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Strength Training for Cyclists - Stronger in the Saddle - Part One

The inclusion of resistance training (RT) to help support cycling performance is still a debated subject across the cycling community. It’s our hope that this article provides some insight into why its inclusion into your training should be looked at through a much wider lens, not just for any potential performance benefits. We believe that there can be a positive shift towards embracing RT as a long term practical tool to achieving greater cycling performance if we create a shift in attitude that focuses on “train to ride, and not ride to train”. Fundamentally then, raising our baseline and potential ceilings of certain physical qualities ‘off bike’ can manifest into enhancing ‘on bike’ performance and more time on the bike!


Before we get into the specifics of performance. Even if you look at the inclusion of RT through a wide-lens, it makes for a compelling argument to help improve health and longevity.

Bone health

Cycling is a low impact sport, without any ground reaction forces and minimal gravitational loading. The low-impact unloaded nature of cycling raises awareness of what is missing, particularly when cycling is performed exclusively as the sole mode of exercise.

The lack of impact loading and ‘stress’ is not an appropriate stimuli for our bones and skeletal system. Our bones are living tissue that have a constant ability to remodel themselves, however they need loading and impact placed upon them to stimulate this remodelling. Although cycling isn't exactly like returning back to earth from a stint in space, there is perhaps some warranted concern regarding reduced bone mineral density for avid cyclists. This is why strength training in conjunction with plyometric training is particularly important to promote and stimulate bone remodelling.

Maintaining and enhancing muscular + strength function

One thing is certain, unfortunately we can’t stop the ageing process. The reduction in muscle mass (sarcopenia) and associated losses in the ability to produce maximal force and rate of force as we age, represents a significant concern when it comes to maintaining physical function and robustness. However, what is well within our power of control is the ability to expose ourselves to training modalities (RT) that help offset, and in most (if not all) cases raise the baseline in neuromuscular capacities to help combat the effects of ageing. In a brilliantly named paper "You are only as fast as your motor neurons" Del Vecchio et al. highlights the importance of developing rate of force development (RFD) and the importance of RFD as we get older. The inclusion of a sound RT approach therefore represents a valuable and powerful tool in helping stay younger both physically and metabolically.

It is important to note, it's not too late to start RT! You should not be fearful of loading, as RT can always been scaled and applied relative to your start point. If you are inexperienced with RT methods, then it just means the more gains you shall receive, and the return on investment in terms of neuromuscular improvements will be huge!

So lets now look through a narrow lens. How can on bike performance be improved with the inclusion of RT?

Firstly we need to appreciate there are a myriad of physiological and biomechanical factors that go into enhancing performance. The graphic below helps illustrate and summarise some of these factors (1):

As you can see, physiology is somewhat a rabbit hole topic, and sometimes it's difficult to even isolate the numerous adaptations that can be realised through training, whichever mode of training that may be. Simply put, the influence of one variable will have an impact on another. In reality, and removed from textbook models of explanation, if you really zoom out the difference between reactive strength, maximal strength and endurance categorisation is only in time. For example, ''Power'' is often thought as an instantaneous burst, like peak power. However, power as an equation is just work / time. You can then derive metrics like critical power and so on. All in all, its just about how long you're doing an activity for. Perhaps because of this bias, it's usually easier to understand how RT in a gym can transfer to a higher instantaneous peak power outputs on the bike. Or at least it is when you see Sir Chris Hoy squat 250kg... It's a little bit less intuitive when you think about longer intervals on the bike. In general though, this explanation sometimes helps people to understand the interconnectedness of such systems; it all sits on a continuum.

What is common across the cycling community however, is that typically the right hand side of the diagram in general is untapped. It is probably the least performed activity and the least understood outside of track cycling... hence why we are writing this article! This leaves a fair amount of performance potential up for grabs from the application of consistent RT!

Lets look more precisely at the what underpins performance for anything longer than a sprint...

The ability to ride for multiple hours at a ridiculously high wattage without decline. That is what we all want right?! But what are they key performance indicators? How is it actually possible for someone to hold 400 watts for an hour, or 350 watts for 3hrs; what underpins the ability to sustain work?

As you can see in the graph above, VO2 max, lactate threshold and economy are often the most discussed, however they are often misunderstood. To coin a phrase from physiologist Dr. Andy Coogan...

