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Strength and cycling: The Great Debate

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Do you have to be strong to be a good cyclist? This is a contentious issue, although many cycling coaches are in favour of doing weight training if time permits. Some advocate specifically training the legs, while others believe that weights are best used to strengthen the core abdominal and lower back regions. Added to this is 'on the bike strength training', which is also promoted as an important part of training by some coaches. All three are of course not mutually exclusive, but which of them is the most valuable, and are they all equally about strength?

The following article by Richard Stern was prompted by a letter requesting advice on weight training that appeared in the Cyclingnews fitness section last year. In his response, Richard commented that "strength has little or no bearing on cycling performance". Several, including New Zealand MSc Sports Science student Amy Mason, as well as others at the website, took issue with this comment, being of the opinion that there is a relationship between strength and cycling performance. It should be pointed out that in Amy's research, none of her subjects used weight training - strength work was done "on the bike."

Outlined below is Ric Stern's argument that support his claims that there is no direct correlation between strength and cycling performance.


By Ric Stern*

Firstly, (muscular) strength is defined as "the maximum force or tension generated by a muscle (or muscle groups)" (McArdle, Katch, and Katch, 1991, p. 452).

Secondly, I'm in complete agreement that correct weight training will produce gains in strength.

However, there is an overwhelming weight (pun intended!) of evidence to suggest that training adaptations need to be specific. This forms the rule of specificity. ┼strand and Rodahl (1986) state, "when striving for muscle strength for a particular activity, the best training is that activity" (p. 108).

Amy Mason's original response to Ric Stern:

I'd just like to had my two cents worth regarding Richard Stern's reply to Dana Matassa's weight training question. Richard commented "strength has little or no bearing on cycling performance". I disagree with his comments.

Over the last year I've tested 22 well-trained cyclists, were 10 were randomly allocated to a control group and 12 were in a supervised training group. The control group carried on with their normal endurance, speed-type training, and the training group trained with me twice a week on Cateye stationary trainers doing cycling specific strength training on-the-bike, for 8 weeks.

Before and after the eight week intervention period, the subjects had to do a VO2max test, Biodex isokinetic leg strength test, and 40 kilometre time trial in the lab. After the intervention the control group managed to get 0.5% worse in 40 km time (with training!) and the training group improved on average 2.5% - a 3% difference. The improvements were statistically significant. Some riders improved 3-7%, cutting 3+ minutes off their 40 kilometre times.

Analysis of their training over a 12 week period, including 4 weeks prior to the intervention, showed the only factor which changed in their training was the strength training. Therefore strength as a lot to do with cycling performance - if you train your strength specifically - unlike Bishop et al. 1999, who used weight training.

Also mentioned, "most research using trained cyclists or triathletes shows no correlation between muscular strength and cycling performance," however there are numerous studies (ie. Hawley & Noakes 92; Bentley et al 00; Westgarth-Taylor et al 97; Weston et al 97; Stepto et al 99) showing a correlation between peak power output at VO2max and time trial performance. Power is a result of force x velocity. The amount of force you can produce depends on your strength, which affects your power.

This was demonstrated above where the change in time trial time in the training group was highly correlated (r =0.79) to the change in peak power output at VO2max. Therefore there is a relationship between strength and cycling performance.

Amy Mason

BSc Sport Science & Physiology
MSc Sport Science Student
Department of Sport & Exercise Science
University of Auckland
New Zealand

Cycling is largely aerobic

Cycling is a moderate intensity, aerobic sport that (generally) spans periods of time from minutes to many hours (e.g., 3 or 4-km pursuit to 'Classic': McArdle, Katch and Katch, 1991). Time durations of around 4 minutes are mostly aerobic in nature, such that ~70% of the workload is generated through aerobic pathways (┼strand and Rodahl, 1986).

"Your ability to ride at high velocities for long periods of time is a function of VO2max, lactate threshold, economy, and nutritional strategy

Jones and Carter (2000) state, "there are 4 key parameters of aerobic fitness that affect the nature of the velocity-time curve that can be measured in the human athlete" (p. 373). They identify these parameters as "maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), exercise economy, the lactate/ventilatory threshold and oxygen uptake kinetics" (p. 373). Furthermore, they identify secondary factors, these being velocity at VO2 max (V-VO2 max), and maximal lactate steady state/critical power. Accordingly, strength is not considered to be an important or a considered part of endurance training.

Coyle et al. (1991) compared two groups of cyclists (elite and state class), and showed that 1 hour average power output was highly correlated to VO2 at blood lactate threshold (1mmol increase over baseline exercise rate). Coyle et al., found a greater percentage of type I fibres (slow-twitch, as opposed to fast twitch, type II fibres) and a greater muscle capillary density within the elite riders, compared to the state class riders.

Strength training does not stimulate capillary growth or develop mitochondria. Conversely, endurance training increases type I fibres, capillary density and mitochondrial volume (┼strand and Rodahl, 1986).

