Myths About Weight Lifting, Strength Training and Cycling
I am a big proponent of weight lifting and (strength training) for cycling (and other sports for that matter). I seem to be a minority, particularly because a lot of myths exist about what weight and strength training does to your body and how it wrecks havoc on your performance.
With this article, I am going to do my best to bust some of the most popular ones below
1. “Why Weight train at all? I don’t have time to go to a gym!”/ My buddies don’t do it and they still kick my ass!
I will tell you a BIG secret here. What you are *really* looking for regardless of your chosen sport/activity is increasing strength (which is ultimately a component of power and going fast), becoming a more functional human being and yes some esthetic gains (Looking Good Naked – LGN). Strength is a skill (more on that below) and the gym is one tool to learn it. There are plethora of others, though it is the principles (please see the following myths for details) that remain the same. Everybody’s life will be made better by being stronger
2. Weight Training Would Make Me Look Like a Bodybuilder!
Unfortunately bodybuilding has become synonymous with weight and strength training. This has been going for decades and today is yet another day for the “all show and no go muscles.” Size equals strength could not be further from the truth. For how big they are body builders, while (much) stronger than you average Joe/Josephine are very weak and inefficient for their size. Don’t forget that bodybuilding *is a show* and as such it is the perfect material for media to advertise gym memberships, wonder products and miracle supplements.
With that being said, every sport likes to advertise itself with its prime examples. Weight lifting does so with those really, and I mean REALLY muscular individuals – Arnold Schwarzenegger (pictured), etc. Like in anything (be that cycling, metalworking, etc.) to be at the top, it requires a LOT of effort and practice. Every single one of those guys in fitness magazines, posters, etc. has spend a lot of time trying to become precisely that person you see on the cover page. They spend as much time working on muscle development as cyclists and marathon runners spend cycling and running. No matter what those “Get fit, buff, jacked, etc. in 5 days” commercials claim, it is not that easy, not even close.
3. Weight Lifting Would Still Cause Me to Gain Weight, that’s Unavoidable!
In this day and age obsession with body weight for reasons good or bad, hasn’t spared cycling. Besides contact sports such as american football and the like, rarely is increased body weight an advantage. Lighter anything is almost always preferable – it simple takes less energy to move around and to go faster – it’s physics. Even in contact sports, if you can’t move your weight around fast enough, it is a disadvantage. What you most likely associate with body weight is that number on a scale. Well that number is mostly water (60%) with bones, muscles, and fat in various proportions composing the rest. What people *really* are afraid of (and with good reason) is gaining fat. Being overfat is a largely a hormonal problem (NOT a question of eating too much and being lazy). While I am oversimplifying it a LOT, refined carbohydrates and the subsequent release of the hormone insulin are what is the cause of the overfat pandemic that includes 75+ of the *world* population (as of 2017) with endurance athletes not being immune at all!!! This is a whole another fascinating story in itself , though since we are talking about weight and strength training…
Muscle growth or hypertrophy, using the scientific term, is a whole another story. The absolute best way to do it (get big), and body builders have been proving it over and over again is ‘lifting to failure’ when you need a spotter’s aid for that last rep. This is NOT strength training. I repeat this is NOT strength training. Let me rewind a bit and expand on that.
First, muscles unlike fat are a (metabolically) active tissue, they require energy to function, they burn calories, even at rest, this is a good thing and is what is meant by the term lean body mass. This is one of the reasons why leaner people can eat a lot without seemingly becoming fat. A higher percentage of their body weight is made out of muscle, so they need to fuel it. Most importantly, muscle tissue is expensive to maintain around with no use so it is quite difficult to ‘bulk up.’ If you ever been into a gym you have without a doubt seen those big bulky guys carrying the contents of a small grocery store with them including a plethora of supplements and they eat a LOT all the time. Let’s not forget anabolic steroids.
