When you look at a strength training program, what is the first thing you focus in on? Out of all the information you have available about the workout, what is the most important factor in determining the results that you get?
If you are like most riders then the answer to both of these questions is usually “the exercises”. The specific exercises used are usually the first thing people want to know about because they also feel that the exercises are the most important factor in the workout.
And while the exercises being used are certainly important, they are not really the most important factor of the workout. In fact, they are usually the last thing I fill in on a workout and also one of the last things I look at when evaluating a workout program.
The reality is that the rep and set ranges used in the program are most important factor. You can have the best exercises in the world but if you have the wrong set and rep scheme you can completely miss out on the results you want to see on the trail.
The reason for this is because the sets and reps send a signal to the body to tell it how to adapt to the stress from the workout. Your body has very different ways of adapting to different types of stress and it is in understanding and manipulating these different adaptations that really determine the type of results you can expect to see from a program.
When done right a program can improve your strength while also limiting your weight gain, which is how you improve your strength-to-weight-ratio. But if you do it wrong you can end up wasting your time, gaining no real strength or even putting on unwanted muscle mass. BTW, both of these things are bad for your strength-to-weight-ration, which is the Holy Grail of strength training for us as mountain bikers.
One of the common misconceptions about this topic is that we want to focus on lighter weights and higher reps. The logic is that since we are endurance athletes we need to focus on those slow twitch muscles fibers and on building “lean” muscles.
The flip side of this coin is that we are told heavy weights and low reps will bulk us up. And since most riders avoid weight gain like the plague – even when they could stand to add a few pounds of functional muscle – you end up with a lot of riders thinking that higher reps are best and avoiding low rep work.
However, nothing could be further from the truth.
While it is a bit counter-intuitive, low reps and heavier weights are best for producing strength while minimizing the weight gain. This is because the time under tension isn’t long enough to stimulate muscle growth and your nervous system is targeted, forcing it to become stronger and more efficient. If you look at how athletes in sports with weight classes train, you’ll see a lot of low rep/ low volume training with an emphasis on heavier weights.
High reps (15-20+) with low weights doesn’t do much besides build specific short term endurance in the rep range used and build tendon and ligament strength to some degree. While the time under tension is longer, the weight you have to use is so low that it doesn’t stimulate the nervous system to build strength nor does it stress the muscle tissue itself enough to build muscle mass. The idea that high reps and low weight build “lean muscle mass” was something popularized by fat loss people trying to sell their pink dumbbells to women but it has no basis in reality.
The mid rep range (8-12 or your classic 3 X 10) is in the muscle/ mass building range because you can use some decent weight and the time under tension is long enough that you stimulate the metabolic and structural changes you want to stimulate muscle gain. This is why you see bodybuilders favoring programs with lots of sets in the 8-12 reps range.
So for us as mountain bikers we want to focus on the lower reps (1-6) while using the other rep ranges as well to round out the program. If you focus on high reps and low weight you won’t get strong and if you focus on the mid rep range you will stimulate weight gain without as much strength gain. Since the goal of your strength training program is to improve your strength-to-weight-ratio then it becomes pretty clear what you want to focus most of your energy on.
All of this also explains why you can’t just add reps to make a workout harder. Eventually you change rep ranges enough that you change the actual results from the program. Doing a set of 5 reps in the deadlift will give you much different results than 10 reps, so you need to increase the challenge to keep the reps in the range prescribed.
And you don’t need heavy weights to challenge the body in the 1-6 rep range. Using single limb exercises like single leg deadlifts or single leg squats can quickly turn even the lightest load “heavy”. Pavel Tsatsouline has a book called the Naked Warrior where you focus on two exercises – single arm push ups and single leg squats. Not a weight in site and lots of low rep strength work.
So this is why the most important factor in a strength training program is the sets and reps. In fact, this is the #1 reason that strength training has gotten a bad reputation in the cycling world – too many riders have tried strength training programs that had them doing mostly 10-20+ reps per set and they never saw any results on the trail.
Strength training will always help to make you a faster rider if you do it right, you just have to focus on the right set and rep ranges.
So use this information to take a look at your current program. While there is a time and place for higher reps – like during the early phases of an off-season program – you should have a healthy dose of reps in the 1-6 range as part of the overall approach. If you see an endless march of 10-20+ reps in your program then odds are you are missing out on a lot of potential results.
Like a lot of riders have already learned, get the sets and reps right so you can get stronger and you’ll definitely improve your ability to ride faster, longer and with more confidence on the trail. I hope this helps clear up some of the confusion surrounding this subject, if you have any questions about the rep ranges and how it applies to your goals feel free to post a question below.