Does specificity of pedaling contraction speed matter?

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.

-James Wilson-

Social Comments:

WordPress Comments:

  1. WAKi says:

    What?! Someone denies strength training again? I just read an article about how important it was to Lance to spend time on the gym. Many maaaany top roadies do strength training and not even in the offseason. So if most of cycling world does so (even if at small scale) who is negating it again?

    Reply • January 13 at 7:19 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I was reading Training and Racing with a Power Meter and in it they indicate that strength training has limited application to cycling because of the specificity of contraction speed and I have read other coaches saying the same thing so that myth is still alive and strong today despite all the real world evidence to the contrary. Some people won’t wipe their butt without 5 studies indicating the need for it so I still have to fight the good fight regarding the need for strength training and mountain biking/ cycling.

      Reply • January 15 at 10:27 am
  2. Rodney says:

    James, a point you could have made is that even though the cadence/rpm may be high, it’s still amovement normally requiring only slow-twitch type I fibers (unless you’re deliberitaly sprinting uphill for instance).

    Also if you do want to improve your sprinting capabilities you would need to exercise specifically, perform hill sprints, or perform specific strength exercises, which you can do independent of weather conditions.

    Something else you may have an opinion about:
    A high RPM is more taxing for the heart and longs and a slow RPM is more taxing for the legs and more specifically the knees (Armstrong versus Ullrich). But, in my opinion, the only reason a slow PRM could hurt the knees is when you are using clips (clipless pedals). Like you mention in your posts, flats allow you to push midfoot using the hips. This more forceful movement probably benefits from a somewhat slower RPM and could therefore also negate the prevaling thought that the RPM should be relatively high?

    Reply • January 15 at 1:06 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I think the min idea is that high RPM is more aerobic and for road riding and fire road racing it may be a better strategy since their races last longer and their pedaling efforts are more sustained than on the trail. However, you are correct that flats and better hip involvement would clear up a lot of the knee issues that riders suffer from. Bad movement causes pain and like I’ve pointed out many times, seated pedaling with a high RPM and clipless pedals usually results in some pretty bad movement. Good observations, thanks for sharing…

      Reply • January 16 at 6:30 am
  3. todd says:

    i totally disregard articles that conclude that strength training does nothing for cycling. From what ive thought and personally experienced over 10 yrs of racing and mtbing is that they do work. Especially mtbing where cadences are lower and climbs are shorts bursts of max power. Even more so now i ride ss. They just give you that raw strength needed to smash it over climbs in a big gear.
    James whats ur thoughts on weighted lunges?? I perform them with 20-40kg bar behind my neck and i really find they work the hammies and glutes well. Great for eccentric contraction of the quads too. Mixed with deadlifts and squats it really is a great workout

    Reply • January 15 at 9:59 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      While lunges are great I actually like reverse lunges better than forward lunges, I feel they work the pedaling movement a bit better and are also easier to execute cleanly.

      Reply • January 16 at 6:27 am
  4. Jeff says:

    I went on a ride w/some guy that were turning probably 85-90 and I was turning 105 rpm to stick with them but couldn’t. I would flip to a harder gear and my legs would cry. I know there are a lot of factors in random rider versus random rider but that’s when I knew I was a weak rider. Have been through the db combo program a few times (3 x 12 weeks) and I know that is a huge part of my improvement. On a flat road ride I still average 98-103 rpms but in harder gears.
    Simple keep your high rpms and go in a bigger gear guess what, you are moving faster. If you are a road rider only you could probably get similar affects as weight training by riding big rings uphill into the wind but mountain men and women need overall strength to throw the bike around as well as leg strength to pedal it. I’m busy but I can get a lot done with 2 hours a week in the gym. Add a few days of intervals, some mobility, some pump, and some stand and grind sessions and I’m the best I’ve ever been. I’m pro strength.

    P.S. If you find a big enough mountain you will run out of gears and cadence is out the window all you have is strength… or lack of it.

    Reply • January 17 at 1:12 pm

Add a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *


Follow MTB Strength Training Systems:
James Wilson
Author and Professional
Mountain Bike Coach
James Wilson