How Cyclists Can Build Strength Without Bulking Up

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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How Cyclists Can Build Strength Without Bulking Up

For cyclists, the off-season is the perfect time of year to strength train (if you’re not doing it year-round). However, it’s important for cyclists to find the right balance between getting stronger and not gaining weight. Excessive muscle mass ultimately slows you down and hurts your endurance on the bike, so how do you get stronger without adding bulk?

Here are a few ways you can make it happen as you prepare for the cycling season ahead.

BODYBUILDING VERSUS STRENGTH TRAINING

Unlike bodybuilders who want their muscles to look a certain way, cyclists should focus on getting stronger, not on aesthetics. Since you’re still going to be spending a good amount of time on the bike, having separate sessions each day for different muscle groups (like chest, back and legs, for instance) isn’t reasonable due to time constraints and the amount of recovery time you’ll need.

While there is a lot of controversy around exactly how many sets and reps you need to do, the basic bodybuilding philosophy is to do a higher volume of specific exercises for individual muscle groups. This might include things like 5 sets of 15 repetitions of bicep curls or calf raises with a lighter weight. This helps increase the size and tone of your muscles and improves the overall look of your physique. The extra mass you’ll put on by focusing on bodybuilding-style workouts may be counterproductive. Even though you will be stronger, the extra weight ends up slowing you down on climbs and takes more cardiovascular effort to carry your bodyweight over long distances.

On the other hand, if you want to focus on getting stronger without the bulk, concentrating on a few exercises that work multiple muscle groups simultaneously is the way to go.

BODYWEIGHT EXERCISES

One way cyclists can work on getting stronger is to improve their muscular endurance with bodyweight exercises. These types of workouts don’t require any equipment and are often more convenient for cyclists because they don’t have to get a gym membership or leave the house for another workout. A simple bodyweight circuit routine you can try at home to help you improve your muscular endurance is below:

One of the benefits of bodyweight exercises is you’ll also strengthen your core, which is an important and often overlooked aspect of improving your cycling performance. Just be aware that unlike the weightlifting exercises, bodyweight workouts require more repetitions for you to reach exhaustion. Pushups, for instance, can be completed in sets of 20–25, and can total more than 100 as you get used to the exercise. Air squats, lunges and situps can likely be done at a higher volume, too, just make sure you’re taking time off to avoid overuse injuries.

FEWER REPS, HEAVY WEIGHTS

If you try the fewer reps route, the majority of your time should be spent lifting weights that are heavy. This makes the intensity of your strength-training sessions high, but with a low volume. Start with 3 sets of 5 repetitions.

The key is to concentrate on exercises that work on multiple muscle groups at the same time. For cyclists, there are two ways you can go about getting stronger. If you want to lift weights and gain more power for climbs and sprints, focus on compound strength-training exercises like:

  • Squats: Focuses on the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes
  • Deadlifts: Focuses on the upper and lower back, abdominals, quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes
  • Bench Press: Focuses on the pectorals, deltoids, triceps and trapezius muscle groups
  • Rows: Focuses on the latissimus dorsi, scapular stabilizers, rhomboids and spinal erectors

Since the goal is to complete 3 sets of 5 to exhaustion, the weight will be heavy. If you’re just starting out with weight training, seeking the help of a trainer is recommended to improve your form and prevent injury. You’ll also want to gradually work your way up to heavier weights over several weeks or months until you get used to the exercises. Lift no more than 2–3 times per week with at least one day off in between sessions. You’ll still want to get on the bike and ride as well, just keep in mind that if you’re new to these workouts you’re likely to be cycling with sore muscles.

Also keep in mind that your strength-training plan doesn’t have to be all one or the other. Doing one or two days of weight training and a third day of bodyweight exercises can help you get the best of both worlds and maximize your top-end power and muscular endurance on the bike without adding a lot of extra bulk.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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