6 Strength Training Tips for a Stronger Bike

As a triathlete or cyclist, be it for fitness or to win your age group, part of the training goal is to become faster, stronger, and more efficient on the bike.  Yes, even if you “just want to finish” your particular race, you want to get off the bike and not be totally wiped out for the run.  We often hear the terms: “dead legs” or “rubber legs” referred to as how we feel coming off the bike.  This could be because you simply pushed beyond your limits on the bike, which is often the case in newer endurance athletes, but there could be another caveat to your fatigue: bike strength. 

Yes, we know that if you want to get better at cycling you need to ride your bike; time in the saddle.  But you also need power and strength.  Power to climb hills, battle head & crosswinds, and of course, power to do well and win.  But what if you are traveling and can’t ride your bike?  You can strength train.  Also, if you just cycle all the time, you run the risk of developing muscular imbalances that could lead not only to slower bike times, but to injury down the road. Proper Functional Strength Training is a needed addition to any endurance training plan.  Specific to the bike, you should focus on building power and symmetry throughout your lower body. You need movements that not only target your quadriceps, but your glutes and hamstrings as well.  Here are 6 rules for bike strength that I prescribe to my clients and recommend for you as well.

#1 LIFT HEAVY

Let me say this: YOU WON’T “GET BIG” FROM LIFTING HEAVY WEIGHTS.  In fact you may find that you lose body fat and simultaneously get faster/stronger.  This study from The Journal of Strength and Conditioning research shows that heavy strength training 3 days per week for 8 weeks increased cycling economy/efficiency in the test subjects.  When lifting heavy I recommend 3 sets of 4-6 repetitions of a squat or deadlift.  This can be done 1-2 times a week.  Before you begin lifting heavy though, be sure to meet with a certified strength coach/trainer that will assess any imbalances you may need to correct before loading your body with heavy weight.

#2 DON’T USE MACHINES

You sit most of the day. You sit on the bike.  Don’t sit when you lift.  Instead, perform functional movements such as: squats, deadlifts, step-ups, and lunge variations.  Using these movements gives you the best opportunity to utilize those underworked muscles in your lower body; primarily your glutes.

#3 USE HIGH REPETITION

I know I just said lift heavy, but you will need to vary your intensity to stimulate different energy systems and motor unit recruitment.   I will typically have an athlete perform one heavy day and one high volume day each week, depending on their training cycle. High repetition sets of 25-30+ reps with short 30-45 second recovery intervals are a great way to increase strength, but also a great way to teach your legs to use lactic acid for energy through a process called The Cori Cycle.  

#4 PERFORM SINGLE LEG MOVEMENTS

If you want to become more efficient on the bike, and be able to run strong off the bike, you need symmetry in your lower body.  EVERYONE has one leg that is stronger than the other.  Incorporating single-leg movements, such as: lunges and step-ups, into your training plan will ensure that you are building strength and endurance in both legs equally, which can save you energy and increase bike power.

#5 PERFORM MULTI-PLANAR MOVEMENTS

Say what??? Multi-planar or multi-directional are “fancy” words for “not just forwards and backwards lunges”.  Incorporating lateral lunges, 45-degree lunges and curtsey lunges will build balance and strength throughout your lower body.  These movements can also increase balance and mobility both on and off the bike.  You can perform one of these movements each time you train or you can combine all 3 as one set. See the videos at the bottom of this article to learn how to properly perform these movements and how to put them all together.

#6 TRAIN YOUR CORE

Earlier I mentioned strength for battling head & crosswinds. Core strength is a key component to being stable during windy conditions. More over you need a strong core for efficient power transfer from your legs to the pedals. When I say “core” in this case I am referring to you rectus abdominus “abs” and your deeper stabilizers of the spine, transverse abdominus, multifidi, & pelvic floor muscles. If you are looking to build a strong core be sure to incorporate balance training and movements like plank, side plank, cable/band pot stir & anti-rotation press, & glute bridges.  At a minimum, you should be able to hold a plank for 3 sets of 60 seconds without failing or feeling pressure in your low back. Crunches and sit-ups should be avoided as the repetitive spinal flexion can contribute to degeneration of disk later on. 

Now that you have an understanding of what movements to use to for bike strength, let’s put it all together.  Here are 2 sample workouts that take about 20 minutes and can be performed virtually anywhere. Note: I recommend waiting at least 48hrs in between strength workouts to ensure proper recovery.

SAMPLE #1: HEAVY DAY

**This workout is best done during off-season or low volume weeks as the heavy weight is more taxing on your muscular and nervous system***

***This workout could be followed by an aerobic “zone 2” or “training pace” ride the following day, then a recovery day after***

  1. 5 minute foam roll (focus on calves, quads,  & glutes)5-10 minutes mobility work/dynamic warm up
  2. 3x6 DB Deadlift
  3. 3x10 Anti-Rotation Press
  4. Rest 60 seconds and repeat
  5. 2x8 DB Lateral Lunge (see video below)
  6. 3x60 second plank
  7. Rest 60 seconds and repeat
  8. 1x10 Body Weight or DB Step-up to Balance (I always like to add a balance component to each session)
  9. 1x 8-10 Push-up to Shoulder Extension (can be done on knees)

SAMPLE #2: HIGH REP DAY

**Your goal & focus with this session is continuous motion, meaning no pauses at the top/bottom of any repetition**

**Although it is high rep, it shouldn’t be easy.  If your set calls for 25 reps, the resistance should be enough that you cannot perform 28 reps**

***This session can be used in both off & in-season as it requires less time to recover and is less taxing on your nervous system***

  1. 5 minute foam roll (focus on calves, quads,  & glutes)
  2. 5-10 minutes mobility work/dynamic warm up
  3. 3x25 Body Weight or DB Squats
  4. 3x40 Mountain Climbers (20 each leg)
  5. Rest 30 seconds & repeat
  6. 3x8/8/8 Alternating Curtsey/Lateral/45-degree Lunge (feel free to change the order or do 1 set of all 3 movements)
  7. 3x15 Cable/Band Pot Stir
  8. Rest 30 seconds and repeat
  9. 3x20 Push-up to Rotation (10 each side)
  10. 2-3x15 Single Leg Glute Bridge
  11. 0-30 seconds rest and repeat

There are MANY ways to alter these sessions by adding alternate movements, changing the order, etc.  I highly recommend you reach out to me, another Playtri coach, or a qualified strength training professional or coach in your area to guide you through the best movements for your needs and goals.