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

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

Hopefully in part one you were able to get a good understanding of the ways in which resistance training (RT) can help improve cycling performance. Whether this is through general benefits to health, or through specific performance improvements to cycling economy and efficiency; RT should be a weapon in your training arsenal!


In part two we will discuss the specific mechanisms behind how RT improves economy and efficiency, some common myth busting regarding RT, and some example exercises we lean on!



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In the previous article you may have seen we used the term "neuromuscular capacity / capability" a fair bit. Increased neuromuscular capacity = improvements in economy & efficiency, but what does that 'neuromuscular capacity' actually mean, and what actually are those adaptations derived from RT?


The role of the central nervous system

If you take a look at the diagram below (1) you will also see RT leads to an increase in muscle strength and power as a result of neuromuscular adaptations. In fact, these are the primary initial responses to RT, and have been shown to occur within weeks of consistent RT.



The reason for these improvements are due to changes in the central and peripheral nervous system. There are many mechanisms which enable greater force production, all of which is beyond the scope of this article, but one primary factor is the motor cortex and corticospinal tract are able to increase the voluntary activation of muscle through an increased 'neural drive'. This 'neural drive' is the magnitude of the signal sent from the brain to recruit motor units at the muscle, which causes fibres to contract. RT increases the strength of that signal, along with an increased synchronisation i.e the message to contract a muscle is received by the motor units simultaneously with minimum latency. Much like an F1 pitstop crew changing all 4 tyres at once, enabling the driver to put the hammer down. This means, by increasing neural drive and synchronisation we have a greater ability to produce more total force & rate of force.


"But won't RT increase my muscle mass and make me too bulky?"

It is quite common when people think of RT to automatically conjure up images of Arnie and physiques typically seen in bodybuilding. However, the increase in cross sectional area of muscle tissue (hypertrophy) is only one facet, and one that is strongly dependent on the prevalence & consistency of the training stimuli, and the environment in which you lay training on top of i.e. hypertrophy only occurs from a consistent kcal surplus, with adequate recovery from the imposed training stress. Increasing lean muscle tissue is not easy, yet often people believe it is something which just magically happens when we spend a bit of time lifting things.


It's important to remember that building muscle is literally forcing your body to adapt to a state of greater energy cost. The more lean tissue added onto your skeletal frame, the more energy required to sustain it. Although a rough estimation, muscle tissue requires approx up to 15kcal per kg per day at rest. So if you gained 5kg of muscle mass you would need approx an extra 75kcal per day to sustain it. Logically speaking, in terms of just general day to day living, why would your body desire that? To disturb homeostasis and adapt to a metabolically more costly state of being?


It doesn't, it takes a lot of convincing.... So, the environment (kcal surplus, stress management, recovery) and the appropriateness of your training, in order for you grow, has to be somewhat more appropriate, and like that for a long time! This is why when you look at elite endurance performers for example, the reason why they don't have physiques more like sprinters is because of their freakishly high training volumes and the type of training they perform, which comes with a huge energy cost. What is almost guaranteed, is that the overwhelming majority of these athletes will partake in weekly RT because of the vast neuromuscular benefits. So next time you pick up a barbell don't be concerned about turning into Arnie, and be more concerned about all the positive neuromuscular benefits you will receive!


'Ok, but how does RT transfer? What exercises do I need to do? Shouldn't I be doing bike specific exercises in the gym?'

There is a trend that appears on many socials and blog posts, talking about exercise specificity or more often termed "sport specific exercise". What is meant by this is programming RT exercises performed in the gym which are said to optimally transfer to said sport (in this instance we're talking about cycling, but insert any sport *here*). This stems from our understanding of a training variable called, you guessed it, specificity. Now, nobody argues that you get better at what you do more of, and nothing is more specific than actually being on your bike! However, what tends to happen is strength coaches fall into a trap of visual similarity, where they try to programme as many exercises that look like being on a bike simply because they think it will transfer better, because it will be "sport specific". Typically, it just misses the point... here's why...


1. Visual similarity doesn't mean there is similarity. Force production, timing, muscular actions, direction of the movement are all things to consider. You'd be surprised at how completely different the demands are between an exercise in the gym and your sport. Unless your sport is literally powerlifting or weightlifting...


2) Aiming for high training specificity in the gym doesn't necessarily mean 'optimal transference' to your sport. It doesn't actually mean it will make you better by attempting to be more specific. The question people should ask themselves; "what is my sport not giving me?" The most return on investment (if you're not on your bike) is through general means and the 2nd order effects you receive from this. The point being, RT is used as a tool to get you stronger and overload / stress the body in ways in which are not being achieved in the sport.


For example, as an obvious hypothetical scenario; If we have an individual who needs to get stronger so they can put more force through the pedals, but can only currently produce 50kg of force through one leg in 500ms... Then choosing an exercise in the gym that perhaps looks similar to the action of the sport, but only puts 10kg of force through one leg over 750ms... essentially makes it completely redundant. Ultimately, it means there isn't if any stimulus to adapt to, and you may as well have stayed on your bike. We see this a lot when people add complexity to movements to try and achieve this similarity. It's like standing on one leg on a bosu ball, attempting to squat with a band pulling you in a certain direction. If you increase complexity of a skill then likely it decreases your output. If you even think about it logically, if your goal is to improve force production (which it should be in this case) then you can't produce much force on a unstable surface... Just find some weight and squat.


Here’s an overview of some common things we might like to see in a sound approach, and something you can use to maximise your time off the bike!

NB: It is always important to remember application of RT exercises and methods are context specific. Although to get stronger it is advised to work with moderate to heavy loads to drive output, to those who have never strength trained there is no need to rush! Being able to drive high outputs requires you to have a high skill level in whatever movement you are performing. Again, think about those neuromuscular adaptations, largely there is a big skill component to that. So if you have never back squatted before, it is (we hope) common sense to not load up a barbell and let rip for a heavy set of 3.


We always advice working with a S&C coach to help plan your training, to meet you where you are currently at, and help find what works for you! It also often suprises people that you don't need a shed load of volume, especially if you are new to RT. Additionally, if you are spending lots of time on the bike then it's always good to think about a minimum effective dose in the gym!


With that said, here are some compound lower and upper body exercise examples and technical demos. These of course should be placed in a balanced routine, and as we say, keep it simple!!!


Lower body strength based exercises >


Squat variants / Deadlift variants / split-squat, lunge, step-up variants.








Upper body strength based exercises >


Double-arm, single-arm push and pull variants.








References


1. T. Moritani and H.A. DeVries,"Neural factors versus hypertrophy in the time course of muscle strength gain,"












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