That's a question I hear often at many of the cycling camps I lecture at each year. And its easy to understand why. Getting up and over hills is one of the biggest challenges one faces whether riding on or off-road.
Your climbing ability is determined by many factors, including your cardiovascular fitness, technique, body and bicycle weight, mental attitude and leg strength. Making even small improvements in any of these factors can improve your overall climbing ability, but gaining significant leg and upper body strength and endurance can lead to a much quicker improvement in your speed up those hills.
One of the best ways to improve your strength and endurance for climbing in addition to intervals and climbing itself is to incorporate a strength training program into your overall cycling fitness program. You may be wondering how weight training can make you a better climber. After all, to become a better climber all you have to do is train on the bike and include one or two hill sessions a week to become the next Lance Armstrong, right?
"The truth is," says Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong's coach, "cycling has its limitations for the average cyclist in terms of all around climbing fitness and increased leg strength. Unless you are like the pros, and can put in extensive training year round in the hills," he says, "a few sessions every week of specific exercises with weights, will increase your leg and total body strength more effectively. Thus you will have less upper body fatigue, and be able to push a one-to-two smaller tooth rear cogs up the hills."
With this information in hand I asked Chris Carmichael and Harvey Newton, former Executive Director of the National Strength and Conditioning Association for their suggestions on a strength-training program that will lead to increased overall body strength, with a specific aim to increase climbing power and efficiency. What follows are the best seven strength training exercises that the three of us devised to receive the maximum benefit for your time spent in the weight room.
Done correctly, this well-designed strength-training program can not only increase your overall strength and fitness, but ease your transition into longer and harder hills and workouts.
Back Extension: Strengthens lower back to stabilize your torso while climbing.
Seated Row: Strengthens shoulders and upper back to pull on bars.
Bench Press: Upper body support while on the handlebars. Overall balance for upper body musculature.
Crunches: The abdominal muscles constitute one of the weakest areas for cyclists ( and most other people, too). Weak abs reduce the power you can transfer to the pedals while climbing, and can contribute to lower-back pain. A glance at the average cyclist's posture on the bike reveals that the abdominal muscles are not getting much of a workout. A bit of strength training here can really pay off while climbing.
Squats: Increased power to pedal stroke and increased strength for the lower back.
Lunges: Pedal stroke and lower back strength
Heel raises: Pedal stroke, especially while in the seated climbing position.
Edmund R. Burke, Ph.D. is Professor and Director of the Exercise Science Program at the University of Colorado. He severed as Coordinator of Sports Sciences for the U. S. Cycling Team leading up to the Olympic Games in 1996 and was a staff member for the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Cycling Teams.