Iron Deficiencies: training with weights to get stronger & faster

crankpunk was a gymrat for a good 7 years or so, serious for a couple, getting up to a ridiculous 96kg. From there I got down to 74kg at my lightest when riding for Fuji-Asia, but I do believe that the muscular strength I had as a meat head served me well as a cyclist once I had dropped all the daft lumpy stuff! Here is a little guide to working with iron to get better all-round on the bike.
Chris Froome in the off-season
Chris Froome in the off-season

Most cyclists would rather lose a few non-essential digits than risk ever putting on weight, so the idea of going to the gym to actually pump iron would have many fleeing to the mountains to cram in another 3 hour hill session.Yet in fact a quick, smart workout program at your local gym or at home could mean substantial gains in your cycling efficiency and all-round strength and health.

We are though of course cyclists, not weight lifters, so we can make mistakes in our gym work – indeed, this is one of the major factors that deters many cyclists from working out, as they don’t know where to start.

If you can get your workouts right though and steer clear of exercises that could injure you and avoid doing the wrong training and thus not build non-essential muscle, you will soon be riding with a better position and utilizing your leg and back muscles to the max.

Recovery can also improve quite noticeably.

Firstly, decide what you want from your workout, in accordance with this:

  • 1-6 repetitions: create strength
  • 8-12 repitions: foster muscular growth
  • 15+ repetitions: build muscular endurance

So, short, heavy lifting will not give you bulging muscles but rather build strength. Muscular endurance should be built on the bike, not in the gym in my opinion. If you want more explosive power, about 5 reps is perfect for each exercise, in sets of two or more traditionally three.

Personally I prefer to use one set to warm up (12-15 reps, lightish weight), then on the second I will do 8-10 reps at a medium weight, then do one set with heavy weights at 4-6 reps (maintaining good form though the whole way).

As with interval training, intensity is critical here.

Secondly, choose the right kind of exercises. There’s little point doing immense bench presses or too much shoulder work, as you don’t need this on the bike. The upper body portion of a decent workout can be done in ten minutes or even less.

One area of the body many cyclists neglect is the stomach, yet a strong core can really help improve all aspects of a cyclist’s performance. There’s a whole range of exercises you can find on-line, so I won’t go into that too much, but the abdominals are a muscle group that can be worked almost daily. A strong core not only improves posture and allows the rider to generate more power, it also looks great on the beach!

Of course a cyclist should also work the legs, but be careful here. Free-weight squats have long been a favorite exercise of cyclists but can lead to knee injuries if not done strictly. Personally I favor lunges as they work the glutes (‘arse’ to you and me), thighs and calves all at once. Seated squats are also good as there’s a decrease in the chance of injury, and you can at the end do a few calf pushes on the same machine.

An intelligent workout should have you in and out of the gym in 30 minutes. Short, intense bursts are the way to go, and if done three times a week you’ll soon notice the changes.

Below is a guide I wrote for my Crank Punk Coaching Systems clients.

 Why weight train?

Some studies have shown that training with weights have no effect on stamina or endurance yet there are many more that have shown the opposite.

In a study of elite cyclists from the Danish U-23 National Team, strength training plus cycling improved performance during a 45-minute time trial to a greater extent than cycling alone [1].

In another, strength training increased time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic power by almost 20%, as well as improving cycling economy by 5% [2]. Eight weeks of strength training has even been shown to improve cycling performance in subjects (albeit untrained beginners) doing no cycling at all.

Who should train?

Just about everybody, unless you’re either severely disinclined or feel you don’t need to make gains in power or strength. There is some validity to the school of thought that believes that the bike is all the training you need, but this is true more for top-level riders (who are natural athletes, more often than not) who can ride 25-30 hours a week and who are more instinctive in their training than the average rider.

For the rest of us, getting in some strength training is definitely worthwhile.

When Should I train?

In season (mid-February-September/October traditionally), most cyclists do not train with weights, as at this time there should be enough on-bike work to keep you busy and to ensure that you are working the necessary muscles – namely, the legs, core and lower-back.

If any exercise indoor with resistance is to be done in season, some core work 3-4 times a week with nothing more than a few push-ups and/or dips should suffice.

The reason for this is that we don’t need any additional upper-body weight whilst on the bike. It might look great on the beach to have rippling pecs and boulder-like shoulders, but on-bike these are less than useless, they actually slow you down.

So, the following exercises are best to do in your ‘off-season’, anytime from say November to the end of January/mid-February.

Think of them as more of strengthening exercises than body-building ones. Slim, sleek, athletic and powerful should be the watchwords.

Train when rested, train if possible at least 6 hours after riding and, ideally, keep ‘heavy’ gym days for non-bike days. One day off between workouts at the very least is required.

And remember – this is about getting faster, stronger and more powerful on the bike. Not about getting buff like Peter Sagan!

How should I train?

There are different theories in what kind of training is best for cyclists. Some believe that mimicking on-bike training is best, meaning high reps with a low weight.

Others believe that heavier weights and lower reps (between 6-12) bring about better gains for cycling.

Personally I prefer a mixture, one that will help build muscular strength and also work a bit on building endurance (especially important if you’re home-bound due to cold weather).

For the legs, heavier is good. This would mean weight that allows for between 2-3 sets and a descending number of repetitions, starting at about 10-12 as a warm up for each exercise, and going down to 8-10 for the next, 4-6 for the last.

