"You know my coach really doesn't want me to lift weights, but I'm not listening. I'm an old guy and I feel like it really helps me on the bike at this point." That's my team director talking. I don't know if I'd call him an "old guy." I believe he's somewhere in his 50s. But this conversation is one I've had with guys (and women) a decade or so younger and a decade or so older: Coach doesn't want me to lift. I feel like I should lift. What should I do?
Heck, this is a conversation I've had a dozen or so times with my own coaches (and even my own self) over the years. During the past decade, I've worked with more than a half dozen coaches for everything from Ironman to ultra endurance mountain bike stage racing to cyclocross. Whenever I'd ask about strength training, I'd nearly always get a hesitant, "If you really want to, but cyclists don't need to strength train...you're better off riding your bike more"...and so forth. I've had great success with all my coaches, but I have to admit, sometimes I strength trained anyway. And to be perfectly honest, I can't really tell you if I'm better or worse off for it riding-wise, as my results have been fairly consistent. But I like how strong it makes me feel.
As a certified coach myself, I've seen the dissention in the ranks. Go to any cycling summit and you'll inevitably hear the two camps banging heads. One says it's unnecessary because you need a very small percentage of maximum strength for each pedal stroke and the extra weight penalty of the muscle you'll gain will work against you rather than for you on the bike. Then there's the camp that says strength training can put more active muscle fibers at your disposal so you don't fatigue as quickly and, maybe more importantly, improve your cycling efficiency, which is how much energy you burn to maintain any given power output on your bike.
If recent research is any indication, the latter camp may be pulling into the lead. In one 2012 study aptly titled "Strength training improves cycling efficiency in master endurance athletes," when researchers had two groups of cyclists—half of them masters (about 52 years of age on average) and the others half that age (26 years on average) do lower body resistance training three times a week for three weeks, the masters cyclists saw a nearly 18 percent jump in leg strength and improved their efficiency by more than 16 percent. That's really important because a more recent story reported on by Alex Hutchinson of sweatscience.runnersworld.com found that by the time cyclists were in their 60s, they had to burn 17.6 percent more energy than riders in their 20s to produce the same wattage. That's a pretty big increase and maybe somewhat preventable by, you guessed it, strength training.
I think the whole topic remains so controversial because there are so many ways to look at it. I say strength training and one person thinks stacked up bench presses, while another may envision push-ups and pull-ups. Both are right; but one is maybe better for you as a cyclist than the other. Cycling is a power-to-weight sport, so there's no doubt you don't want to go into full bodybuilder mode. But plain logic tells me that if as I get older, I naturally lose some muscle and the properties within my muscles themselves change to be less efficient, then I should devote some time and energy into minimizing that loss and keeping what I've got to stay strong.
Because I'm someone who has the genetics to bulk up somewhat easily, I stick to mostly body-weight or moderate-weight exercises: Kettlebell swings, single-leg squats, and push-ups are some standards. I'm also a huge fan of plyometrics--or explosive moves--because I think that for me as a cyclist they deliver exactly what I need. For one, our snappy, sprint-happy fast-twitch fibers are the first to go with age and we don't do a lot to develop them on our bike, especially if most of our riding is long and steady.
Explosive moves activate and strengthen those fibers. In fact, one study found that a twice-weekly plyometric routine can boost your power endurance—your muscles' ability to contract at near max force for a longer time—by 17 percent, and increase the amount of power you can produce at your lactate threshold by 3.5 percent in about four weeks. That's pretty powerful stuff.
So as I look ahead to the winter months and my racing is winding down, I think I'll spend a few weeks rebuilding my body by hitting the gym two to three days a week for some basic strength training (i.e. 2 sets of 10 to 12 reps of squats, lunges, and the like). Then after about three weeks, I'll add some explosive moves like the jump squat (described below).
That way come spring, I'll have some more active and ready muscle fibers at my disposal when I want to punch the pedals, push the climbs, and get ready for the rides and races that lie ahead.
Try This: Jump Squat: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, arms at sides. Sit back into a squat, lowering your hips until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Then jump up as explosively as you can while reaching for the ceiling. Land gently and immediately lower into another squat. Start with 10 jumps. Work up to 20.
Ready to ride? Search for a cycling event.