Chris Peden is a strength and conditioning coach who works with both elite and recreational cyclists. He works with female professionals from the likes of Lidl-Trek and AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step but it’s Canyon//SRAM for whom he’s forged a formidable reputation, working with up to half the squad. “My goal is to educate and empower them not to drop off, rather than the mindset of, ‘I’ll do it in the winter as I have as bit more time on my hands,'” says Peden. “So far, the female cyclists have been more receptive than the men. But I’m getting there, season by season. All levels of riders are slowly recognising the benefits of strength training.”
Which are many when delving into the literature. Studies show that weight training: helps you to recruit more muscle fibres into your pedal stroke and so raises power output; improves metabolic health; and supports muscles in areas that you might be enduring pain.
That’s the research benefits. For Peden, “Across the board, whether recreational or world-class cyclists, it’s about raising the capacity of what that individual is capable of doing; in other words, to accept more training load so that they can then absorb greater amounts of endurance.”
“For me, it’s also integral for riders who are prone to overuse injuries,” Peden continues. “Cycling is a linear, repetitive movement, so it cranks up the chances of injury. Strength training essentially makes them a more robust rider.” So, in theory, all good. But how much is enough when it comes to complementing your cycle efforts with strength training?
PRAGMATISM = QUALITY OF LIFE
“Smash your cycling PB in six weeks.” Ever read that on a magazine’s cover, the lure of big results in a short timeframe convincing you to liberate upwards of a five from your wallet, only to be disappointed that six weeks later you’re still not flying up a climb like Primož Roglič or Demi Vollering. “I hate that sort of sentiment,” says Peden. “Strength training can deliver many benefits [cited above] to a cyclist’s performance but exactly how much is often hard to quantify, which is a stumbling block for many in a sport that’s heavy on the data.
“So, the key message for all cyclists is that it’s there to support what you’re doing on a bike. Whether for enjoyment or performance, cycling is the priority. But from an amateur rider perspective, it’s arguably there to support you in life as well as performance. It’ll improve the quality of your life away from cycling. Doing the shopping, gardening…” The message is, though you might possess the Wiggo sideburns, Mitch Docker moustache and three-figure, high-wicking skinsuit, you’re not a full-time cyclist. Cycling is a part of your life but, when you look at the rest of your working week, arguably a relatively small part.
And when you look at your week, you might argue, there’s very little time for any more cycling, let alone strength training. Well, fear not, as you can enjoy the benefits of strength training for the time it takes to set up your turbo trainer.
“Most of us are time-bankrupt,” says Peden. “But if you’re cycling for four or five hours a week – and that includes commutes – it’s good if you can squeeze out 30 minutes a week for strength training. Unless you’re cycling over eight hours a week, you can still benefit from one session a week. Around 45 minutes to an hour, once a week, will see a health benefit long term. It’s suboptimal but better than nothing.
“And it’s more stickable if you start seeing the benefits of strength training in months and years, not days and weeks. Rather than thinking in terms of am I stronger yet, let’s start viewing training and longevity and performance through a lens of long-term consistency. Don’t just do it for six weeks and go, ‘Am I going to climb a hill better or complete my fastest loop? You might do, you might not. But long term your whole life will benefit from a small amount of strength training and that includes in the sportive season, too.”
MOVEMENT PATTERNS RATHER THAN EXERCISES
As for the content of your minimal strength work, Peden’s not married to specific exercises. “For me it’s about ‘movement patterns’. So, you want to undertake typical pressing movements like a leg press and squat, and train through the posterior chain. That means the back of the body – hamstrings, glutes, back… – which means exercises like Romanian deadlifts. Any hip hinge-based movements are good, too. Again, a squat is useful here and a single-leg-based effort like a lunge.”
“You should stress the upper body as well,” adds Peden. “This supports your position on the bike. Even as amateur riders, we’re more aware than ever of being aerodynamic on the bike rather than just generating power. For that you need a strong upper body.
“Take your lats [latissimus dorsi, upper back]. These are responsible for spinal and hip stability. Think of Newton’s Third Law. Every action has an opposite reaction. So, every time you generate force through the pedals, force comes back through the pedals. If you’re not strong in the upper body, fatigue will creep in quicker, which means your ability to resist force is compromised. And then you become more susceptible to injuries and overtraining.”
To that end, like the legs you should instigate push-and-pull movements. That means a vertical push like an overhead press or a horizontal push like a press-up or bench press. Do the opposite from a pulling perspective, so lat pull-downs or chin-ups, albeit the latter might be something you’ll have to work up to. Suspension trainers like TRX straps are beneficial as we. “You can start with bodyweight but you’ll exhaust that quickly,” says Peden. “But you don’t have to be at the gym. Most people have a dumbbell or kettlebell hanging around from Covid days.”
