Weight Lifting for Endurance Athletes - Road, Gravel, Tri & MTB
All endurance athletes need to do strength and conditioning work. There are some basic things all of us need to do, whether we are focused on road, gravel, triathlon or mountain biking. Here, I will address those things plus some tips and exercises specific to each type of athlete.
One basic concept: if you make a muscle stronger, you can create more force. More force on the bike means more power. More power means a higher FTP, and faster riding. Also, lifting can help things besides your FTP, like injury prevention, more comfort on the bike, improving bone health, and more.
There are many ways to strength train. You can lift weights, you can use resistance bands, a TRX, a stability ball, etc. Even isometric bodyweight exercises like Dr. Eric Goodman’s Foundation training is considered strength training. And no, strength training doesn't necessarily mean bulking up.
General Principles for Strength and Conditioning
Periodization: Cycle your program design (fluctuating volume and intensity throughout training) to change every 4-6 weeks.
Specificity: Match your training to the demands of the sport. This doesn’t mean that you should train specificity all year. Start with general strength then progress to sport-specific strength as you get closer to race season and transitioning to maintenance/sport specific strength during the peak of racing season.
Progressive overload: Gradually increase load, distance or intensity over time. Without this, you plateau and don’t progress.
Recovery: Help your body and muscles heal. Rest, massage, nutrition, stretching, foam rolling, rolling on a tennis/lacrosse/massage ball.
What to Focus on When Strength Training
- Large muscle, multi-joint strength exercises like squats, deadlifts, etc.
- Single-leg exercises are very important because cycling is essentially a single leg/alternating leg exercise. Also get the benefit of stability training simultaneously.
- Stability: “The ability to resist unwanted movement.” Not just planks. Stability is also important in the shoulders and hips.
- Mobility: “The ability to move freely.” Time trialists and long distance triathletes probably need to to work more on mobility and strength in the cervical region- neck and upper back, as well as soft tissue recovery- opening up the pecs, shoulders and hips to counter balance the extreme flexion they experience in the aero position.
Greater strength can also lead to better bike handling capability in a couple of ways. Strength = confidence = control. Also, training the stability muscles also helps your proprioception, or feel on the bike which are important for balance and making small adjustments.
‘Pre-hab’ and Activation Exercises
There are some simple exercises you can do to warm up for riding and to prevent injury. They don’t take long and they strengthen muscles as well as connective tissues (tendons and ligaments), which enhances resiliency and promotes injury prevention. If you’ve done the REVO skaters and hydrants, those are activation exercises. Hip extensions and planks are additional examples. If you’re a mountain biker or triathlete, including the shoulders is smart, with band pulldowns (which we have an instructional video for), wall angels or more swim specific band exercises.
There are a lot of different exercises you can choose from, and you don’t have to do all of them and not the same ones every time. Choose based on what you feel you need that day, or just keep a basic “playlist” of exercises in mind that are your basic go-tos.
- Lunge w/reach or Spiderman x 5
- Bodyweight Squat with abduction x 5
- Bird dog or Plank
- Hip Extensions x 5 w/3s hold
- Miniband walks- forward, backward, lateral
- Sidelying rotation x 3-5
- Wall Flies x 5-10
Types of exercises beneficial for all endurance athletes
- Large muscle groups and multi-joint exercises: Deadlift, squats (all kinds),Hip Extensions, Lunges, Pushups, Pullups, Wall flies
- Stability exercises for the shoulders, hips, ankles
- Mobility exercises and soft tissue work like foam/ball rolling and stretching
Everyone should be doing soft tissue work to loosen up the muscles on the front side of the body (pecs, psoas especially) and strengthening the backside to balance out the tight front side and the back side being under-used and probably weak. (strength coaches and massage therapists say all the time ‘a tight muscle is a weak muscle’ because as muscles get tight, they also become weak because they’re not getting used much, and are not able to contract and relax through their full range
Exercises by favored activities - road, mountain bike, triathlon, gravel
Exercises for Roadies
- Exercises that will make you faster on the bike: Squats, leg press, leg curl, deads, lunges, RDL’s, hip extensions, glute ham raise, back extensions, lateral squats and lunges to help balance out the muscles that don’t get used as much on the bike.
- Exercises that may not raise your FTP, but will have a positive impact on your riding (think: stability and efficiency), and even your overall body balance and health: Postural muscles, core and lower body to prevent low back pain as a result of climbing and excessive hip flexion. Make sure the glutes and hamstrings are firing and not becoming quad-dominant and to help correct all the forward flexion they do.
- Exercises to open up the chest and shoulders from forward flexion: 90-90 rotations, wall angels, Wall T’s or reverse flies, as well as soft tissue work, like rolling and stretching the pecs and psoas, ViPR and Kettlebells like in our At Home Lifting Plan
- Time trialists: Do neck/cervical and thoracic mobility, stability and isometric strength with scapular stability exercises like quadruped and its variations, scapular retraction, wall angels, downward dog, chin tucks, T-spine rotations
Exercises for Mountain Bikers
All the same principles as above apply, plus focus on:
- Shoulder and hip stabilizers for more balance and body movement around the bike to maneuver on trails.
- More upper body strength. Pushing and pulling the bike to maneuver up and down obstacles and features and provide stability while climbing. The TRX is great because it naturally makes you use your shoulder stability muscles a lot more.
- Plyometrics and the unique combination of isometric to plyometric exercises. Oftentimes you go from descending to quickly ascending a very steep hill very quickly, so plyos can help when you need to change from the isometric action of standing and absorbing bumps on a descent to pedaling really hard again uphill. These are things like pushups, pullups, core rotations, exercises that incorporate stability and strength like TRX rows, pullups, flies, roll outs, Renegade Rows, Bird dog rows, resistance band press, chops, MB Slams, squat hold to jump, split jumps, sled pushes, burpees.
Exercises for Triathletes
All the same principles as above apply, plus more focus on:
- Lats and triceps strength and shoulder stability and mobility specifically for swimming. Again, TRX and band exercises for the kill more birds with one stone approach.
- Single leg foot, ankle and hip strength, stability and mobility because running is much more strenuous and demanding than cycling.
- Total body durability (injury prevention) due to the amount of training that many triathletes do.
Exercises for Gravel Riders
Gravel riders are a combination of road and mountain bikers in terms of the sport’s demands, so I’d lump them in with the mountain bikers. For example, some gravel events include some gnarly steep, loose climbs which require similar strength and skill as mountain biking, but they also include very long distances, so they spend a lot of hours on the bike in forward flexion, wreaking havoc on their backs, hips and shoulders.
Ready for Some More Specific Guidance? We’ve Got You
Watch and follow along with S&C Videos from Coach Suzie here.
Buy and follow one of these plans:
- 30 Week Off-Season Weights + Sweet Spot Base (for road, mtb, gravel, crit - everyone but multisport)
- 30 Week Off Season Plan for Triathletes
- 10 Week Weight Lifting for Cycling (squat, leg press, leg curl, S&C exercises)
- 10 Week At Home Weight Lifting (squat, ViPR, kettlebell, S&C exercises)
- Secret Training - Off Season Cyclocross Strength
- Cyclocross Off-Season Training
And for the most personalized care you can hire Coach Suzie for 1-on-1 coaching to tailor your training to your schedule, your goals, and your current state of fitness and health.
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