Here you see how strength has wrongly gotten mixed up with size. Remember how I mentioned that strength is a skill? Well if you ever tried to pick a big heavy looking box from the floor, you tensed and braced up. The box was big but empty so you almost fell backwards trying to use all your strength to get that supposedly heavy thing off the floor. You had *engaged* more muscles than you needed so it felt super easy. This is how strength works on a deeper cellular level. We already have muscles that are strong enough, you just need to send them the right signals (make them all get to work type of deal). One way is extreme dangers (such as hanging for dear life over a cliff), in an emergency the brain is ‘all systems go’ in order to give you the best chance of survival. The other way is by training the muscles to fully engage by lifting heavy, using lower reps (around five) not to fatigue. Why?
Here we get to the essence of strength. Strength is largely a *neuromuscular* process. Muscles are made up of fibers. Each muscle fiber is connected to a motor neuron. Muscle fibers and motor neurons form to combine a motor unit. One neuron can connect to one or more fibers. When an impulse comes either ALL fibers contract or none – all or none law. Low load/light weight results in the recruitment of some motor units. As the weight increase more motor units are recruited. Therefore the takeaway point is:
To exercise the whole muscle, heavy or maximal weight must be used when every motor unit is engaged.
As you probably know muscle fibers are grouped into slow twitch (ST/endurance fibers – weaker but fatigue resistant) and fast twitch (FT/sprint fibers – strong and fatiguing). Anatomically the difference between the two is in the innervation. A slow twitch fiber has 10-180 fibers that are connected to a single motor neuron while a FT one has 300-500+ fibers. You see now why it is through heavy/maximal load NOT to fatigue you train your FT fibers. As soon as the FT fibers are tired, you will switch to using the small motor units of the ST fibers – weaker contraction with less strength/output. With strength training what you are mostly doing is teaching your muscles to respond. Why is that important?
The ultimate control of exercise performance resides in the brain’s ability to vary the work rate and metabolic demand by altering the number of skeletal muscle motor units recruited during exercise.-Prof. Timothy Noakes
Fatigue is a condition of the brain
Currently, the popular notion is that when ATP falls below the muscle’s ability to contract, we become exhausted. If local energy levels were the primary reason for muscle fatigue, it would just be a matter of gulping down enough sugar during a race to keep going. But as studies show, muscle energy usually remains more than adequate even after a long, intense effort. This is the reason most athletes have a “kick” at the end of a grueling race. Despite the fatigue that occurs during the event, there is almost always a seemingly newfound ability for the muscles to work much harder and quicken the pace in the final segment of an event.
Dr. Phil Maffetone –The Endurance Handbook
Therefore through increased strength you will be able to call on a large number of motor units when you are fatigued maintaining a strong muscular contraction and hence speed WHEN TIRED. Some hypertrohy (muscle growth) will happen, thought the body benefits such as growth hormone release, increased bone density and prevention of muscle loss (both are a HUGE problem for those 30+ years of age). Cycling is not an impact sport, our body does not push directly against gravity (as in walking/running) as such lifetime cyclists have decreased bone density early on in life (astronauts in zero gravity experience similar problems) and break bones easily among other things, not just during crashes – a strong sneeze can do that as well. In the end, The gained strength and more solid bones would certainly outweigh (pun intended) any increase in body weight.
Here is when we get to the holy grail searched by many…
4.Well OK, I will do some weight training, but it needs to be cycling (or insert any sport name here) specific!
First let me get something out the way. Cycling specific training is well…cycling. There is no such thing as cycling (or any other sport) specific weight or strength training per se. The biggest misconception is that since cycling is mainly a ‘leg sport’, doing mainly leg exercises is the ticket. Weight/strength training is an addition and an integral part of a a well-designed training program. It’s an aspect focusing to improve that which you can’t develop by ‘just riding your bike.’ For example with weight/strength training you can push your muscles a lot harder and in similar fashion to what they will experience in a race scenario, so when the need arises your form does not break down and you can push better through fatigue (as mentioned above).
Most importantly ALL and ANY strength training should be functional. What does that even mean?!?!. What you might have seen/heard is the following: exercises should mimic the movements of your sport and real life movements. This is quite inaccurate or I’d say superficial since it tells you nothing about what real life movements are (sitting on the couch picking up bag of chips is a real life movement…) What I am trying to say is that the human body evolved to generate force and hence move in a certain way.
