How to increase your power output in 10 weeks with resistance training

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

0
Jump To Comments

Few metrics are more important in cycling than power output. It’s not as simple as saying that the rider who generates the most power wins, but that’s not too far from the truth. Sure, you need race craft, you need to be able to ride well in the bunch, and you need to know when to use your power, but none of these factors matter if you haven’t got the power output to back them up.

Whether you’re trying to force your way into a breakaway, stay with the best climbers up a hill, time trial your way to victory, or win a bunch sprint, the amount of power you can generate will help determine the outcome.

It doesn’t have to be about racing either. Picture any situation on a bike and it can be improved with more power. Bored with struggling up the same hills? Want to burn that annoying guy off during your home commute? You need more power.

Interested? Good. Let’s discuss the best way to soup yourself up.

Want to skip ahead and get straight to the exercises you should know about? Simply follow the link.

How to improve your power output on the bike

It’s true that just riding your bike may improve your power to a certain extent. If you practice your sprint, you’ll get better at it. If you ride uphill in bigger gears, you’ll get stronger.

At some point, however, you’ll likely plateau and there’s a good reason for this. Just riding your bike may not be sufficient to produce further physiological changes within the muscles. You need a different stimulus and the evidence suggests that stimulus is resistance training.

Resistance training — which you’ll also see described as strength training in this article — is the application of resistance to the muscular system in order to stimulate an increase in its strength.

Cyclists have traditionally been cautious about using any form of resistance training for fear of building muscle and therefore adding body weight. But studies show this is unlikely to happen.

Strength

It seems obvious that something called strength training will result in strength gains. But just in case you’re in any doubt, take a look at the numbers. In this study, well-trained cyclists improved their leg strength by an average of 30% on a 10-week strength-training programme. In another study competitive cyclists experienced average strength gains of 14% after an eight-week resistance training programme. In one Norwegian paper, female duathletes saw average strength gains of a whopping 45% following a strength training programme.

Note also that the improvements seen in these studies were measured in athletes who were already well-conditioned. It’s not unusual to see strength gains of 50-80% in individuals who were previously sedentary.

Suffice to say the numbers will vary, but most people following a well-designed resistance training programme will get stronger.

Great, but do those gains transfer to the bike? Yes, they seem to. In quite a few ways.

Benefits of resistance training

Anaerobic capacity (Wingate test)

The classic Wingate test assesses anaerobic power in a 30-second maximal effort. In a road racing context, you can think about this as the effort required to establish a gap or bridge across to a breakaway. In this study researchers found that resistance training improved peak power, mean power output and slowed down the rate of fatigue for highly trained cyclists doing the Wingate test.

Interestingly, the control group, which continued with endurance training only, experienced drops in both peak power and mean power during the same period. More on this in a moment.

Greater efficiency

Resistance training doesn’t only add horsepower, it makes you more efficient. Efficiency is defined as the amount of mechanical work done and the chemical energy expended in doing so. Subjects in one study achieved significant gains in efficiency following a resistance training programme; gains the researchers estimate would translate to a 5% decrease in time over a given distance.

Elite level female cyclists in this paper showed an improvement in fractional VO2max, meaning they were able to operate at a higher percentage of their VO2max following a resistance training programme. The authors suggest an increase in quadriceps size was responsible.

Time trial performance

If you want to improve your ability against the clock, resistance training can help you do that too. This study featured a 10-week strength training programme, followed by a 15-week maintenance phase (1x per week) and saw subjects improve their power output in a 40-minute all-out time trial.

The improvement was associated with a change in pedalling characteristics. The resistance-trained subjects developed peak torque earlier in the pedal stroke compared to the control group.

Strength training can help to improve your time-trialling.

Road racing

Races on the road are usually decided in the last few moments after a significant time is spent on the bike. In this study researchers attempted to pre-fatigue their subjects by asking them to ride sub-maximally for 185 minutes. They then measured their performance in an all-out five-minute time trial.

The riders that had been engaged in a 12-week resistance training programme faired significantly better. They increased their mean power output by 27 watts in the five-minute effort, whilst the endurance training control group suffered a 5-watt decline.

Preventing muscle loss

As some of these studies show, just riding your bike may reduce your ability to produce power. Endurance training alone has the potential to cause type 1 muscle fibre loss as the body strives for maximum efficiency.

Engaging in a resistance training programme can offset this loss. It may even be necessary to prevent it.

Implementing a resistance training programme

Great, so now you can see the potential benefits of resistance training, how do you get started?

The majority of the research suggests that adding resistance training to an already full training schedule may result in overload, just as adding more training miles will sometimes do. To avoid this it’s recommended that you replace a portion of your on-the-bike training with resistance training sessions. Depending on where you are in your own particular season, you can assess what makes most sense for you.

Most studies show great results from just two resistance training sessions a week. Even one may be enough to maintain gains once a period of strength training has taken place.

The key exercises to use and how to perform them

Exercises that match the muscle length-tension relationships found within the pedal stroke will likely have the most transfer. For that reason the squat has been used in many studies to good effect. It’s important to recognise however that a squat won’t provide a meaningful challenge to all the muscles involved in cycling. You may get additional benefits from training these muscles separately.

The knee flexors, for example, play an important role in the pedal stroke, as do the ankle plantar flexors (calve muscles) and the muscles that flex the hip. None of these muscles will receive an adequate challenge in the squat.

