CAN STRENGTH TRAINING BOOST YOUR CYCLING?
Can strength training boost your endurance cycling performance? At first glance, strength training and aerobic cycling seems like polar opposites. Strength training reduces the density of mitochondria - the structures in which aerobic energy is created - inside muscle cells, and it fails to increase capillary density or the intramuscular concentrations of aerobic enzymes. In general, strength training improves the ability to perform high load, low-repetition exercise; it has a significant impact on muscular strength and anaerobic power and no effect on maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max). Endurance cycling training, on the other hand, hikes mitochondrial density, raises aerobic enzyme levels, and hoist capillary density; it enhances the capacity to carry out low-load, high repetition exertion and usually has little impact on muscular strength and anaerobic power - but does improve VO2max. The end results of endurance and strength training appear to be completely different, and prescribing strength training for endurance cyclists seems to violate the specificity of training principle, which states that training programs should mimic an athlete's specific exercise patterns and requirements.
Indeed, several decent studies have found that strength training has no positive impact on cycling performance. In research carried out at the University College of London, for example, 12 weeks of heavy duty resistance training failed to improve cycling power (1). In this British investigation, 17 physically active subjects (11 males and 6 females, average age 29) trained three times per week, with each session consisting of four sets of six repetitions at the maximum load that could be lifted six times; this turned out to be approximately 80 percent of the maximum load of a single lift (80 percent of the "1 RM"). The subjects recovered for one minute between sets and had their 1-RM strength re-evaluated at the beginning of each week (as it advanced, the weight used in the sets correspondingly increased).
The 12-week training program had a major impact on the subjects' leg-extension strength, which vaulted upward by 160 percent for the men and 200 percent for the women. However, the strength training regime had no positive effect at all on maximal power output during cycling, either at 70, 80, or 100 rpm.
In a separate piece of research carried out in the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Queensland in Australia, 21 well-trained female cyclists (age 18-42) who had been training for an average of 2.5 years were randomly assigned to either a resistance-training group or a control group (2). Subjects in the resistance training group carried out two strength workouts per week on top of their usual endurance work and completed 24 total strength sessions over a 12-week period. Each strength workout started with a five-minute general warm-up, five minutes of stretches, and about 28 warm-up "squats." The workout itself consisted of three to five sets of squats at intensities ranging from 2 RM to * RM; three-minute recovery periods were sandwiched between the sets. The total amount of endurance training was equivalent between the resistance and control groups.
As it turned out, the 12-week program was extremely effective at boosting 1-RM squatting strength, which soared by 36 percent in the experimental group (control subjects failed to improve). However, the strength training was unable to improve cycling performance; average power output during a one-hour cycling time trial was unchanged in the squatters after 12 weeks.
So, why do cyclists and their coaches often claim that strength training improves their fatigue-resistance, hill-climbing prowess, attacking ability in races, and closing sprint capacity during races? Well, research has shown that there is a solid connection between the anaerobic power of cyclist and their competitive ability. In research carried out with United States Cycling Federation athletes from different categories at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, investigators found that cyclists in the highest performance category had the loftiest anaerobic power (3). Of course, anaerobic power is something which conventional strength training is supposed to reliably increase.
In addition, it is important to bear in mind that not all of the research on strength training and endurance cyclist performance has been negative. In a unique study carried out by noted researcher Asker Juekendrup and his colleagues from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, a group of competitive cyclists who substituted explosive strength training for about one-third of their usual endurance training upgraded maximal power output and time-trial performance in just four weeks, compared with individuals who continue with their usual endurance training (4).
In this Dutch-English inquiry, 14 experienced cyclists took part; six were placed in the experimental, explosive-training group, while the other eight athletes served as controls. The athletes were accustomed to training for about 12 to 13 hours per week and had been training at a high level for an average of five to eight years. During the experimental period, both groups averaged nine hours of training each week, but for the explosive group 37 percent of the total time consisted of explosive training. The control group carried out only typical endurance training.
The explosive sessions consisted of high-rep, low-resistance, quick-as-possible movements, with 30 reps per set for each exercise. Resistance was set so that the athletes could keep up their speed of movement during the first 20 reps of the 30-rep sets, with some power lost over the last 10 reps. If the athletes could finish an exercise with a constant rate of movement, the resistance was increased. Each explosive workout proceeded as follows:
(1) 10-minute warm-up on bike at 75 percent of heart-rate max
(2) Squats: 2 sets of 30 reps, with short recovery between sets
(3) Leg Presses: 2 sets of 30 reps, with short recovery
(4) Leg Pulls: 2 sets of 30 reps
(5) One-Leg Step-Ups: 2 sets of 30 reps
(6) 10 minutes of cycling at 75 percent of heart-rate max
After step 6 was completed, steps 2-6 were performed one more time.
As mentioned, the average power output achieved during a one-hour time trial increased significantly after just four weeks of training in the explosive group but failed to budge upward for the control, endurance-training-only cyclists. In addition, maximal power sailed upward after four weeks for the explosive fellows but was stagnant in the endurance riders. Interestingly enough, the explosive group cyclists were also able to maintain their "short-term performance" (the ability to cycle all-out for just 30 seconds) over a nine-week period, while the strictly endurance-trained athletes lost short-term performance power. Also, the explosive athletes tended to become more efficient over the study period (i.e., could complete more work per minute for each unit of energy expended), while the endurance cyclists did not. The explosive strength training was a winner!