We have evolved to walk/run. It is quite an impressive chain of events starting from the foot contact, force production via the legs, pelvic rotation all the way to the swing of the opposite arm and the weight transfer between the legs with each step. It is truly a whole body experience and hence why walking is sometimes a very underapreciated form of exercise. For the same reason when a part of the whole body kinetic chain (no matter how small) is not performing accurately/functionally it is reflected in your gait (you don’t ever see anybody on the verge of exhaustion with perfect running form). Why is this important? All activities and sports are derivative of walking, no matter whether you are rowing, canoeing, cycling, swimming etc. The most optimal way to perform each and every one of them is by using the muscles and joints the way they have evolved to function.
We carry weight through our hips (pelvic girdle) and shoulders (shoulder girdle). Both are connected via the spine. This are what Kelly Starrett refers to as the primary engines of the body. It is those three that we ‘generate torque’ which in term creates the stable platform to put a big acceleration through the pedals, blast off the starting blocks, throw a curveball, etc. This is (body) stability and not what is wrongly assumed to be achieved through unstable surface training (via Swiss balls, balance boards etc.)
This all sounds nice but what exercises do I do? Given our functional anatomy it can all be all broken down to 4 movements:
- Prone bridge
Anything that uses them in any combination as well as generating torque (moving functionally) is fine. Remember lift few reps, heavy and not to fatigue. Dr. Phil Maffetone calls it slow weights – get a couple of dumbells and in the course of the day lift them up above your head or even better do some strenuous garden work etc. This is what we evolved to do before somebody told us to hit the gym and bulk up.
The one caveat here is that most of us carry a large number of dysfunctions and muscle imbalances (we all do, just the degree differs). Therefore an absolutely crucial first step is making sure you are moving correctly (if you can’t squat butt to ankles you got work to do!) or doing mobility work (some great resources can be found here and at the end of this article). Otherwise you will be loading a poor movement and adding strength to dysfunction.
Strength is a fundamental skill. How you convert and make use of it for high performance is the sport specific part. Strength is a foundation that you build upon.
Some cycling examples are: 10s all out track sprint at 160+rpm, 4km track pursuit, 40km time trial, 4+h road race, all have very different requirements out of your body.
Read more in the Functional Series.
5. Weight Training Kills Endurance
What is endurance? The ability to go long, no? I think they call it ‘cardio’ as well. You can’t be fit and strong at the same time, all those endurance athletes are puny looking things because endurance causes muscle loss!
Close but not quite. Endurance is a fundamental human feature. No animal on earth can outrun us. I am not talking outsprint us, I am talking outdo us in the long run. Being able to run on 2 legs and sweat in order to regulate body temperature are all important though what REALLY makes us endure over long periods of time is the ability to burn body fat efficiently for energy. This is what endurance is at the barebones fundamental levels.
Endurance and strength are different parts of the same picture. As mentioned in Myth#4 above, strength can complement endurance (thus making you resist fatigue better), though it is NOT supposed to replace it, it never was. Therefore how can strength training ‘kill endurance’ or cause muscle loss?? Well as mentioned in Myth#3, muscle is expensive to have around so what is not needed gets broken down. So indeed NOT doing strength training which almost always means only focusing on endurance, will cause some muscle loss, though the logic is backwards, as is common in ‘popular wisdom.’
First and foremost what wrecks havoc on our ability to burn fat in an almost black and white fashion are – refined carbohydrates (flour, sugar, corn starch, etc.). Rarely things in nature/biology work in such a binary fashion. If there is insulin around you *store* energy (fat) and don’t burn it. The next reason is being lazy, though this is an obvious one.
If you need to improve your endurance do aerobic (cardio) exercises. As it the case for most people balancing cycling and weight training can be tricky so if lifting weights comes at the cost of missing endurance rides, your endurance might suffer. This is not caused by the weight training itself.
