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  Latest update: 12/9/2023


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

One approach to minimizing this risk is to focus on building strength in the winter and then backing off to a maintenance program during the peak riding season. When you're riding, resistance at the pedals is in the range of 10-40 pounds per pedal revolution. So maintenance will focus on 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 will help to prevent the fatigue of constant jarring that are part of a long descent.


There are two approaches to adding weight training to your routine.

The first is the "keep it simple" approach that can be done at home and on the bike. The other is the more "traditional" approach at the gym using using free weights or weight machines. Following are examples of the two:

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


Most coaches recommend a hybrid program of strength building (higher weights with fewer reps) in the winter and then a shift to lower weights (perhaps 50% max weight and twice the number of reps) as the cycling season approaches.


Lowering weights alone builds and strengthens muscles almost as well as the act of first lifting and then lowering them (a typical rep.) This means you could use two hands to lift a dumbbell in a curl, then one hand alone to slowly lower it, sacrificing very little as far as results. In this study, a group that both lifted and lowered the weights increased the maximum force they could produce on a single lift by 18% while those who only lowered the weights nearly matched that improvement, increasing their maximum force by 14%. Thus focusing on the lowering - or the "eccentric" contraction - can lead to a more efficient training session.

When you curl a dumbbell up to your shoulder, your biceps muscle is doing a "concentric" contraction. Lowering that dumbbell back down with the muscle is working to put the brakes is an eccentric contraction. The author of the study believes that eccentric muscle contractions produce greater neurological adaptations in the spine and brain than concentric contractions and as a result your nerves send more "pull harder" signals to your muscles during the eccentric portion of the rep.

The lifting-plus-lowering group saw the biggest gains because they were pretty much doing twice the amount of work. The lowering-only group made almost as much improvement in strength with only half the work.

A second study compared the improvement in muscle strength with full versus partial Range of Motion reps found that partial range of motion exercises produced a greater increase in the size of the muscle, but did not comment on how that translated into comparative improvements in strength.

Both of these studies suggest that more muscle growth and strength might be achieved with less work and possibly less risk of muscle injury. Two good reasons to reconsider the traditional full range of motion, concentric/eccentric rep in your gym routine. If you are committed to the traditional full rep, it is recommended that you lift with a two count and return to the starting position with a four count.


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 more than 20 reps per set offers little benefit.

3) 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 muscles.

4) Weight lifting increases aerobic capacity. Although a rider who is in better shape might ride more efficiently and as a result for longer periods at any speed, there is no evidence that weight training increases your VO2max or AT/LT. But you can add some aerobic work for variety, perhaps two or three spin-bike, ergometer or stair-master breaks between standard exercises. These aerobic sets should be limited to 3 to 5 minutes to avoid detract from the core resistance 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 which suggests muscle injury (from both aerobic as well as resistance training) can interfere with on the bike performance. After reading his blog, I am definitely going to avoid a resistance workout the day before a strenuous 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 the body's warning and assume you just "work it out". This only increases the odds of a "bad day" and 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.

All questions and suggestions are appreciated and will be answered.

Cycling Performance Tips
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