#9: Gym Part 2
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Welcome to the Coach’s Blog, powered by Dillman Coaching. I’ve been racing and training for over a decade and this is where I get to transfer my knowledge to your brain, free of charge. My goal is to provide helpful information on general training topics and to present it in a fun and interesting way. Basically, I want to help you win bike races.
In Blog #8 I began a 2-part discussion on gym and strength training. To tackle this topic we are answering the W questions: who, what, when, where and how. Part 1 was focused on why and where. Part 2 (what you’re reading) will talk about when, who and how.
The best time to focus on gym and strength training is during the off season, which is that time of the year when you aren’t racing. For Roadies this would be from October-February. For CX’ers this would be December-April. It’s too hard to try and continue going to the gym 2-3 times each week when you are also racing and your on-bike training intensity begins to increase as well.
During the Preparation and Base training phases of your cycling program you’ll go to the gym 2-3 times each week and once you get towards the mid-point of the Base training phase you’ll dial it back to 1 gym session per week. In years past I have stopped gym sessions all together from May-December because that’s when my on-bike training is the hardest in preparation for the CX season. However, this year I plan to continue with 1 gym session per week throughout the year. These sessions won’t be very intense and the focus would be strictly strength maintenance, but more on that later.
When trying to balance strength training and on-bike training, the on-bike training should always take priority. We are bike racers so our focus should always be the bike. The only exception for this might be track sprinters and BMX’ers which I doubt either one of those 2 types of racers are even reading this blog to begin with. So don’t do a hard gym session the morning of an important ride or even the day before. Do the important cycling workout first and then hit the gym later that day or the day after. This is generally the rule I use when writing out training plans for my athletes, so if you’d rather not have to think about juggling gym and on-bike planning then just hire me and I’ll do it for you!
If you have an intense gym session and want to do an easy spin afterwards to help spin down the legs and speed up recovery, I’m cool with that. But cycling workouts should always be before gym or on separate days.
Not everybody should add strength training to their training program. Specifically, juniors should stay away from gym workouts, because their bodies are still growing and developing and the gym will just add unnecessary stress. Gym work can be intense and even dangerous and I don’t want to risk injuring a young rider who is still learning the fundamentals of the sport. The gym can be added into their training in a few years when their bodies are fully developed. I didn’t start any gym work until I got to college and had access to a professional trainer who taught me the proper form and training methods. Instead of gym workouts, I encourage juniors to run and do a few plyometrics workouts here and there. This is a less intense way to build power off-the-bike.
I also believe that if you really don’t like the gym then it’s probably not for you. If you are going to hate every gym session and don’t look forward to those workouts, then I would say don’t do it. Training should be fun and motivational, not dreadful and miserable.
Besides juniors, I’d say the gym would be beneficial for nearly all other cyclists who want to win bike races. But similar to Blog #2 Pain Tolerance, there must be a balance and it must be done properly to prevent injury or over-training.
The strength training plan of a female and male cyclists should not look any different. Generally, males do have more muscle mass, but all that means is that they will lift heavier weights than females. The workouts and methods do not change depending on sex. However, age does play a big role in strength training.
As we age our bodies aren’t as sparky as they used to be. Here is a list of a few of the things that happen as we age:
Muscle mass decreases
Muscle flexibility decreases
Range of motion decreases
Reduced maximum heart rate
Decreased stroke volume
Reduced elasticity of lung tissues
Less tolerant of heat extremes
Decreased bone-mineral density
All of these factors play a role in our strength, balance and coordination which directly affects our cycling performance. As a masters racer one of the best things you can do to fight back against your aging body is to hit the gym. Ken Doyle in Weight Training for Cyclists says, “Resistance training can reverse much of the decline in muscle size and function by increasing the size of shrunken muscle fibers and improving neurological efficiency.” So if you’re in your 30’s, 40’s or 50’s and you are starting to feel the effects of your age creep up on you, then try adding some strength training into your annual training plan to help combat some of these negative effects.
Now we get into the hard part. How do we balance cycling and strength training and make it work in such a way that helps us win bike races? Buckle up, because this blog is about to get real.
Warning: Going forward I am going to be referring to the cycling training phases and the strength training phases which may be a little confusing, so pay attention. There is a picture at the bottom to help you visualize how these 2 components fit together.
I often refer to the annual training plan or each training cycle as a pyramid. The foundation of the pyramid is the Base training phase. This is where we spend many hours in the saddle building an aerobic engine that will be able to handle the harder anaerobic workouts to come later in the year. The middle of the pyramid is the Build phase where we start working at threshold and slightly above threshold. And the top of the pyramid is the Race phase where the workouts involve all-out efforts like Sprints and Power Intervals. So if that is the on-bike training how does the pyramid work for strength training? Good question.
Strength training still uses periodization, but in a different method than the on-bike portion of training. There are 3 main phases during strength training: Preparation, Max Strength & Strength Maintenance.
During the Preparation phase the main goal is to prepare the body for the work to come. You may have just ended your big race season and just peaked for Nationals and now you’re in the Transition training phase for cycling where you are only riding for fun or not at all to give your body a time to recover. This is when the Preparation phase of strength training would start. You should be going to the gym 2-3 a week and the exercises shouldn’t be too intense on your body. We just want to get used to the training stress of the gym again. I usually stick to about 15 reps with a moderate weight on each exercise. I also try to do 2 dedicated leg days and a dedicated upper body/core day. Since on-bike training time is minimal during this time of the year, that should be manageable. This phase should last about 3-6 weeks.
