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  Last updated: 5/22/2018


Cycling regularly is great for lower body strength, but leaves a lot to be desired for the upper body muscle groups. And this can be a major liability - both for roadies who need that extra edge in road competitions and for mountain bikers who need this upper body strength to lift, jump, or just plain muscle heavier bikes over rough terrain and obstacles.

A reasonable approach is to focus on building strength (not bulk) in the winter and then backing off to just maintain it during the peak riding season. Strength from the weight room will help with on the bike performance, but 3 sets of leg presses at 400 pounds is different from the riding demands of roughly 30,000 pedal strokes during a century. When you're riding, resistance is in the range of 10-40 pounds per pedal revolution. So for the riding season you need to convert that weight-room strength to cycling-specific power with intervals, training time trials, and hill work.


1.The upper body, including abdominal muscles, is an integral part of the pedal stroke. A strong torso provides the rigidity to deliver maximum power from the quads to the pedal. On a level stretch, a strong rider will barely move their upper body while those who are tiring will rock their pelvis on the saddle. And watch a group of road riders in a sprint or a technical single track rider pulling and rocking their shoulders and handlebars. This motion actually levers the bike, adding to the power of their legs on the pedals.

2. Muscle strength in the quads and legs can mean the difference between walking and riding up a short (10 to 15 pedal stroke) hill.

3. A strong upper body gives additional protection for those falls that are part of the sport.

4. Muscle strength and endurance help prevent the fatigue of the constant jarring and correction that are part of a long descent - and in turn this freshness helps to maintain sharp reflexes and technical


There are two approaches to resistance or weight training. The first is the "keep it simple" approach one can put together at home and on the bike, and the other is the more "traditional" approach using free weights. Both should be done 3 times a week (2 times at a minimum) to maximize benefits.

Most coaches recommend a program of strength building (higher weights, fewer reps) in the winter and then a shift to lower weights (perhaps 50% max) and more reps (3 sets, 50% max.weight, 25 reps OR 2 sets, 25% max.weight, 50 reps) as the cycling season approaches to mimic the ways you use your muscles on the bike and to decrease the possibility of injuries.

The following idea builds on the concept of transitioning from a pure muscle building program to one that mimics how you use those muscles on the bike. Do a 3 - 5 minute "muscle reeducation" on the spin cycle after lifting. This stresses the muscles and then uses a sport specific task to coordinate the firing patterns of the muscle cells. The same concept is being applied when a coach uses a medicine ball to encourage new firing patterns.

KEEP IT SIMPLE (i.e. you don't have free weights available)



1) You have to lift extremely heavy weights to increase muscle size. Not so. Competitive body builders, whose success depends on muscle size, work with only moderately heavy loads using multiple sets of up to 12 lifts per set. The chance of injury with extremely heavy weights outweighs their benefits.

2) You can sculpt your body by using multiple reps with light weights. Up to a point this is true. But anything more than 15 reps per set offers little benefit.

3) The up side of a lift is more important than the return side. The up side, when you actually lift a weight, is called the concentric phase. The return, when you allow the weight to return to its starting point,is the eccentric phase. While both are important, there is evidence that the eccentric phase may actually have more impact on developing muscle strength. It is recommended that you lift with a two count and return to the starting position with a four count.

4) Abdominal crunches will build up your back muscles. While crunches will strengthen abdominal muscles and protect your back, back extensions are needed to strengthen the spinal erector muscles.

5) Weight lifting increases aerobic capacity. Although a rider that is in better shape might ride more efficiently and thus for longer periods at any speed, there is no evidence that weight training will increase your VO2max or AT/LT. That's not to say that you can't add aerobic work to a weight session however. Aside from the warm-up it can be helpful to incorporate two or three "spin-bike", ergometer or stair-master aerobic "breaks" between standard exercises. These aerobic sessions should be limited to 3 to 5 minutes each so as not to detract from the core exercises (squats, toe raises, leg extensions, ab work, etc).


