This fall, I’ve been hiding out in a place where my fellow cyclists won’t find me— at the gym. In all seriousness, when I tell my friends that I’ve joined a gym to lift heavy weights, they look at me like I’ve just admitted to wearing underwear under my bibs. For so many cyclists the phrase “Ride lots” carries them from season to season and cycling is the only exercise they engage in. They think they’re earning extra points by riding outside year round and racking up more miles than their friends. Do you ever notice that these are the people who fade midseason, suffer from chronic aches and pains and who never seem to improve much despite all the time they put in?
What if I told you there was a shortcut to greater fitness gains that didn’t involve freezing your ass off and scrubbing road salt from your bottom bracket? Strength training is a cyclist’s secret weapon. Pedaling long hours of base miles (or subbing in some other type of steady state cardio) runs the risk of elevating your cortisol levels, which has been shown to increase metabolic resistance (ie: making weight loss difficult) and accelerating the aging process, while negatively affecting gut and heart health (reference). Strength training elevates the metabolism for at least 12 hours post-workout, whereas cardio doesn’t provide this increased after burn and lifting doesn’t wreck havoc on your hormonal balance (reference). Strength training can also increase your aerobic capacity and even increase V02 max. I’m not saying to never ride your bike. There’s a time of year for hard efforts on the trainer or outside. But there’s also something to be gained from off the bike work. Less is more and mixing it up a little is a terrific boost both mentally and physically.
Let me be clear: I’m not recommending you join a Crossfit gym. This kind of Olympic lifting isn’t necessary for cyclists. In my opinion, training for one maximal lift is good for lifting competitions, not cycling and the rate of injury is too high. But you can achieve a full body, ass-kicking workout in under an hour, no chamois required, with bodyweight or basic gym equipment. Hit the iron a couple times a week and you’ll be cutting your risk of injury, bulletproofing your body for long hours in the saddle and building serious power for climbs and sprints. After a month of strength work and just a handful of bike rides, my husband increased his max sprint power by 150 watts. I’m not one to carefully monitor such things, but I will tell you that hoisting a 42 pound bag of kitty litter at Costco has become a breeze for me.
Here are a few guidelines to get started:
1. Find something you love and stick to it. My gateway into strength training was the kettlebell. I tried lifting dumbbells for years and hated them, so I never committed to a program. Feeling strong is empowering and once you start exceeding what you think you can lift, it’s addictive.
2. Give yourself permission to unleash your inner strength. I know this sounds silly, but as women, we’re often treated delicately and told to tone up with light weights. We want strength, but not bulk. If anything, strength training will lean you out, not bulk you up. We don’t have enough testosterone to get ripped. In the first three months of strength training, I dropped five pounds and one pants size and started looking at my stomach with love and not distaste.
3. Be absolutely anal about your form. I treat way too many injured athletes to not harp on this point. Lift weights that feel challenging, but that you can do with perfect form. When your form deteriorates, stop. I’d rather see an athlete perform one perfect rep than ten crappy ones. Before you pick up a weight, first teach your body the proper movement pattern. Once you’ve mastered that with good form, you’ve earned the right to load the movement. Enlist a knowledgable friend or video your movements to be sure you’re performing them safely.
4. Stick to the basics and get the most bang for your buck by targeting multi-joint, complex movements. This means spend your time doing things like squats, deadlifts, pullups, pushups and kettlebell swings, not isolated exercises like bicep curls. With exercises like the former, you’ll burn a ton of calories and bulletproof your body as one strong, powerful unit. Ideally, each session you should perform one push, pull, squat, hinge and core exercise. Yes, that’s it. And don’t be afraid to play in various planes. This means doing exercises that get you moving side-to-side or performing exercises with rotation to help prevent muscle imbalances.
Here are some links to my favorite female-specific coaches and their guidelines for building a solid program. My hubby over at Tailwind Coaching also offers a cycling specific weight training program and podcast (and can answer any questions you have).
Girl’s Gone Strong: A Beginner’s Guide to Program Design – Check out this site for exercise ideas and coaching cues.
Thrive as the Fittest blog by Jen Sinkler
Eat, Lift and Be Happy’s YouTube Channel for workout ideas
Chronicles of Strength – Kettlebell specific workouts and general fitness/health talk