One of the most damaging rumors in our sport is that strength training does not help cycling performance. Apparently there are some studies that show no increase in performance in cyclists after undertaking a strength training program and that has become the battle cry for some riders when the subject comes up in forums. This is an unfortunate and myopic view on the subject that is ultimately holding our sport back.
Science can be misinterpreted pretty easily and the examples are numerous in the field of fitness. For example, studies that showed aerobic exercise as being helpful for fat loss were misinterpreted to mean that it was the best method for fat loss. The original strength training study looked at the 3 sets of 10 reps protocol, showed that it was effective and that misinterpreted as meaning that it was the best set and rep scheme. Look at your average workout program today and you’ll still see 3 sets of 10 reps and hours of aerobic exercise being prescribed, despite numerous studies showing that there are much better ways.
The point is that before these anti-strength training zealots smugly point to a few studies in order to justify their desire to skip the gym and only ride, there is much more to the story. As I see it here are two huge flaws in their conclusion and we are pretty far away from “proving” that gym time doesn’t help your saddle time.
Huge Flaw #1: Those studies didn’t tell us that “strength training” doesn’t increase performance in cyclists, they simply told us that the programs used in the studies didn’t work. Exercise is like a drug – if you take the wrong kinds in the wrong amounts you will get the wrong results. This would be like doing a study on aspirin to see if it cured malaria and then writing off all medicine when it didn’t.
There are several potential flaws in studies that look at strength training for cyclists, including the use of machines, the use of the wrong set and rep schemes, a focus only on lower body exercises and no account for the quality of the movement. If you take a guy and have him do 3 sets of 10 reps on squats, leg presses, leg curls and leg extensions and his squat looks like crap then don’t be surprised when he gets nothing out of it.
Any strength training program that is geared towards improving performance on a bike has to set a movement standard based on how you want to move on the bike, utilize a total body workout, use free weights and use set and rep schemes that are geared towards building strength and power, not muscle size. Until science has a chance to look at the application of cutting edge strength training for cyclists then the more likely conclusion from those studies is now we know what NOT to do in the weight room, not that we should stay out of it.
Huge Flaw #2: “Performance enhancement” is only one side of the training benefits coin. The other side of that coin is “injury prevention” and while it is not as sexy and doesn’t get the same focus, it is just as if not more important than the other. If you’re hurt, it doesn’t matter how fit you are now does it?
Let’s just say that strength training didn’t directly increase performance – I’d still work out just as much because riding a bike is one of the worst things I can do to my body and I have to do something to balance it out. The truth is that sitting in a hunched over position with my legs going through a shortened, repetitive range of motion will cause imbalances in the body. And this is saying nothing about the link between cycling and a loss of bone density due to the lack of impact and weight bearing loads.
Cycling will cause the muscles in the front of the body to shorten and get tight while causing the muscles on the back side of the body to lengthen and get weak. The shortened, repetitive range of motion seen with pedaling will cause overuse injuries in the knees and hips. Both of these scenarios will result in dysfunction, pain and overuse injuries down the road.
The only way to stop all of this from happening is to find a way to restore and maintain balance in the body. Stretching out the muscles on the front side, strengthening the muscles on the back side and practicing full range of motion movements with all of the joints will keep you balanced out and your joints healthy. Weight bearing exercise is also the best way to maintain bone density.
If I am able to avoid a few minor injuries and one or two major overuse injuries over my riding career then that extra riding time will result in me being better than someone who missed that time due to the injuries. It will also mean that I got to enjoy more riding over the years since I wasn’t on the couch nursing as many injuries. None of those studies looked at the ability of strength training to aid in injury prevention (which would take years to do) and really only looked at half the picture.
As you can see there are some serious questions about the conclusion that strength training doesn’t enhance performance of have benefits for cyclists. Every other sport in the world benefits from strength training and so does ours. Getting stronger and more mobile while maintaining high quality movement is one of the best things you can do to increase your performance and decrease your chances of getting hurt no matter what the “old guard” in cycling tells you.