High reps with lower weights

The traditional approach to resistance (strength) training focuses on several sets of 10 repetitions using 80-90 % your single lift maximum.It has been suggested that you can achieve an equal improvement in strength with fewer injuries by decreasing the weight being lifted (to 70% of your personal single lift maximum) and increase repetitions to the point of muscle fatigue (in the neighborhood of 30).

How many sets?

This paper indicates that just a single set of any exercise, repeated to the point that you cannot complete one more repetition, provides most, if not all, of the strength benefits of multiple sets of the same exercise. Additional comments can be found in this NYT article.

This is similar to the streamlined HIIT approach for aerobic fitness, where an all out effort for 30 to 60 seconds followed by a minute of recovery x5, three times a week, could maintain an aerobic base. Combine these two and you have the recipe for a daily 15 to 20 minute workout to tide you over the cold, dark days of winter or during a business trip away from your regular gym/cycling routine.

This approach is nicely summarized in this article - "You can shoot for eight to 15 repetitions of each exercise. Or, better yet, pick a moderately challenging weight and lift it until your muscles become fatigued (see the section on lifting to failure). If you’re uncertain about your form with any of these exercises, consider hiring a personal trainer for a few sessions to help you with your technique."

Slow lifting

This study suggests another modification - slowing the rate at which you perform each repetition. This makes sense as many authorities believe that muscle strength increases in response to the relaxation phase (eccentric contraction) of a repetition rather than the concentric (or shortening) contraction of a muscle.

The goal again is to decrease injury as well as less discomfort per session and thus greater adherence to a regular gym workout. The tradeoff being, of course, a longer workout time.

It seems reasonable to me that the two concepts - use of lighter weights and a set of 30 reps to the point of fatigue - could be combined with slow lifting.

Here is another blog commenting on the same study.

Using the "Feeling Scale" to target effort (variation of RPE)

This article is jargon heavy, but suggest you could use an RPE type scale (called the FS or "feeling scale") to guide resistance training. Maintaining an exercise program is to a significant degree based on our perception of discomfort (pleasure) from the exercise sessions. Too much discomfort and our commitment to continue quickly wanes.

For aerobic exercise we have the RPE scale based on our perception as to how hard we "feel" we are exerting. It correlates well with more objective measures such as heart rate or power meter readings.

The study validated that a participant could use the Feeling Scale (FS) to self-regulate resistance exercise intensity. Again, less discomfort = more likely to continue with future sessions. The FS was originally described as spanning -5 (I feel very bad) to +5 (I feel very good) with 0 being neutral.

We know that to improve muscle strength (and muscle mass) you need to maintain a resistance exercise intensity between 55% to 85% of your personal 1 repetition maximum (1RM). How does that translate into a FS rating for resistance exercise? Using a group of non exercisers, exerting to a level between feeling "good" (+3) to "fairly bad" (-1) matched up with weights (or resistance intensities) between 55% to 85% of the 1RM.

If you wanted to move to the FS system for aerobic training, the same general relationship applies. For running and cycling exercise, the exercising to feel "good" (+3) and/or "fairly good" (+1) did produce an exercise intensity that generated cardiovascular improvements.

I was able to find this table which shows the relationship between the traditional 10 point RPE scale and how you feel (although not the specific FS number scale).


Even though most coaches include weight training in their programs, there is controversy on this point - particularly as to the usefulness of weights during the cycling season.

Lance Armstrong's coach, Chris Carmichael, recommends building leg strength with low repetitions and heavy weights in the winter, then switching to the bike for high-repetition power work in the form of intervals up steep hills. But cycling physician and trainer Max Testa says to begin the winter with 3-4 sets of 12-18 reps with medium resistance, then progress to 3 sets of 25 reps followed by 2 sets of 50 reps with light weights. Testa's reason for high-repetition/low resistance leg training: "When you pedal you use a very small percentage of maximum strength on each pedal stroke."

The moral? The physiological law of specificity can't be avoided. Weight-room strength has to be converted to cycling-specific fitness before it's of much use on the bike.

