Can Strength Training Transfer To The Bike?

images10 years ago, this was a common question, and there were plenty of people who would argue that gains in strength in the gym would not actually transfer to gains in power and speed on the bike. They said that weights made you bulky and slow, and that you should just ride your bike in a bigger gear or up a hill to get stronger and more powerful.

Thankfully, these people have largely been silenced, and you wonʼt find many pro riders, road or mountain, who are not in the gym through the off season at least, with many incorporating gym training through the whole year. This is especially true of the more ʻgravityʼoriented riders like downhillers who need serious upper body strength as well as pedalling power in order to compete at the top level. Just check out this article about Gee Atherton to see him pumping iron in the gym. We all know that Gee gets results too!

To show you how strength training benefits the endurance athlete as well though, I am actually going to use a runner as an example. You may have heard of Mo Farah, one of the Team GB heroes of the London 2012 Olympics? I thought so. Would you describe him as slow or bulky? Did you know that weight training was a crucial part of his Olympic prep, and has continued to be part of his new marathon training plan?

Check out this extract from an article in The Guardian newspaper:

He was always lean but now he is sculpted. He has upped his mileage since joining Salazar – during an average week he will run 120 miles – but it is the weight room where there has been the most radical shifting of plates and mindset. His strength and conditioning coach David McHenry has introduced him to powerlifting: traditionally the preserve of strong men and bodybuilders wanting their muscles to pop out like melons. He can squat 200lb, 1.5 times his bodyweight, for 4-6 reps. He also flings and swings a kettlebell, a device that looks like a cannonball with a handle, to order.

“I was a lot weaker before,” Farah says. “All the core stuff, all the weights? I couldn’t lift anything. I just used to run and do a bit of core but I never did specific stuff. That’s been the difference for sure.”

Now I know that he is not a mountain biker, but I think it helps to prove a point that being stronger will make you a better athlete, and that strength in the gym translates to the real world of sport. If you train smart you will not bulk up and get too heavy to climb, instead you will INCREASE your power to weight ratio that is so important for climbing on a mountain bike.

As for weights making you slow, it is all about how you lift:

Perform classic movements like squats and deadlifts with a focus on driving upwards in a powerful manner and you will become MORE powerful and therefore faster. This is especially true if you can integrate Olympic Lifting into your programme. For instance a rider who can clean and jerk their bodyweight is going to be seriously powerful, as well as having a strong mid-section and back that will let them put that power through the cranks
effectively and efficiently.

The final thing I will say about strength training is about how it can help to fix your body, correct imbalances and prevent injury.

By coming into a controlled environment like a gym with a quality trainer, you can work on physical factors that have been limiting your progress and success on the bike. Out on the trail they will be hard to see, and often even harder to fix, but in the gym you can effectively work to strengthen a weaker side, or to improve your hip mobility for instance. Too many people who have pain when they ride (roadies in particular) throw money at the
problem with £200 bike fit sessions that shorten their stem by 2mm and other bollocks like that when they should be fixing their bodies instead. You can spend £5000 on a bike custom made for you and still have back pain, because the underlying issue is that you are weak and stiff in the back, neck and hips. Next time, spend £4000 on the bike and give me a grand to fix you and I guarantee you will ride faster and without pain!

On the subject of injury, letʼs think of 2 riders. They are identical twins and one day in a freak accident they both fall off of their bikes in some rocky singletrack and instinctively throw their arms out to break their fall. One of the twins never does any strength training, and the other has been doing the ʻStrength Factory Bodyweight Programmeʼfor 2 months including work on press ups and handstands so his shoulders are getting pretty strong and a lot more stable. Which twin do you think is more likely to walk away with just some bruises and no serious shoulder damage?
I hope that I have shown you that time spent doing bodyweight and gym training is time well spent and it will have huge benefits for your riding, no matter what discipline you do. Just remember that there is no substitute for time on the bike, so make sure you make time for both.