6. Cyclists/Runners/Triathletes (Insert Any Other Sport Name) Don’t Need to do Strength Training
As Jacques DeVoresays,
“Cycling coaches usually know next to nothing about strength training, and strength coaches know little about cycling [or endurance sports] – my emphasis. No one knows both, and therefore they don’t know how to ideally tailor weights and power training to the needs of the sport.”
This is something that I see all the time and really makes my blood boil. Even some of the really knowledgeable people I highly respect in strength and conditioning, assume that if you are to start a strength training program you are either a varsity or professional athlete in basketball, football and any number of team sports, you punch and kick people (martial artist, MMA fighter) or you might have to beat down and subdue others in your line of work (military, police and/or law enforcement). This is tiny per cent of the population, and while in those scenarios, strength can literally mean the difference between life and death, strength training would benefit EVERYBODY. If you tell a personal trainer you are cyclist and/or endurance athlete you get a look as if you have three deformed heads, harelip including a lisp, a hump and a hairpiece.
Why in the hell would you want to lift weights??? You need to do cardio to be good!
Exercises ‘get adjusted’ and ‘made specific’ by making you do for example an ungodly number squats with low weight (it’s how you pedal a bike for hours right, this is ‘specific’ training) – unfortunately – been there done that… This is quite simply what I call ‘beating square pegs in round holes’ and not understanding functional movement. This is so pervasive from club level to Olympic/National team coaches – it is scary!
We all are humans first and we ALL share the same functional anatomy. No matter the sport/activity we produce movement the same way. Functional movements, lift heavy, few reps, not to fatigue is the way to build strength. Obviously, trying to max out the number of weighted pull-ups might not be doing you much good if you are trying to be competitive in hilly road races. Horses for courses and why common sense and knowing yourself and the specific demands your sport goes a long way. It’s journey and do not be afraid to experiment.
7. The Watts per Kilogram Debate
This last myth is almost entirely pertaining to cycling, rather than endurance sports in general, though it has something for everybody.
We like numbers, don’t we. If something equals a (random) desirable number this means everything is ok. Trying to narrow down something as complex as race day performance (that involves tactics, handling skills, weather, road conditions, actions of other competitors etc.) and use a single as number as an indicator is flawed and backwards logic.
The watts per kilogram chart is the so called genitalia measurement chart. The higher you can score, the better cyclist you are, right? One of the ways to place higher in the ranks is to lose weight, regardless whether it is fat, muscle or both. The main reason why people and athletes are overfat is refined carbohydrates, therefore, addressing your diet and lifestyle are definitely worth looking at since you will be solving health related issues first and foremost.
Though the take away point is that the chart involves BOTH watts and kilograms and as with anything you have to address and look at the whole picture. By becoming stronger you develop the fundamental skill needed to produce more power (Force x (Pedaling) Speed/Cadence = Power). The 1-2kg (2-4lbs) initially gained, as it is sometimes normal, at the beginning of a weight training program does just the opposite of what you want, so you go and immediately label weight training as bad for cycling performance. This is simply not true; as pointed in Myths 1-6 above, strength training is the best way to create more aerobically active muscle while starting to get rid of the stored fat! Aiming to be a Grand Tour contender certainly might shift the focus on the weight part, though when we get towards the very edge of performance all systems must be primed rather that just one (very low weight bordering on anorexia) compensating lack in another (lack of strength/muscle imbalances).
In addition even the author of the said chart, Andrew Coggan, made it clear that the numbers don’t necessarily mean race day performance, and he even at one point removed the categorisation, though some serious pushback from the cycling community forced him to include it again. Furthermore the top ends of the chart might come from the roaring 90s, marred by the over-use of the blood boosting erythropoietin – EPO (among other illegal performance aids) so what is labeled World Class might start to creep into areas such as ethical questions of legality, rather the training and performance. Though this is very fascinating topic in itself that I plan to discuss on another day….
If you are to believe popular “wisdom,” weight lifting, strength training and cycling mix like oil and water, however this is largely based on myths. Unlike what you hear weight and strength training itself does not cause increase in body weight or decrease in endurance among other “facts.”
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