Passfield and Doust (2000) found a strong correlation between 5 minute average power output, VO2peak (and maximal [aerobic] power output), and blood lactate threshold. Therefore, an intense 'all-out' time trial for 5 minutes is dependent on VO2max/peak, and not strength.

Maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max) and peak oxygen uptake (VO2 peak) are defined as "the point at which oxygen consumption plateaus, and shows no further increases with an additional workload" (McArdle, Katch and Katch, 1991, p. 131). As VO2max/peak show an "individual's capacity for aerobic energy transfer" and is "one of the more important factors that determines one's ability to sustain high-intensity exercise for longer than 4 or 5 minutes" (p.131) the forces required to reach VO2max are well below those for maximal force and strength requirements.

This can be illustrated; e.g., a good ability rider might score a power output of ~400 W at the end of an incremental test to exhaustion (e.g. VO2max/peak test), and might be able to produce an average power over ~1 hour of ~300 W. However, that same rider might be able to generate > ~ 1000 W in a sprint. This would require far more force being applied to the pedals than the other power outputs. Likewise, untrained, healthy, age and gender matched controls will be able to produce these power outputs, but for shorter periods of time, i.e. it is endurance that they lack rather than force. Similarly, in matched controls cyclists are no stronger than others.

Strength and specificity

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There have been many studies conducted on strength training to assess specificity (e.g., Luecke, et al., 1998, Harris et al., 2000, Fagan and Doyle-Baker, 2000, Bishop et al., 1999, Rich and Cafarelli, 2000), which have shown no crossover in strength gains to a different exercise to that which was trained, even in similar exercises.

Furthermore, as strength training increases the amount of contractile properties within the muscle, and as the muscle undergoes hypertrophy, there will be a relative decrease in the volume of mitochondria (energy-producing bodies) within the muscle. Mitochondrion density increases with aerobic training.

Bishop et al., (1999) conducted a study on elite females (who are likely less strong compared to age and sport matched males). The riders were split into two groups: weight and endurance training cyclists and 'normal' training cyclists (control). Whilst the weight training group improved leg strength they did not increase their cycling ability (e.g., 40 km TT, VO2 max, LT, fibre type, etc.).

There are indeed some research data to show that strength training will increase lactate threshold, and VO2max (etc.), however, almost exclusively these studies have been performed on untrained individuals. In untrained individuals, it is well accepted and understood that any training will induce change.

As regards the ability to comfortably and speedily move a body 112 miles, this will be an entirely aerobic effort, which will not be limited by strength. Your ability to ride at high velocities for long periods of time is, as previously stated, a function of VO2max, lactate threshold, economy (efficiency), and nutritional strategy [Jones and Carter, 2000]. To my knowledge, no-one has published a paper that might link weight training and cycling efficiency.

Rebuttal to Amy Mason's letter

What Amy Mason appears to be testing and noting is not an increase in strength, but endurance power output, and likely power at lactate threshold and VO2 max. As I understand it, Amy's protocol consisted of 5 minute intervals at low cadence (50-80 revs/min) at specific power outputs on an indoor trainer plus normal endurance rides on the road, whilst the control group did their high intensity and endurance work on the road. It's possible there are methodological errors within this study, as outdoor training power outputs during the rider's normal high intensity work were not correctly accounted for, with e.g., SRM cranks/Power Tap hub.

Accordingly, it is impossible to know whether the riders were riding at the same (relative) power as those indoors. Thus, not only was she testing low cadence work against normal cadence, but likely differing amounts of power output. Although the research is part of a thesis towards an MSc, and time would be limited, a better (but longer) study might have been to compare high and low cadence indoor training at the same power output.

Big-gear (low cadence) training at moderately high power outputs, require far less strength/force than weight training, because even at this moderately low cadence, the rate of muscular contraction will be far higher than that used in the gym.

No mention is made of the results of the Biodex isokenetic leg strength test, so presumably(?) none were found.

Although Amy notes that there are numerous studies showing a correlation between peak [aerobic] power output and TT performance (e.g., Hawley and Noakes, 1992), it is an increase in aerobic power and associated metabolic pathways, and not strength (she fails to correctly distinguish between the two) that is seen when power (at VO2 max) increases after a training regimen.

I don't disagree that Hawley and Noakes (1992) found a significant correlation between Wmax and VO2 max. They also found significant correlation between Wmax and 20 km TT power output.

From my coaching and scientific experience, the way to increase power output is on the bike training that specifically causes overload: hill training, sprints, and intervals. As a man far wiser than me once said, "ride your bike, ride your bike, ride your bike".

Ric Stern BSc (Hons), PhD student, ABCC Coach
Tel + 44 (0)1443 222718
Web site:

Richard Stern is a cycle trainer, Sports Scientist, and writer, who has been professionally helping cyclists and triathletes for over 3 years. He has helped riders to national and international success in time trials, road racing, track racing, cross-country and downhill mountain biking. His research has been published in the Canadian Journal of Physiology, and has had articles in Cycling Weekly, The Independent, and other media.

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