As for how many repetitions and sets, you must remember that this isn’t the 80s where weights meant a spray-tanned Arnie, bulging biceps and muscle-shredding sessions that left the shredder unable to walk for three days.
“If you’re new to strength training, do eight to 10 repetitions per exercise for a short period of time – maybe six to eight weeks – and then maybe drop to six to eight repetitions. If you have experience of strength training, you could reduce that to three to six repetitions on certain exercises like squats. You should start conservatively to build connective tissue – ligaments, tendons – that get you used to lifting. Do that before lowering repetition ranges that allow you to lift heavier weights.”
If your schedule’s packed and you’re racking up a significant number of cycling hours each week, there might be days where you’ll have to double up. If that’s you, says Peden, the ideal is that you’ll tick off strength training first and then cycle later, so early in the morning for weights and ride in the evening.
“That’s because strength work is fatiguing for a cyclist who’s not used to it. Do it the other way around and your strength form will be compromised, meaning fewer gains. Then again, we’re recreational riders. If you can only cycle in the morning and do strength work later on, that’s fine. Longer-term consistency of strength training is more important than anything.”
That consistency became clear the first time I came across Peden at the Science & Cycling Conference in Bilbao earlier this year. He was part of a symposium debating torque demands across different cycling disciplines. That followed a seminar by noted exercise physiologist Bent Ronnestad, who presented his study into the effects of multiple seasons of heavy strength training on muscle strength and cycling sprint power in elite cyclists. It’s worth recapping to highlight how consistency and nominal sessions can realise impressive results.
Professor Ronnestad, who works in the health and exercise physiology campus at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences in Lillehammer, followed two cross-country mountain bikers who undertook heavy strength training for around one-and-a-half seasons while two riders at a similar level continued with endurance training only. They all trained together, had the same coach, and competed in the World Cup, World Championships, European Championships and national races.
The two heavy lifters aimed at two weekly sessions for the development of muscular strength during the off-season and then one session every seven to 10 days for maintenance during the race season. There was a “systematic variation between 4 and 12 RMs [repetition maximum] and three sets with around two minutes’ rest between sets”.
The strength exercises focused on the lower body and included half-squats in a Smith machine, single-leg presses, one-legged hip flexions and toe raises. The concentric phase (where the muscle shortens) involves a swift movement that slows right down for the eccentric phase (where the muscle lengthens).
The two heavy-strength cyclists increased leg press force and cycling sprint power by 16% after the first six months. This was maintained during the competition period. After the next off-season of twice-weekly strength sessions, improvements were a further 22 and 19%, respectively. Throughout, the non-strength-training duo recorded no changes in less press force and cycling sprint power.
Convinced by the benefits, one of the two strength trainers continued lifting for two further years and enjoyed a total increase of 44% after three-and-a-half years.
For that committed strength rider in particular, an increase in cycling sprint power followed the development of leg-press performance, resulting in better cycling performance. It’s also of note to cyclists of all levels that gains can be preserved from just one session every 10 days if two sessions are performed each week in the off-season.
STRENGTH WORK SUPPRESSES SARCOPENIA
It’s clear that strength training can benefit all abilities of cyclists. It’s also pretty much set in stone that it’s arguably even more important as the years roll because, we’ll whisper it, but muscle loss is an inevitability. The technical term for this inevitable degradation is “sarcopenia” and, broadly speaking, a male between the ages of 25 and 80 can lose around 50% of their muscle mass. For females it’s slightly less.
One of the key reasons behind this shrinking-and-shrivelling effect is down to declining anabolic hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone, resulting in a decrease in both size and strength of our muscles. Road cycling delivers numerous physiological and psychological benefits but, certainly when riding long, it has a catabolic effect, meaning you’re not only breaking down fat but muscle, too. Catabolism plus a natural anabolic decline is a double muscular whammy.
“This natural decline happens from around the late-30s onwards,” says Peden, “and is heavily focused on your type-2 muscle fibres that generate huge swathes of power, unlike your type-1 fibres that are more around endurance. You probably ride with a mate who’s in their 40s and is an absolute diesel, who’ll hold onto the same speed all day long. But when it comes to flying up a hill or sprinting to the next sign, they just don’t have that extra gear. That’s because they’re losing the high-force fibres.
“A clear and extreme example is easing out of a chair. To do so unaided requires generating force from your fast-twitch fibres. We’ve all seen our parents or grandparents rocking themselves out of their chair as they just haven’t got the force generation in their legs to lift themselves up.
“Yes, all of us are going to lose muscle, our metabolic health will deteriorate and our bone health will reduce. But we can mitigate this hugely with a mix of cardiovascular and strength training. Seeing a small amount of strength work as a vehicle to deliver long-term, lifestyle gains – as well as strengthening your cycle performance too – is the strongest way to sustain strength work. Whether you train at home or hit the gym, do what works for you. It will be worth it.”