropriate rate, into a maintenance phase during your race season.
Many strength exercises will give triathletes positive results. This article will highlight several, but as you progress in the sport, follow these principles when selecting new or additional exercises:
- Choose exercises that you can learn relatively easily or that you know already.
- Prioritize compound (multi-joint) exercises that work multiple muscle groups when possible.
Prioritize free weights over machines to get a more functional workout.
With respect to cycling-specific strength, triathletes need to focus on exercises that emphasize both pure strength (high weight and low reps) and endurance strength (lower weight and higher reps). Although cycling training for triathletes is endurance-based in nature, developing pure strength has been shown to improve overall performance. Including both pure and endurance strength training in a training regime requires a periodized plan with emphasis on pure strength during base and build phases, and transitioning to endurance strength training through the pre-race and competition phase of training.
Also, since a majority of your pedaling power comes from lower extremities, cycling strength training requires a focus on leg and hip strength, as well as emphasis on a strong core to anchor and transfer your power into each pedal stroke. Exercise choice should also include some single-leg or single-sided options, and target muscles used in training and racing.
The 6 Commandments of Strength Training
- Strength train on easy triathlon training days.
- Stretch lightly between strength training sets during the rest period.
- Move through the entire range of motion; full extension through full contraction.
- Lift smoothly for 2 seconds on the concentric (lifting) phase and for 2 seconds on the eccentric (lowering) phase.
- Breathe normally during each lifting exercise routine. Specifically, exhale with each exertion.
- DO NOT sacrifice form for added weight. Use proper technique.
Bike-Specific Strength Exercises
Strength training routine (30-35 min): Complete the routine per instructions 2 times per week (progress to 3 sets at 4 weeks). Include a dynamic warm-up prior to lifting. Perform 2 sets, 6-8 repetitions at each station, 60 seconds rest between sets. Complete all sets at each station prior to moving to the next station. Weight (exercises 1-4) should be heavy, making it very difficult to complete the last 2 reps in each set or 80-85% of max, in the base and build phase of training. In the pre-race and race phases, reduce the weight by 20-35% and increase reps to 15-20. For exercises 5-6, the weight should moderate, 50-60% of max, in all phases of training.
1. Front Squat
- Stand upright, feet just wider than shoulder width and toes slightly pointed outward. Knees are slightly bent.
- Grasp the barbell 4-6 inches past shoulder width and remove the barbell from a squat rack, placing it across the shoulders.
- Lower the body towards the floor, while looking forward and keeping the back straight while ensuring the barbell stays in line with the hips. Squat like you are sitting in a chair.
- The soles of the feet remain flat on the ground, driving the heels into the floor. A small piece of wood or rubber may be placed under the heels of the feet to offset heel elevation.
- Once the knee joint achieves a 90-degree angle, return to the upright position. Do not lock the knee joint to full extension.
- Don't let your back arch.
- Don't let your knees move farther forward than the front of your feet.
- Don’t hyper-extend the knees on the return motion.
2. Box Step-Up with Dumbbells
- Place a foot flat on the box/bench with arms next to your sides. Hold the dumbbells with palms facing inward.
- Press up with the leg that is on the box/bench raising the body upwards until your leg on the box/bench becomes fully extended.
- Lower the body until your foot returns to the floor. Repeat.
- Don’t allow the knee caps to line up past the foot. The knee caps should line up over the ankle.
3. Dumbbell Lunges
- With dumbbells at your sides, step directly forward with your right foot about 2 1/2 feet.
- Upper body remains straight and leaning slightly forward. Lower yourself down until your left thigh is approximately parallel to the floor.
- Your right leg should also be bent, with your lower leg (shin) parallel to the floor. The heel of your trailing foot (right foot) will raise up.
- Reverse the motion and repeat until you have completed a set. Switch legs and repeat.
- Don't let your front knee move farther forward than your front foot.
4. Good Mornings
- Keep the dumbbells resting on your thighs. Back should remain flat.The knees are slightly bent.
- Slowly rotate your torso downward until you are at a 90-degree angle, letting the dumbbells swing naturally out in front of you.
- Watch the wall throughout the exercise.
- Return to the starting position..
- Don't allow the back to arch.
5. Cable One-Arm Kneeling Row
- Split kneel, gripping the cable with one hand, allowing the arm to be stretched completely.
- Pull the cable toward you, keeping the elbow tight to the body until the elbow reaches the torso.
- Ensure that your body remains in position. Don’t twist the body.
- Return to starting position and repeat.
6. Medicine Ball Russian Twist
- Sitting in a crunch position, hold a Medball or Sandbell in both hands, with arms completely extended forward at shoulder height.
- Rotate/twist the trunk side to side keeping the arms straight and the ball at chest height. Do not allow the hips to rotate.
- Continue with this pattern until you have completed the set.
7. One-Leg Hip Raise
- Lie on your back with the right knee bent at about 45 degrees and foot flat on the floor. The left leg is straight with the toes pointed to the ceiling.
- Push against the floor with the right foot, squeeze your buttocks and lift your hips until you are balancing on the back of the shoulders.
- Your left leg remains straight and rises with your hips.
- Return to the starting position in a slow, controlled manner and repeat.
John Hansen is a USAT and USA Swimming Level 1 Coach and USA Cycling Level 3 Certified Coach from Folsom, California. He has 23 years of coaching experience. Hansen has an MS in Exercise Physiology and previously worked at the UC Davis Sports performance lab for five years. Hansen has coached athletes from beginner to pro level, competing at many major U.S. Age Group National Championships and World Championships, as well as the U.S. Men's Pro championships. Hansen currently coaches the UC Davis Collegiate Club Triathlon team with multiple teams placing in the top 12 and several athletes placing in the top 20, in the past eight years at the Collegiate Club National championships. Hansen also has his own coaching business, primarily coaching long-course athletes, 70.3 and 140.6. Visit HansenMutlisport.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- NSCA Position Statement, Basic Guidelines for the Resistance Training of Athletes.
- NSCA Position Statement, Health Aspects of Resistance Exercise and Training.
- The effects of resistance training on road cycling performance among highly trained cyclists: a systematic review. Yamamoto LM1, Klau JF, Casa DJ, Kraemer WJ, Armstrong LE, Maresh CM.
- Hausswirth 2010 - Endurance and strength training effects on physiological and muscular parameters during prolonged cycling exercises.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.