A LOWER BODY workout:

  1. Stretch
  2. Lunges
  3. Leg Press
  4. Hamstring Curl
  5. Calf Raises (calves can be worked more as they are ‘stubborn & sturdy’ muscles)
  6. Stretch

Legs can be done three times a week, more than that and you will eventually overtrain these muscles. Less than that and you will still feel gains but they will be harder to sustain and to consolidate.

Also with the legs – when doing these workouts it is essential, like with the training on the bike, to mix things up. So if doing squats, you can go really light (ie just with the bar, no weights) and practice jumping up so that your feet leave the floor (though as mentioned, be wary of squats). If on a leg press machine (safer), push off the leg plate with your toes and ‘catch’ it on the way back, working the calves as well as the thighs.

For at least one set (the last usually), cut down the reps and increase the weight, so as to ‘break’ the muscle fibers, encouraging repair (hence the need for adequate rest) and growth.

Be sure to start with light weights on any program and to build up. Allow for enough rest between workouts.

Here are examples of a UPPER BODY exercises, the idea here would be to chose, as stated, two or three of these and to rotate them each time. I would do chest and biceps on Monday for example, then back and shoulders Wednesday, and so on. Over and done in 10 minutes max, nothing insanely heavy.

  1. Stretch
  2. Chest: I prefer dips and pushups here but also incline bench dumbbell flies from time to time – as ever, it is important to mix things up
  3. Shoulders: I prefer the  Lift and Press as it works almost the whole shoulder area and also the arms
    How to do: Standing straight, hold dumbells or barbell with straight arms, resting on thighs, with straight back, lift to chin, pause a moment, then press overhead. Dumbell flies also great.
  4. Biceps: Again, not too many, not too heavy.
  5. Lat work: I rely on the dips and pushups to give the lats all the work they need. Some overhead lat machine work also good, as are chins.
  6. Deadlift: A great general exercise, not one I would do each time but a great all-over body workout, works glutes, back, arms, neck, the lot. If pressed for time, this and some leg work is a good solution.
  7. Core: Any combo of exercises are ok, aim for somewhere in the region of 100-150 reps in total once strength has been built up.

The 30 MINUTE Workout

Traditionally, body builders would work the legs one day and the upper body the next, but for the time-constrained cyclist this kind of a workout style is not possible, nor, in my opinion, desirable. When I was addicted to the gym even then I would be in and out in 25 minutes, 30 tops.

I recommend a 3 day per week to a 4 day per week cycle (once you are sufficiently dialed in and if you do really need the strength work), one on which you work both the legs and the upper body, as well as the core, and it’s a workout you can do in about 30 minutes.

We want to do almost the whole leg workout each time, being sure to do a calf exercise, a thigh exercise, and a quad exercise. Go for the full 3 sets on each muscle part.

For the upper body, we can omit one part each time and rotate them in the next workout. One way to decide what to leave out is to look at your body and to see visually which area needs more work and which less.

Personally for the upper body I prefer to use weight-free exercises as much as possible, meaning push-ups, chin-ups and dips with some weights used from time to time for biceps, shoulders and for the ever-useful deadlift.

Start with push ups, do 40 say, then the shoulders, and finally the dips. Three exercises, all the muscles used and done in 10 minutes or less.

Next time, do the biceps instead of the shoulders.

Cram the crunches in between the legs and the upper body and you’re done and dusted in 30 minutes tops. Move quickly between sets and exercises to keep the blood flowing and to save time, however do not move too quickly between upper and lowed body as the blood needs time to ‘re-jig’ itself.

3-4 times a week on this and you will see the difference. Use weights that you can manage – train smart, not macho.

[1] Aagaard P, Andersen JL, Bennekou M, Larsson B, Olesen JL, Crameri R, Magnusson SP, Kjaer M. (2011). Effects of resistance training on endurance capacity and muscle fiber composition in young top-level cyclists. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 21, e298-307


[2} Sunde A, Støren O, Bjerkaas M, Larsen MH, Hoff J, Helgerud J. (2010). Maximal strength training improves cycling economy in competitive cyclists. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24, 2157-2165





(Livestrong features heavily, please don’t hate!)


For Core:


  • Excellent one here from Garmin, for CORE STABILITY and for Stretching:
  • To strengthen the lumbar spine – hyper-extensions or ‘super mans’
  • To strengthen the abdominals – crunches on physio-ball, planks, bridge on ball
  • Some new ones here:

For the Legs:

  • To strengthen the quadriceps – lunges, leg extensions, dead lifts

(my favorite)

  • To strengthen the hamstrings – hamstring curls

No weights?

  • To strengthen the calves – seated or standing calf raises

Amother word on SQUATS:

Two very good cyclists that I know had to quit cycling due to injuries sustained from doing traditional squats. Personally, I prefer the seated squat machine:

For the Upper Body:

  • Lat pulldown (Back):

Without weights:

This one is great:

  • Dumbell chest press

Decline Push Up (chest, shoulders, triceps):

  • Dips (back, shoulders, triceps, chest)
  • Shoulders
  • Bicep


Author: Lee Rodgers

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist and the original CrankPunk.

3 thoughts

  1. Brilliant article Lee, to the point and comprehensive with great explanation on ‘why’ as well as the benefits of each movement. Definitely one to save and refer to, thank you!

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