Let’s discuss strength training (including weight training) for cyclists.

Ask Levi: How Can A Wimpy Cyclist Get Strong?

Today, we have a cyclist and cross-country skier who wants to get stronger to excel in both sports, but doesn’t quite know where to start…

How do I start strength training?

Coach Levi,

I am both a cross country skier in the winter and a cyclist in the summer. Being a cross country skier I want to make sure that I have a good strength routine not to mention that it helps on the bike as well as with how I look.

The problem is I’m a bit overwhelmed by all the different strength training plans and philosophies. I know that one of the worst things I could do is to constantly switch from on plan to another and not be well structured or planned.

I am obviously looking for some on the bike gains from my strength training but my main goals are to improve strength for skiing and maybe improve my look in the process, however I still want to have lean body type and not get too bulky..

I have worked with a basic strength routine of primarily body weight core exercises in the past. Recently I have been looking at convict conditioning. I like the body weight aspect of convict conditioning as I don’t have any weights or a gym membership but am still completely open to looking into weights and such. Maybe weights are needed to really get what I’m looking for? I have also looked at your reviews of Built For Show and Visual Impact and am interested in those. Just to be clear my primary goal is performance (in skiing) and look is a far off secondary concern.

I am also working on adapting my diet to your recommendations so hopefully that will also help.

I would love it if you could provide someone like my self with some guidance to stop being a wimpy cyclist and start being strong.

Wimpy Wynston

Hi Wynston,

Great question. I read through your email a few times so I could best assess your situation and make a recommendation!

You’re right that there are a ton of different strength training philosophies and many debates between them, so it’s easy to get distracted. I’m actually a big fan of both weight lifting and pure bodyweight training because either approach can be used in a way to fit almost any athlete’s goals.

Bodyweight Training

Going with my gut instinct, I’m going to recommend you stick with bodyweight training and just ramp it up a notch. I wouldn’t rule out weight lifting, but it’s not cheap (especially on top of two expensive endurance sports), and it takes a while to get good at it. It’s probably not the best use of your time, money, and energy right now.

However, if you’re ever looking for a good gym routine to use when you first get started, check out StrongLifts.com and download the free 5×5 training plan. Reading the site and training plan for enjoyment will teach you some of the important basics. Just avoid their weight gain advice (GOMAD for example) and you should be fine! 🙂

Convict Conditioning, perhaps.

So with weights on the backburner, effectively ruling out the other books, the discussion turns to Convict Conditioning. I’ve read about this book numerous times, but never used the program myself due to time restrictions (too many programs to review, too little time).

The only thing I question about the book is how easy the exercise progressions are. The sales page claims anyone of any fitness level can start the program and progress through exercise variations, which is awesome if true, but that has always been the downside of advanced bodyweight training. Bodyweight exercise variations aren’t as simple and straightforward as adding 5lb to the bar like in weight lifting. Sometimes the next variation is a small step and sometimes it’s a big step.

That said, Convict Conditioning still sounds like a great program, especially if you don’t have weights of your own. I plan to test it out myself eventually – the Kindle version is currently on my Amazon.com wish list (for $9 it’s a good deal compared to the regular $24 paperback version).

And if that goes well, you can always grab some gymnastic rings and train on those, too. I’ve never seen a gymnast without a killer physique!

Whatever route you choose, let me know how you are progressing and I can give you some tips on modifying it to better suit your goals.

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Ask Levi: How Can I Build Up My Leg Muscles?

Someone wants to build huge leg muscles

Hello! Do you have any programs to build up my legs?
Greetings from SERBIA!!!!

Thanks for the email all the way from Serbia!

Since cycling, running, and swimming are all aerobic, endurance sports, I’ll assume you want to build up your legs through weight lifting.

Cycling and Weight Lifting Produce Very Different Results

With cycling, it takes quite a while to build huge leg muscles. We’re talking thousands and thousands of miles over years and years of riding. It doesn’t matter if you’re pushing big gears at 50 rpm, that’s still not enough resistance for noticeable gains.

If anyone tells you big gear riding is like weight lifting, think about this – riding at a slow pace like 50 rpm is still 50 “reps” each minute. If you ride like that for an hour, that’s 3000 reps. If you spend 30-60 minutes in the weight room, you might do a total of 50 reps for your leg exercises. So… it’s not even close.

But what about the pro cyclists with bulging quads, you ask? Yes, you might see pro cyclists with bulging quads. But when you do, those cyclists are either big to begin with, lift weights, ride superhuman numbers of miles, or all of the above. And not every single pro cyclist has huge legs, believe it or not.

Anyway, back to building leg muscle…

How to Pack on the Leg Muscle

The first thing I’ll say is to pick a few key exercises and focus on them: the squat, the deadlift, and the lunge. And to a lesser extent, seated calf raises, but the first three are all you really need.

Then your next move is to practice proper form until you have the movements perfected. This is best done with the help of an expert (and by expert, I don’t mean some random Youtube videos!)

Once you can perform the exercises with proper form, you’ll want to focus on lifting heavy weights for 5-8 reps per set, because that’s what will really build your muscles and increase strength. Doing 15-20 reps per set just means you will have to put less weight on the bar, which means your muscles won’t get as good of a workout.

Now, when it comes to an exact training plan, that’s going to depend largely on your current fitness, access to equipment, specific goals, etc.

