Weight training for road cycling. Should you, or shouldn't you? This month we are going to look at the costs and benefits of weight training for road cycling so you can make your own mind up on whether to enter the gym this winter. It's always a hot topic at this time of year with few light hours to train it's tempting to take advantage of indoor training. Next month, Darren Ellis will outline the what, how and why for those of you who decide to try it.
Weight, strength or resistance training as it's commonly called serves to increase the force generating capacity of muscle fibres. This is obviously advantageous given higher force generating capacity equals higher power output. Improvements in force generating capacity come from changes in neural recruitment (that is the number of muscle fibers our neural system "excites" when we contract our muscles), and from increases in the actual size or diameter of each muscle fiber (called hypertrophy). Hypertrophy is not beneficial for road riders trying to decrease body mass and improve power to weight ratio, unless the resulting hypertrophy has improved power output to a greater extent than the negative change of increasing body mass.
Consistency is the key. As with road training, weight training must be consistent throughout the year, with more or less prioritizing throughout the cycling season. Building a strength "base" is just as important as building an aerobic or cycling specific strength base on the bike. It is a waste of time to spend 8 weeks of your off season in the gym and then dropping it as soon as the season gets under way. Changes in neural recruitment typically take eight to ten weeks with no change in hypertrophy. It is only after this time period that changes in muscle hypertrophy will occur. Even then this is often dependent on the volume of road training as very few endurance athletes experience hypertrophy. However, improvements in strength can occur with no change in hypertrophy if you are on the correct regimen of sets, reps and frequency of weight training.
So we know weight training improves the force generating capacity of our muscles via increase motor unit recruitment and increased hypertrophy, but does this actually result in improved cycling power output? Now this is the controversial part. To date, not one research study has found improved weight training strength to result in improved cycling power output in trained cyclists (however there are few). Numerous publications have cited research studies that have shown dramatic improvements in cycling performance from weight training, but when you go back to the original research papers they are flawed, and we cannot draw conclusive conclusions for or against the concept. For example they have used untrained subjects unaccustomed to cycling or weight training who therefore have greater potential to improve, and none have investigated anymore than 10weeks which begs the question "what about long term weight training," given we know changes in hypertrophy can take so long?"
Pre-Hab: What's That?
Pre-hab is the term used for weight or resistance training to improve the strength and integrity of muscles and joints to prevent injury. A good example of this is a cyclist performing trunk and upper limb weight training to improve posture on the bike, while missing leg work. Endless road miles can lead to strength deficiencies in the pelvis, back, arms and abdominal regions. Therefore this "sloppy" upper body leads to ineffective power transmission to the pedals. A strong trunk, abdominal and pelvic regions allow for a solid platform for your legs to lever from. After all, a door with loose hinges does not close properly now does it?
Aside from a correct bike set up, improved upper body strength can dramatically improve out of the seat climbing (particularly in women), reduce the "cycling sore neck" and lower back pain, which is commonly associated with weak abdominals.
So if you are considering weight training this year do your research and think about what you want to achieve. Do you want to take the pre-hab approach or try a full body approach? Whichever you decide be sure to be very picky when selecting a gym or personal trainer to work under and research their ability to service your requirements. Unfortunately we have a legacy of uneducated personal trainers in New Zealand who are excellent motivators but unfortunately do not understand the specific requirements of endurance athletes and the importance of power to weight ratio in road racing. I would highly recommend that you ask questions and don't let them convince you a normal "body building" program will improve your cycling performance as it will most definitely not.
In conclusion, even if you are not convinced weight training will improve your cycling performance through improved leg strength I'd highly recommend the pre-hab approach to prevent injury, improve posture on the bike and possibly indirectly improve power and at least prevent those annoying back and neck problems.