One of the common arguments against strength training for cycling is that the contraction speed seen in lifting weights is much slower than that seen during the pedal stroke. While I won’t get into how much more there is to riding – especially mountain biking – than pedaling, I want to stick with that idea to point out a few fundamental flaws in that simplistic view of performance training.
First, not all pedal stroke efforts are created equal. When talking about contraction speeds during pedaling the assumption is being made that the pedal stroke is a high RPM (90-110) and low resistance on the pedals. This does not describe all types of pedaling – low RPM grinds and standing pedal strokes both require a different type of muscle contraction. I’ve certainly had pedal strokes that felt like a tough single leg deadlift and that is one of the main points of training – work on the things you need on the trail but don’t use enough on the trail to significantly improve.
So, some types of pedaling efforts do require a type of muscular action similar to those seen during strength training. In addition to that, there are exercises that do train the faster types of muscle contractions seen during higer RPM pedaling.
Kettlebell swings in particular work on both the movement pattern and contraction type needed, making them a very sport specific way to train for cycling in the gym. Swings use a lighter weight and faster overall movement than the Olymipc lifts but are not as widely studied and so are rarely included when considering if strength training has specific carryover to the pedal stroke.
Lastly, your raw strength is a good reflection of how “stress proof” a movement pattern is. As you fatigue any cracks in your movement start to get magnified, meaning that you lose efficiency and start wasting energy. This is a double whammy – not only are you low on energy but you start wasting it and using it faster.
If you can lift a significant amount of weight in some of the basic exercises like the deadlift, front squat/ Goblet squat and KB shoulder press then you can be pretty sure that you can push those movement patterns hard and they will retain their efficiency. You simply can’t take bad movement very far in the gym – bad form will stop your progress or get you hurt if you try to get strong with it.
However, in the saddle you can lean on clipless pedals, bike fits and seated pedaling to let you get around bad movement, which leads to inefficient movement and overuse injuries. You can get away with crappy movement in the saddle and so strength training is a great way to “cement” better movement for use on the bike.
So, we have 3 reasons that strength training should be a centerpiece of a cycling program:
1) Some pedal stroke efforts, like slow RPM grinds and standing, do require muscular contractions similar to those seen during strength training.
2) Light weight kettlebell swings with overspeed eccentrics use faster contraction speeds train similar contraction speeds seen during higher RPM pedaling.
3) Strength is a great indicator of how stress proof your movement is, which indicates how efficient you can remain as you fatigue.
I think that most coaches who dismiss or minimize the effect of strength training on cycling in general and the pedal stroke in particular simply have a very limited understanding of strength training in the first place. I think that it has a lot to offer from both a holistic and sport specific point of view and that any rider who is serious about improving must make it a priority.