The following article also suggests that any benefits are minimal, at least for endurance performance. BISHOP, D., D. G. JENKINS, L. T. MACKINNON, M. MCENIERY, and M. F. CAREY. The effects of strength training on endurance performance and muscle characteristics. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 31, No. 6, pp. 886-891, 1999

Purpose: The purpose of this study was to determine the effects of resistance training on endurance performance and selected muscle characteristics of female cyclists.

Methods: Twenty-one endurance-trained, female cyclists, aged 18-42 yr, were randomly assigned to either a resistance training (RT; N = 14) or a control group (CON; N = 7). Resistance training (2×·wk-1) consisted of five sets to failure (2-8 RM) of parallel squats for 12 wk. Before and immediately after the resistance-training period, all subjects completed an incremental cycle test to allow determination of both their lactate threshold (LT) and peak oxygen consumption V(dot)O2). In addition, endurance performance was assessed by average power output during a 1-h cycle test (OHT), and leg strength was measured by recording the subject's one repetition maximum (1 RM) concentric squat. Before and after the 12-wk training program, resting muscle was sampled by needle biopsy from m. vastus lateralis and analyzed for fiber type diameter, fiber type percentage, and the activities of 2-oxoglutarate dehydrogenase and phosphofructokinase.

Results: After the resistance training program, there was a significant increase in 1 RM concentric squat strength for RT (35.9%) but not for CON (3.7%) (P < 0.05). However, there were NO significant changes in OHT performance, LT, V(dot)O2, muscle fiber characteristics, or enzyme activities in either group (P > 0.05).

When objective studies are either inconclusive or lead to conflicting results, you can generally conclude that there is no benefit from the intervention (training, medication, supplement) being studied. Study design is always a possible source of misleading results, but there is also the fact that the statistical analysis used in most studies accepts a false positive rate of 1 in 20 which means a single study might, by chance alone, provide a positive result when there is none.

And when there are multiple studies (with conflicting results), the result most coaches want to see (a benefit) is the one most quoted. Then it's just a matter of time until an unproven conclusion is accepted as fact.

My take away is that increased leg strength does not improve cycle ENDURANCE performance

But there is another, often overlooked, benefit of weight training. We're discovering that cycling may contribute to bone loss in both men and women because it's not a weight-bearing activity. So cyclists should cross-train for bone health. Weight training and jumping (like rope skipping) are helpful.


As Dr. Mirkin points out, the limiting factor in aerobic performance is the delivery of oxygen to the muscular machinery, that is increase your VO2max. The exception may be the ten or twenty second sprint are not oxygen dependent. And there is no evidence that weight training or bigger muscles are more efficient in utilizing limited oxygen.

No oxygen to burn the fuel and it makes no difference how powerful the engine might be. The analogy would be a small fuel line from a propane tank to a furnace. The amount of energy available is directly related to the amount of fuel that can flow through the pipe. If the current furnace is burning all the fuel provided, doubling the size of the burner without adding a bigger fuel line leaves one with the same BTUs being produced per hour.

But it does make make sense that anaerobic sprints might benefit. More strength = more explosive power for that 10 to 20 second sprint.


Once again I'll refer to Dr. Mirkin's Blog and the suggestion that muscle injury (from both aerobic as well as resistance training) can interfere with performance. I go to the gym regularly to help deal with the progressive decrease in muscle mass we old guys see with age (it is inevitable - BUT it can be delayed by working the muscles. And biking only helps the quads). After reading his blog, I am definitely going to avoid a resistance workout the day before a weekend ride with my buddies.

Even if you remain a skeptic, you might consider doing your weight work after or at least several days before you are planning what might be a competitive ride. And if your muscles feel sore (on the bike or at the gym) don't ignore your body's warning with the idea you will just "work it out". Doing so only increases the odds of a "bad day" but risks additional injury.


For those of you interested in further leads in pursuing weight conditioning, I'd suggest the web site of The National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Questions on content or suggestions to improve this page are appreciated.

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