Use the force: Building cycling strength and power

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At this point in the training program, most cyclists will be adding force work on the bike to their regime.

If you have been doing a weight program, you will be looking to transfer gained muscular strength to the bike, or possibly you have decided to forgo weights and will do all of your force work on the bike. In either case, doing this type of training will help build the cycling-specific muscular strength necessary for all disciplines of cycling.

Force is the ability to overcome resistance -- or in cycling terms, the ability of the muscles to turn the cranks and move the bicycle forward. Since power equals force times velocity, it stands to reason that if we can improve velocity (with cadence and speed drills) and also improve our ability to apply more force per pedal stroke, we should be able to improve our power output and speed as a result.

First things first: No matter how much you develop your hip extensors, quads, hamstrings or calves, you will not be able to utilize their full potential to get force into the pedals unless you have a strong core.

Your "core" consists of all the muscles in and surrounding the lower back and abdomen. Core strength should be worked on almost year-round with any number of specific exercises. Core-strengthening routines might include crunches, back extensions, work with a fit ball or other appropriate exercises.

One on-bike core strength workout is as follows: Begin on a trainer, and ride in a moderately aero position with your hands in the drops or on the hoods (forearms parallel to the ground). While keeping your torso in this position, take your hands off the bars and clasp them loosely behind your back while continuing to pedal. Be careful to keep your upper body very still.

While doing this you will be able to feel just how important your core is to the power transfer from the body to the bicycle. You can do this exercise in a variety of gears at different cadences for increasing amounts of time. Start with just five minutes and work up to 15 or more minutes per session. You might find that elevating the front wheel to simulate a climb is helpful as well.

To improve the force ability, you will need to increase resistance on the bike. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. The most obvious is using gravity. Increasing the grade of the surface you are riding on is one way to increase resistance; another is riding into a headwind. In the absence of either of these options, you can increase resistance by using very large gears, or using a trainer inside.

Do force work on the bike two to three times per week, using a variety of workouts. If you are still doing weight work at this time, one to two times per week of on-bike force will be sufficient to transfer the gains.

Many riders will just hit the hills for their force workouts. I recommend that even riders who live in hilly areas do a significant portion of this work on the flats using larger than normal gearing. This will help the cyclist who can climb well but encounters difficulty when the speed goes up on the flats.

The rider specializing in time trials will also want to spend time doing force work on both the flats and climbs.

All of the following workouts should be done with a target cadence of 50 to 60 rpm. These workouts are intended to strengthen your muscles, not your anaerobic system, so use a "somewhat hard" to "hard" (Zones 3 or 4 in TrainingBible terms) but definitely not anaerobic heart rate.

Maintain a smooth, round pedal stroke. It is imperative that you keep your upper body still and relaxed.

Power output (read using an on-the-bike power meter) is not necessarily the best way to judge the effort for these workouts. Since power = force x velocity, the lower cadence (velocity) will generally give lower than normal power output readings. This is OK; remember that the goal is to increase the force applied during each pedal stroke.

The workouts

  • Force repetitions: On flat road or on a trainer. Use the big chain ring and a gear that allows only about 50 to 60 rpm. While in the saddle, drive the pedals down as hard as possible for 15 to 20 revolutions of the cranks. Do 6 to 10 sets of these, starting a new one every 3 to 5 minutes after warming up.

  • Ride 4 x 5 minutes in a big gear (probably your largest) with five-minute recoveries between efforts.

  • Ride 2 x 10 to 15 minutes in a big gear with 10 minutes recovery.

  • Do the above workouts alternating sitting and standing.

  • At a set speed, ride one minute in the 53x19. Shift to a harder gear every minute while maintaining the set speed. When you get to the hardest gear work your way back to the easiest in one-minute increments.

  • Same as above, except ride at a fixed cadence between 50 to 60 rpm instead of a set speed. After every shift maintain the same cadence. This will cause your speed to increase with every shift.

  • Big gear climbing: Ride several one- to two-minute climbs of varying grades. Shift to a higher gear than you would normally use for any given climb. Cadence is 50 to 60 rpm. Seated. As you improve you can extend the length of each climb.

    Adding on-bike force work to your program should help improve your cycling on climbs and flat roads. You can continue these workouts all the way through the build periods, especially if this is a limiter, and before long you will be "using the force" during every ride.

    Andy Applegate heads a2 coaching and is an elite-level road, cyclocross and mountain bike racer. He is also a USA Cycling and Ultrafit-certified coach. He may be reached at

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