So I’m going to turn you over to the weight lifting experts to finish this out. But don’t worry, I’ll also direct you to a great training plan that you can adapt to your leg workout. That plan is the 5×5 Workout from StrongLifts.com, and it’s free.

Those sites are geared for weight lifters, so they should help out. (I write for cyclists and recommend some weight lifting, but much more focus on bodyweight workouts.)

Good luck, stay safe, and have fun!

Ask Levi: Should I Do Upper Body Weights/Conditioning?

Just like bicycle mechanics can debate endlessly over “which chain lube is best?,” coaches are going to debate endlessly over the idea of weight training for cyclists…

Should I do upper body weights/conditioning as a road/mtb cyclist. My coach and other people on my team say ‘no’ that it isn’t important. Seems like it would be a good idea though.

Bulging Biceps Billy

Hi Billy,

I’m a big fan of upper body conditioning, especially for mountain bikers. I think everyone should lift weights, at least in the off season.

I certainly don’t recommend any sort of bodybuilding routine, but a straightforward strength training program composed of some basic exercises is great. During the off season, that might be squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows, dips, push ups, and pull ups done 2-3 times per week.

Once racing season begins, you should probably drop the weighted squats and lunges and ease up on the arm exercises a little. At this point you might only lift once per week, if at all.

But you can still do your calisthenics during the season. At the very least, competitive cyclists should be doing basic body weight workouts – push ups, planks, bird dog, lunges, mountain climbers, etc.

A nice compromise between weight lifting and the easier body weight exercises is plyometrics. These jumps and explosive movements are intense like weight lifting, but they don’t require weights or a gym!

Personally I like to hit the heavy weights in the off season (full body) but then switch to mostly body weight workouts and plyometrics during the season. I’ll still do shoulder presses, dips, and pull-ups (with weights) during the season, but I have to back off on the squats once the serious interval training begins.

This strength training will get rid of muscle imbalances and possible posture problems from hunkering down over a bike for hours on end, as well as strengthen your bones, which is VERY important for cyclists!

(Cycling being a relatively low impact activity, it doesn’t promote bone strengthening to the extent that weight lifting does.)

The weight lifting is not going to increase your aerobic capacity so you can ride the Tour de France. And you do have to give up a little bit of riding time since you’ll need increased recovery from adding in weight training.

But I feel the general health and injury prevention benefits outweigh the risks! (As long as you are lifting with proper form, that is.)

And contrary to popular belief, you won’t turn into a hulk just by weight lifting (unless you’re on steroids!)

Ask Levi: I’m Skinny But I Want Big Arms!

While most cyclists and runners aren’t concerned with having big arms, arm strength comes in handy for XC skiing, swimming, kayaking, BMX, mountain biking, and even bike repair! So let’s look at building big arms…

A Question On Bicep Curls!?
Right. Im 14 and am naturally quite skinny in the arms. I have started doing bicep curls with a 3kg weight. Any ideas until i notice a difference and what can i do to make the process happen quicker. E.g. Should i eat more fatty foods etc. I want to stay complelty away from steroids.

-Skinny Steven

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but doing bicep curls with a 3kg (~6lb) dumbbell isn’t going to get you anywhere. You could curl all day but your arms will stay just as skinny as they are now.

So the first thing I would do is just forget the curls altogether. You could work your way up to heavier weights, but even then, you can lift more weight with other exercises. I’m not saying you can’t do curls later, but if you want to pack on some real size in a relatively short amount of time, look elsewhere!

There are four main exercises I suggest: pull ups, chin ups, dips, and shoulder presses. These exercises involve compound movements that work your entire arm, which allows you to move heavier weights, which leads to greater gains in size and strength.

Pull ups, chin ups, and dips can all be started with just your body weight. That will be a little safer than jumping into a big weight lifting program.

Shoulder presses will require a barbell and/or dumbbells, but you could start out with pike push ups (or handstand push ups) to work your shoulders before hitting the big weights.

How many sets and reps should you do for these bodyweight exercises? Read this: Determining Sets and Reps for Bodyweight Exercises.

More weight lifting and lots of eating wouldn’t hurt, either.

For example, you could add in a lift like the deadlift (maybe some squats too.) By working big muscles in your legs and back, your body will produce more of a testosterone response from your workouts. This could lead to better growth in your arm muscles for the same workout (studies are conflicting.) Regardless, it wouldn’t hurt to work out your entire body and not just your arms!

Being a beginner, I’d suggest following a pre-made plan from an expert. A book that would probably work for you (that you might enjoy reading as well) is Nate Green’s Built For Show.

And you need to eat extra calories if you want to build muscle. As in, LOTS of food!

As for your diet, stay away from junk food. Make sure you eat healthy foods like lean meats, whole grains, and lots of fruits and vegetables. You can eat fatty foods to get more calories, but stick with fatty foods like almonds, avocados, and olive oil. No junk food!!

Basically, if you do a good amount of weight lifting and eat lots of natural, unprocessed foods, you should see some results! It won’t happen overnight, but stick with it for a couple months, and I think you’ll be pleased.

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1 Comment
  1. Look into negative-sets when it comes to pull-ups.

    try the old “1-minute-pull-up” and “1-minute-dip”

    use a dip belt to hang weights between your legs and spend 25 seconds getting to the top of your pull up/dip, contract hard for 10 seconds, and spend 25 seconds coming down.

    your arms will burn and shake and hurt for a couple days, but they will blow up!

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