Cyclist sprinting out of the saddle

How to Be a Stronger Cyclist: A Beginner's Guide

Are you looking to take your cycling performance to the next level? Trying to hit a new PR or finally not get left behind going up that big hill on group rides?

If so, then you’re in the right place. In this guide, I'm going to share with you some of the best tips on how to get stronger for cycling.

I'll cover easy steps that you can do on and off the bike and things you can incorporate into your existing training routine.

If you’re looking to take your cycling more seriously and take your training to the next level, these tips will help you get there.

Let’s get started!

Why Cyclists Need to Get Stronger

Before you start diving into different training programs, it's important to understand why cyclists should focus on getting stronger. A lot of cyclists fall into the trap of solely focusing on endurance.

After all, cycling is an endurance sport.

While it's true that cyclists need a good base of endurance, other important factors come into play when racing or even just riding for fun.

Getting strong can help you:

  • Improve your power when pedaling
  • