Translating General Strength In To Specific Cycling Strength
Now that the majority of the general strength in the gym is complete, it’s time to put those strength gains to work on the bike. But what exactly have we achieved with the off-season investment in a strength program? And now what? How do we translate that general strength in to specific cycling strength? Finally, how do we maintain the strength gains?
With endurance training there is a ceiling to the resistance we can create, and it’s based on body weight, weight of equipment and gradients. But in order to improve neural adaption (the brains ability to find and recruit the muscle to contract it and create movement) we need to add more resistance.
Increased resistance requires greater recruitment of muscle fibers to oppose this resistance and as a result –
- trains the brain to fire the correct muscle, more efficiently and effectively
- increases firing frequency of the motor neuron, thereby increasing the number of muscle fibers contracting
- increases growth of motor neurons and muscle fibers to build muscle mass
Heavy resistance establishes muscle memory, meaning the message sent from brain to muscle develops a pathway that is more automatic. As a result, less concentration is required to make a movement. Resistance training sets a foundation in place – so athletes can quickly access established movement patterns. This also trains the body to access strength when tired and forces the body to recruit muscles when it normally would not, which might come in handy at the end of a race? But the strength work in the gym needs to simulate the demands of the specific sport in order to achieve the desired outcome.
How do you translate general strength developed in the gym, in to cycling specific strength and power, and improved pedaling technique?
We need to take this general strength and hone it on the bike, in order to time the recruitment of the right muscle at the right time around the pedal stroke.
During transition season (aka off-season), I like incorporating cycling specific strength workouts, alongside strength in the gym. These workouts are performed on a shallow grade, approximately 4-5% with heavy gearing to produce high resistance at low cadence at long to medium endurance power. The objective is to smoothly pedal under the high resistance, recruiting the right muscle at the right time. Another key objective of this workout is to develop a stable platform, by engaging and holding a neutral pelvis and spine, so the hips can more effectively drive power in to the pedals. This is contrasted with the idea of wrestling the bike and doing whatever it takes to turn the pedals over, which misses the point of the workout.
Just like in the strength endurance phase in the gym, one of our objectives in this big gear workout is to set down a foundation of effective recruitment patterns, to improve pedaling technique and efficiency. The “push” in the pedal stroke is easy, that’s’ what we do all day walking, it’s the “scraping back” by recruiting the posterior chain (hamstrings and calf muscles) that takes training. The active unloading of the pedal on the back of the stroke, effectively reducing the resistance encountered by the opposite leg driving the power in to the pedals, also takes training.
Studies show that resistance training in the gym directly translates in to improved pedaling technique and efficiency. This is seen in improved force production during the force producing phase of the pedal stroke, as well as improved hip flexor recruitment during the active unloading of the pedal during the recovery phase.
I like doing single leg pedaling drills prior to the on-bike, big gear strength workouts. Drills provide feedback on weak links in my pedal stroke and lack of symmetry of strength and motor control left to right. This feedback provides focus for my workout.
Once we have established a foundation of specific strength on the bike, this big gear, heavy resistance, low cadence workout then transitions to a power workout, by ramping up intensity to sub threshold to threshold.
Additionally, we can translate general power developed in the gym to develop, for example, in-the-saddle horsepower and pedaling efficiency. An on-bike workout could look something like a 30 second effort, from a nearly standing start, in the saddle, with over-gearing on a slight gradient. Pounce on the pedals, bring it up to and hold approximately 40rpm, at an anaerobic capacity-plus power output. If gearing and gradient are right, the last 10 seconds seem like eternity and it takes full concentration to effectively turn over the pedals. This workout is demanding and only takes place after a foundation of specific cycling strength is set in place. And as with the strength workout, this workout demands the ability to engage and hold a neutral pelvis and spine, to protect the back and drive power in to the pedals.
How do we maintain strength gains made in the gym?
Science says…that’s easy. Throughout preparation and competition phases, include one gym session a week, hitting the major muscle groups in a max strength format, to maintain those strength gains. This would be a short concise session in the gym with circuits built around, for example, squats, leg curls and Romanian deadlifts. Studies also indicate that plyometric sessions, performed two to three days a week are an effective way to maintain strength gains and translate it to the bike. Again, plyometrics would only be included once good movement patterns and postural control are set in place during the strength phase. But plyometrics combined, for example with the in-saddle horsepower, 30 second efforts described above can yield big dividends, including –
- improvements in anaerobic capacity
- improvements in neural activation of the muscle
- increased firing frequency of the muscle motor units
= increased peak force and rate of force development
- Improved efficiency
If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hope to see you “out there…”