Strength Training for Cyclists in the Transition Phase


When I published last week's article, “The Transition Season in the Year of COVID,” I received quite a few questions about strength training during the transition phase. I’m a big believer in strength training for cyclists, but I often see athletes approach it incorrectly. Strength training through the transition and early base periods needs to be progressed and periodized based on two goals: the first and most important is repairing the damage you’ve done to your muscular capacity during the previous year’s training, and the second is rebuilding and strengthening those muscles. This means the progression can be simply stated as repair, rebuild, and strengthen.


Let’s take a closer look at each of these three phases.


Phase 1: Repair

The first thing you should look to do is repair the muscular damage done in the previous year of training or, perhaps more accurately, rebalance our muscles. Cycling is a fixed-position, specific- muscle-activation exercise with a high-repetition, generally-low-force format. This means we’re engaging the same limited muscles time and time again, resulting in a very specific adaptation of those muscles. The cost of all that specific adaptation is a muscular imbalance, not only from a strength resistance consideration, but also from a motor unit control format; to oversimplify, we could say an imbalance of strength and coordination.


The Solution: Functional Strength and Movement Pattern Exercise

For me, functional strength exercise is the starting phase, because it is most effective in helping correct imbalance and (re)teach our bodies motor control and movement patterns. Athletes should consider starting a well-designed program of functional movement exercises based on body weight (though some weight can be added to select exercises) for the first 3-8 weeks of strength training early in the transition phase, depending on fitness and need.


Key Areas of Focus

  • Lunges

  • Squats

  • Single-leg deadlift/Bulgarian squats

  • Bridge/glutes

  • Step-ups

  • Planks

  • Burpees

Frequency: 3-4 times per week depending on full training load


Phase 2: Rebuild

Once we’ve got a solid foundation of functional strength and a level of muscular balance, we move into strength resistance training to rebuild. This is typically done with weights in a gym, but during the rebuild phase, we focus on higher-repetition, lower-weight exercises to ensure we rebuild some level of muscular strength before moving on to heavier weights, and to help our coordination get used to pushing some weights around. When it comes to program design, specificity is important; we want to build strength while keeping an eye on the specific demands of the sport of cycling. Strength resistance training, at its core, is a form of training with weights, but it’s important to mix in bands and body-weight exercises.


The Solution: Hit the Gym

Strength resistance training during this phase needs to focus on higher repetitions and lower weight. I recommend starting very light and focusing on 12-15 reps during this phase. Remember, your key goal is to prepare your body for heavier weights. During this phase it is very important to focus on your movement pattern, executing each exercise with correct form to improve results and prepare you for the next phase of training. I recommend 2-4 weeks of this phase based on your fitness.


Key Areas of Focus

  • Deadlifts

  • Squats

  • Weighted bridge

  • Kettlebell swings

  • Core

Frequency: 2-3 times a week depending on fitness


Phase 3: Strengthen

Now comes the heavy work. This is the heavy lifting phase and should be approached with caution. First and most important, make sure your body is ready to do the heavy work. If you’re struggling with weight progression in phase 2, do not progress to this phase. If you are ready, this is really just an extension of phase 2 with a dramatic change in repetitions, evolving from high reps and low weight to low reps and heavy weight. This phase usually lasts 4-8 weeks. The first two weeks should be transition with heavier weights and a repetition goal of 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps, then quickly progressing to 3-4 sets of 2-4 reps with near max weights for the final 2-6 weeks. It is very important that you have good movement patterns when the weights get this heavy.


Key Areas of Focus

  • Deadlifts

  • Squats

  • Weighted bridge

  • Kettlebell swings

  • Core

Frequency: 2-3 times a week depending on fitness


Strength training can and will improve your results, but it’s important to follow this progression to repair, rebuild, and strengthen.


Please note: this article is a general overview only. Even though I point out some key exercises, I highly recommend following a program designed by a coach or investing in a strength training plan. There are other alternative and non-traditional approaches that can be just as effective as what I’ve outlined here.


Finally, a word of caution: during these times of COVID-19, I don’t recommend heading to the gym. Take the responsibility to make your own personal assessment of the indoor training environment and its safety, and act accordingly.


About the Author

Along with co-founding BaseCamp and Velocious Cycling Adventures, Tim Cusick is the TrainingPeaks WKO product leader, specializing in data analytics and performance metrics for endurance athletes. Tim is a USAC coach with years of experience working with both road and mountain bike cycling professionals around the world, including Amber Neben, Emma Grant, and Rebecca Rusch.

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