Free weight exercises like the squat also require skill. You need to learn how to execute them perfectly before you can begin to add weight. If your primary goal is to generate more power on the bike, this may not be the best use of your time.

To maximise your gains in the safest way possible and within a given window of time, resistance training machines provide an effective option. I consider the following exercises essential. A more detailed guide on how to set up and perform these exercises is available to download here.

Seated leg extension

– Make sure your knees are in line with the axis of the machine.
– Have the input pad about mid way up your shin to minimise the forces at your knees.
– Keep your hips and knees in line.
– Ensure the machine doesn’t take you into more knee flexion than you have available.
– Hold your pelvis and trunk stable whilst you perform the exercise.
– Use the handles to brace yourself.

Seated leg curl machine

– Make sure your knees are in line with the axis of the machine.
– Have the input pad set just below your calves, and the restraint pad flush with your thighs.
– Keep your hips and knees in line.
– Ensure the machine doesn’t take you into more knee extension than you have available.
– Sit tall on the machine and make sure you stay that way throughout.
– Use the handles to brace yourself.

Hip flexor exercise

– Set up a weightlifting bench with a small incline.
– Keeping one foot planted firmly on the floor, slowly lift the other leg towards your chest.
– Hold the top position for a second or two before slowly lowering to just above the floor.
– Repeat until you begin to feel fatigue in the area around the front of your hip.

Leg press

– Place your feet flat on the platform and adjust the seat until you’re able to lift either leg away from it slightly.
– Now move your feet vertically up the platform until you find a position that allows you to lift the front of your feet away from it slightly.
– Next find your ideal width which should be fairly instinctive. Test different widths with a light weight to decide what feels comfortable for you.
– Note the wider your feet go, the more you will have to point your feet outwards to accommodate for this.
– Brace your trunk and push the platform away from you, making sure your knees stay pointing in the same direction as your feet.
– Keep a small bend in your knees as you approach the extended position before lowering again.

Calf raises

– Don’t let the machine take your ankle into passive ankle dorsiflexion (the top of the foot moving towards the shin).
– Measure this first by standing up straight and lifting the front of each foot off the floor as high as it will go without leaning back.
– Place your feet on the bottom of the leg press platform with your heels slightly over the edge.
– Maintaining a small bend in your knees, push the platform away from you and aim to get the arches of your feet as high as possible.
– Slowly lower your heels back towards the start position.

Additional exercises

If you have time you may also find additional benefit from adding these exercises:

– Seated row
– Chest press
– Back extension
– Abdominal crunch

How many sets and repetitions to perform

The studies cited previously have used varying numbers of sets and repetitions to produce positive gains in cycling performance. However, they mostly describe their interventions as heavy strength training or heavy resistance training.

“Heavy” in this sense is best described as a resistance that will bring about fatigue in the target muscles within around 4-10 repetitions. We could discuss the precise number required but this would be a post of its own. Suffice to say it doesn’t seem to matter a great deal.

What is of primary importance is that you move the weight with control and that you achieve fatigue without compromising your form. To aid in this, keep your repetition speeds reasonably slow, especially at the beginning of the programme. This will prevent the large peaks in force that result from moving the weight too quickly.

Most of the studies mentioned have used three sets per exercise with rest intervals of anywhere between 1-3 minutes. Commonsense will tell you that the more sets you plan to do, the less intensity you may use in each.

I recommend starting with just one or two sets and making sure you execute them perfectly. If you find you can add another then do so, but only if you can maintain the same form and intensity you had on the first.

Putting it all together

Below is how the programme will look if we apply this evidence. Perform these exercises twice a week for between eight and 10 weeks and you will likely see an improvement in your power output on the bike.

Essential lower body programme

– Select a weight that brings about fatigue between 6 and 10 repetitions.
– Use a repetition speed of around 4 seconds for the concentric (shortening phase) and 4 seconds for the eccentric (lengthening phase). Pause for 1 second at either end of the repetition.
– Start with 1-2 sets and add a third if you can maintain the same intensity.
– Do the following exercises: Leg extension, Leg curl, Hip flexor exercise*, Leg press, calf raises on the leg press.

* As the hip flexor exercise is body weight only, add further repetitions to provide a fatiguing challenge if necessary.

Additional trunk and upper body exercises

Use the same sets, repetitions and speeds for these exercises. Add repetitions if necessary for the back extension and abdominal crunch.

– Seated row
– Chest press
– Back extension
– Abdominal crunch

Summary

Resistance training has been shown to improve many of the variables associated with better cycling performance. To have the greatest effect it should replace a portion of your time on the bike rather than be used as a supplement to it.

Most studies show two sessions a week are sufficient, with a reduction to one session a week to maintain those gains after 10 weeks, or when you plan to spend more time on your bike.

It makes most sense to use a lower body programme that provides a fatiguing challenge to the muscles involved in the pedalling action. If time allows then additional benefit will likely occur if exercises for the trunk and upper body are also included.

Lastly, how you perform the exercises is key. Move the weight with control and always listen to your body. While the evidence suggests resistance training will improve your performance, getting injured will reduce it with equal certainty. Go easy, particularly when starting out.

About the author

Paul Argent is a former Category 1 road racing cyclist from the UK. He now runs an injury rehabilitation and sports performance business in the City of London, Human Movement, which specialises in helping chronically injured athletes and weekend warriors alike get back to doing the things they love better than ever.

Editors' Picks