The 4 Pillars of Strength-Training for Cyclists – Part I: Frequency

One of the most challenging aspects of incorporating strength-training into an overall fitness and training regime is knowing where or how to begin. This can be said for really any aspect of training (endurance training, recovery, technique work), however when a method like strength-training is such a polar opposite as, say, long endurance rides on the bike, it can often be hard to nail down the most important principles of the plan.

When building a strength-training plan, there are several key variables to consider, and these variables can be manipulated throughout the execution of the program to suit your needs. In this series, we will discuss these big rocks — or pillars — in hopes of creating a workable and relevant foundation of understanding when it comes to strength-training for cycling.

Part I — Frequency: when and how often to train?

Part II — Intensityhow hard to train?

Part III — Volume how much to train?

Part IV — Planning, Programming, Periodization how to piece it all together?

Defining the Term and What to Consider

First thing’s first, let’s define the term Frequency: this essentially means how often you are strength-training, and is typically quantified in terms of a week how many training sessions per week?

Important to consider as well when discussing how often to strength-train is on what days. While we will dive into more specifics in Part IV — Planning, Programming, Periodization, an essential component of determining your frequency is knowing on what days you are able to train (for example, if you can only strength-train on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday each week, it might not be worth pursuing a frequency of 3x/week), as back-to-back-to-back lifts could be problematic.

However, more importantly, it is vital to consider your baseline of fitness as it relates to strength-training.

Frequency and Your Fitness Baseline

Much like assessing aspects of fitness on the bike (like FTP, VO2 Max, Chonic Training Loads [i.e. “Fitness” in terms of TSS]), knowing your baseline as it relates to strength-training can be highly valuable in determining your starting point on a new program or when beginning a new off-season.

Consider the PMC chart on Training Peaks and what the blue line “Fitness” represents. It is a long-term outlook on your physical fitness on the bike. Other training stressors, such as strength-training “Tonnage” or “Load Volume” can be used in a similar sense to determine how fit you currently are

This assessment of strength-training “fitness” can be done through a formalized, objective process, however for the novice trainee it can simply be checked by asking the following questions that center on long- and short-term training history…

  1. How much experience do I have with strength-training in the last few months? Year? Years? (Long-Term)
  2. How much strength-training have I done in the last month? (Short-Term)

Answering the above long-term question helps to understand your overall capacity for making progress in the weight room, and how much fitness you might already have built. If you are somebody who has trained regularly for a year or more, there might be less gains to be had from training with a low frequency, whereas those with little-to-no training history can stand to make substantial progress in resistance training with just a couple of sessions per week at the most.

As for the short-term… no matter what your background in strength-training, if you have taken more than a month off from loading, we are sure to expect a couple of things:

(1) we can expect a steady decay of any neuromuscular adaptations that were accrued from the training leading up until the break (in other words, we can expect detraining of strength and potentially muscle size), and

(2) we can also expect substantial soreness when restarting a strength-training plan, and should consider a more gradual return to the weight room.

Practical Application…

  • In both instances where long- and/or short-term strength-training has been minimal, a low frequency (~2 sessions per week) is advisable when first reintegrating into the weight room.
  • However, with some longer-term history, we can most likely progress to higher frequencies as needed with little concern in doing so
  • In this case, we may need to increase frequency, as a longer-training history means progress is often a little more slow over time
  • With very little training history long-term, a low frequency can yield substantial gains for quite some time — in other words, more progress for less cost; more bang-for-the-buck
Training age refers to the amount of training history an athlete possesses. Early on in your training career, the slope of progress is steep with very little input needed to make progress. However, over time, the returns on investment begin to diminish and the cost of progress increases.

Training Phase and Time of Year

Personally, I am of the belief that resistance-training should be included year-round in the annual plan of a cyclist, especially for a mountain biker. While a general base of strength can support many aspects of performance on the bike, and specific-power can enhance short-duration intervals in the saddle, MTB’ers can benefit even more from strength-training year-round due to the high amounts of torque that are required in many instances on the trail.

However, not all times of the year are created equal, nor should each training phase be treated the same.

Just like in team sports, the competition-season in cycling should be respected, which means that race results should be prioritized above most everything else. For those that might compete throughout the whole year (such as many age-groupers), establishing A-races helps prioritize when the focus should truly be shifted toward peaking and tapering bike fitness for competition.

But, race-season strength-training can exist — it just requires a measured approach where the qualities emphasized should support and compliment the intensity of race-season. While we will dive into the weeds of this in Part IV, just know that not every quality needs to be trained all of the time to best support racing.

During race-season, minimal doses of strength-training can be used to “touch up” or maintain strength levels, and very little time is needed to do so. Just one-to-two twenty-minute sessions consisting of moderate-to-high intensity loads (75-90% of 1-Rep Max) in lower volumes (5 reps per set or less) can keep the Central Nervous System firing well enough to maintain strength-levels. Any additional time on the grounds of the weight room can then be focused on moving well through multiple planes of motion so that you feel well and recovered around racing and race-season training sessions.

Practical Application…

The off-season — or base season — is a great time to prioritize strength-training by increasing the frequency to 3 total-body sessions per week (or a total-body, upper-body, and lower-body split based upon your overall training schedule).

  • Because you are training less-specific qualities in the saddle (e.g. base aerobic fitness with long Zone-2 rides), you will have the physical bandwidth to also focus on another highly general quality like strength without much interference between the two.
  • Strength-training sessions can go the day before or after a training ride — or can even immediately precede a turbo session — without too much fuss. If there is a slight performance decrement in your Z2 ride’s power data, I think we can live with it.

However, there are many times throughout the year where a more strategic and measured approach to lining up training sessions would be the ideal.

  • For example, as race-season (or more specialized training) creeps closer, strength-training can begin to gradually take less precedence in the overall programming.
  • This means that it probably isn’t conducive to fatigue the legs or the system as a whole prior to a key training session in the saddle.

This also means that careful attention will need to be paid toward the other pillars of strength-training, as manipulating volume, intensity, and programming as a whole will be vital in periodizing your optimal holistic training plan.


Ryan J. Faer

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