Next up is the Max Strength phase. And it’s just as painful as it sounds. The goal during the Max Strength phase is to get strong. This is when the gains are made. You’ve already taken a few weeks off the bike and have already started back riding again during the Transition and Preparation phase of your cycling program. Now as you enter into the Base training phase for cycling you will also enter into a 3 week Max Strength training phase for strength. This is the best time for max strength because your on-bike workouts aren’t very intense so your body should be able to manage the extra stress from the gym workouts and you’ve already prepared your body for this heavy lifting during the Preparation phase. During this phase you should do 5-8 reps/exercise with heavy weight and now you may only spend 1-2 days/week in the gym since on-bike workouts are also starting to increase.
The final and longest portion of the strength training program is called Strength Maintenance. You’ve prepared and you’ve built, not it’s time to sustain. The goal during the Strength Maintenance phase is to hold onto the gains you have made through the Preparation and Max Strength phases. The gym sessions decrease to only 1/week and the lifting should be 12-15 reps/exercise at a moderate weight. And since you are only going 1 time a week the workout should involve lower body, upper body and core exercises. This phase lasts the remainder of the season and should be completely eliminated the week of big races. Your on-bike workouts will start to become increasingly more difficult so we pull-back on gym work to give the bike priority. Your body can’t manage the stress of both strength training and bike workouts and so we only try to maintain from here on out.
For a visual representation of how the 2 training cycles correlate, refer to the image below.
Don’t lose sight of the big picture: we want to win bike races. Don’t get caught up in gym culture and become a body builder or cross-fitter.
“The purpose of strength training for cycling is about one thing: the application of force to the pedals for a prolonged period of time.” -Edmund Burke
When you go to the gym, have a plan set in place. Depending on which strength training phase you are in currently, walk into the gym knowing your primary goals. If you’re in the Preparation phase, don’t get ahead of yourself and start doing max weight squats. That wouldn’t fit with your current goal of preparing your body. As a coach, I have spent a significant amount of time writing out specific gym workouts for my athletes that incorporate the proper exercises, reps and weights so they don’t have to think about any of that stuff. They can just follow the workout I’ve created.
It’s also important to choose specific exercises that will transfer over to the bike. Our goal in all this is to be a better cyclist so what we do in the gym should make us a better cyclist. Spending time building killer pecs may give you confidence when you’re sun bathing on the beach this summer, but it’s not going to help you get up that 10% climb in that A Priority Road Race. You do need some upper body strength, but how much faster are those killer pecs really going to help you in cycling?
The exercises we incorporate into gym workouts should mimic the movements we use in cycling. With that being said, our primary focus should be on the quads and hamstrings when we are in the gym. These are the primary muscle groups we use in cycling for every single pedal stroke. Here are the main exercises I use to focus on these muscle groups:
You can see from the images above that all of these exercises incorporate very similar movements to our pedal stroke. The straight up & down movements that use the big muscles in our legs. These are the primary exercises I use to build gym workouts. However, we shouldn’t just mimic our pedal stroke in the gym, we can also mimic other aspects of cycling as well. When we are working on our upper body be aware of your hand placement on the gym equipment; try to position your hands similarly to how you would grip your handlebars. For example: When doing pull-ups, do the neutral grip position to mimic your handlebar grip.
Always Do Core
As cyclists, one of the most important parts of our body is our core.This includes our abs and back. And sadly, we often neglect it. The core is the stability and the foundation for our legs to push off of. During every single pedal stroke your legs are pushing off your core muscles and you don’t even know it. Typically, when we are done with a ride our core isn’t sore so we just assume our core muscles aren’t that important. But we use our core more than we think and having a strong core can be a lot more beneficial than we may think as well.
There are tons of different core exercises out there these days. I don’t think any specific core workout is better than another. I just throw together some of my favorites and do them for about 10-15 minutes at the end of every gym workout. You’re already in the gym so go ahead and grab a mat and do some core at the end of every workout. You won’t regret it.
Doing core also strengthens our back and lower back issues are one of the most common frustrations of cycling. We’ve all been there. The posture we put ourselves in for cycling agitates our lower back, so the more we can strengthen it, the less sore it will be when we put it under pressure.
No matter what, how, who, why or when, always be safe when in the gym. The last thing you want to do is injure yourself right before a big race season. I was fortunate enough to have a professional athletic trainer teach me the basics of the gym and who also had a history of cycling, so he knew how to use the gym to improve cycling performance. It woudn’t be a bad investment to meet with a trainer for your first few gym sessions to make sure you’re practicing the proper technique while in the gym. This doesn’t have to be an on-going thing. Even just meeting with a trainer 2 times a year to improve form and technique would be a great idea. Especially if you are new to the gym.
Taking a buddy to the gym is also a great alternative. Maybe a friend can teach you proper form and help you get the swing of this whole gym thing. And having someone there to spot you and encourage you is always a plus.
The gym should always be for the purpose of improving your cycling ability. Have your goals set before you even get to the gym and stick to those goals throughout the season and the different training phases. Always try to mimic cycling movements and positions when doing specific exercises. The strength we build in the weight room must be able to transfer over to our on-bike performance. And always stay safe.
The gym is a great addition to your cycling training program. I believe it can help you win races. Whether it actually improves your physical fitness or if it just improves your ability to endure high amounts of pain; either way, it will help you suffer. And winning takes a whole lot of suffering.