Functional Strength Training Vs Bodybuilding? When it comes to weight training for cyclists there is a raging debate on as to what sort of strength training produces the greatest results. The first thing to remember with strength training is that a sprinter will be training differently to an racing and recreational cyclist.
Also, one of the great spinoffs from weight training is the ability to ride faster for longer and with more comfort. This article discusses the myths of weight training and how to specifically train for cycling.
Sprinters by nature need to recruit large amounts of power more than 2kw at world championship level. For that, they will spend a huge part of their training life in the gym performing strength training. Recreational and racing cyclists are best described as an endurance athlete, and strength training is also an important part of helping them develop power on the bike. It’s a proven scientific fact that endurance cyclist can greatly benefit from doing weight training as well.
A road racing cyclist still has to sprint at the end of a race, still has to chase down or initiate attacks and needs sustained power to climb hills and to time trial well.
Weight training is also important to the recreational cyclist who rides cycling endurance events and our very own original spring and summer Alpine Bright Training Boot Camp.
So why do we still think that weight training involves using machines, not free weights for building strength? It all goes back to what I call the bodybuilding mentality. Years ago gyms used to be fairly free spaces with lots of free weights. Then it was discovered that by isolating a muscle by using a specific machine designed for that very purpose you could make it get larger. The “looking good” bodybuilding cult was born. Gym’s driven by people wanting to look good started to implement muscle isolating exercise machines. Before long gyms were measured by how many machines they had. And when people went to gyms and they saw lots of machines they thought that this is what strength training is all about. This was compounded by the bodybuilders becoming personal trainers. Now, this is great for people who want to look like a bodybuilder. But not very good for athletes.
Case point: If you look at photographs of many elite cyclists with their shirts off it’s surprising that these highly tunned cycling athletes at the pinnacle of their career don’t look ripped like a bodybuilder. Based on this observation I would conclude that if they did look like a ripped bodybuilder, they wouldn’t be as great a cyclists as they are. So how do these athletes develop such superhuman power on the bike?
As mentioned before sports people, including cyclists, require large groups of muscles to work together to develop power. Take for example the cyclist sprinting out of the seat. Their legs are pushing down on the pedals one after the other while the rest of their body is working to stabilise their hips. While this is happening their arms and torso are being used to help drive each leg down for the maximum output of power. This is quite a full body exercise. Now you would think that the leg press would be a great way to build strength on the legs. You are right. But because your back is supported by the machine you only build leg strength with no neurological connection with the rest of your body. If you were to do a leg press, then jump on a bike and sprint you would find the rest of your body would have to relearn how to work together again. All that leg strength you developed on the leg press makes you a great leg presser. But on the bike, you would not be able to use much of it as the rest of your body would be unable to stabilise the power. All you have done is to create a huge strength in-balance in your body. You would be let down by your weakest link.
Case point: I trained an ex-bodybuilder and had great joy in out-sprinting him on the bike for months. He couldn’t understand it. Here I was, a stick insect next to him, beating him at sprinting. Something that he should have been better than me at as he could leg press, bench press, calf raise etc. more than double his body weight. Far more than I was capable of. It wasn’t until I was able to wean him off the machines and on to free weights that he was able to start developing some functional strength. Sure enough in a few months, he was beating me.
Developing proper functional strength in many planes of movement is certainly a big area that we can all work on. Especially now that a large number of us are desk bound. It wasn’t an issue 30 years ago when most cyclists were tradespeople and spent their whole working day performing functional exercises. We mimic a lot of these movements in our off the bike strength training program. This program is unique in that it helps recreational and racing cyclists their strength and power without building unnecessary bulk.
The most important thing we communicate in this off the bike strength training program for cyclists is to stay away from traditional muscle isolation exercises using machines. Traditional muscle isolation exercises using machines is great for bodybuilders and helps them build massive good looking muscles. But that is where it stops. Traditional muscle isolation exercises using machines is very detrimental to the sportsperson. This is because all effective sports movements require the development of functional strength through the recruitment of some muscles in more than one plane of movement to produce power.