''necessary but not sufficient''

For example, having a very high VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can utilise during exercise - millilitres of oxygen per kg of bodyweight per minute (ml/kg/min) is necessary to be a great endurance athlete, however it is not sufficient; having the highest VO2 max amongst your peers doesn't mean you will beat them in a race. Some of you may have heard of a cyclist Oskar Svendsen. who I believe to this day still holds the record for the highest recorded VO2 max in a laboratory setting. However, after being scouted as a future Tour de France winner at the age of 18, he struggled to achieve such heights. Whilst still a phenomenal athlete, VO2 max didn't make him a winner on the road. So why?

This is where an understanding of things like economy and efficiency are vital.

Cycling economy can be defined as the steady-rate oxygen cost of a standard power output. Or more simply put, how much oxygen you need to shift to sustain a given power output. If you gathered 10 riders together with the same VO2 max and fixed a wattage of say 200w, there will be different volumes of oxygen consumed to sustain that workload for each individual. Essentially, some will find it easier, some will find it tougher. You could even have someone with a higher VO2 max suffer and decline more over time, because they have a worse economy at that given workload.... perhaps Oskar Svebdsen's problem...

Cycling efficiency is often used interchangeably with economy but they are slightly different in terms of definition, although it all comes out in the wash. Efficiency is typically defined as the relationship between mechanical work done and the energy spent in doing it. Think of this as a gas tank, if you can travel more miles using less fuel than your peers then guess what, you'll likely be better off and with more left in the tank when it matters. We often see in our VO2 max test those who burn more carbohydrates than fat for fuel, at something like 60% of their maximal HR, are those who are accustomed to higher intensity work, and don't spend enough time on their slow longer rides (...the ones reaching for harribo's 20 minutes into a group ride).

Both of these factors are huge when determining endurance performance. So how actually do we improve our economy and efficiency?

Well, even though this is a blog post about RT, the most obvious answer is to spend more time on the bike. This is why zone 2 training is so important; you can't build great economy and efficiency without volume, you've got to do the thing to get better at the thing. Additionally, you can't spend a load of time on your bike if you're always smashing out intervals and threshold rides... (unless your just sitting on it and catching your breath). So make sure you are doing your zone 2 sessions.

Now that is out the way, where does RT fit in?

This is where that right hand side of the graph comes in, blunt force trauma! Improving your ability to deliver more force and increased rate of force through the pedals is vital. It is well established that improving maximal strength and rate of force development improves economy and efficiency, and it's quite easy to see why. All things are given equal, if you can produce 2x as much leg extension force than the person next to you in the saddle, then you will go faster. It simply gives you a higher ceiling. In another more direct comparison, if you had two individuals deadlifting, one who had a 1 rep maximum of 100kg and the other with a 1 rep maximum of 200kg, then a test of how many reps at 80kg in 30s is extremely taxing for the 100kg athlete, but a walk in the park for the 200kg athlete. And although it would be madness, you could extrapolate this out to whatever time domain you see fit, and you would still find the same winner.

Obviously this is a direct comparison where the task is the same as the test. But the second order effects and the transfer of increased neuromuscular capability from RT, and its relationship in improving economy and efficiency on the bike is well established across many endurance sports (2);

The average 5% improvement in CE in the present study (cycling) is in agreement with results shown in cross-country skiing of 9–23% (13,24) and running of 5% (29). The results from the present study are also in agreement with results on cycling from Loveless et al. who showed a significant improvement in CE of approximately 12%.

Developing robustness and mitigating injury risk

Lastly, the one thing that is often overlooked but as mentioned above, by enabling you to stay on your bike means you can reap the benefits. Overuse injuries are usually a product of poor load management i.e. excessive increases in intensity and volume on the bike. However, appropriate RT provides a platform for raising muscular force, improving connective tissue quality and increasing flexibility and mobility, thus potentially allowing us to better cope and deal with the demands of training stress, which ultimately fuels further consistency.

So, hopefully this has given you something to chew on regarding the inclusion of RT. In our part 2, we will delve further into the specific mechanisms behind how RT improves economy and efficiency, some common myth busting, and how we implement RT in a training programme.

Stay tuned!


Beattie K, et al. (2014). The effect of Strength Training on Performance in

Endurance Athletes. Sport Medicine, 44 (6), 845-865.

Arnstein Sunde, et al (2010). Maximal strength training improves cycling economy in competitive cyclists


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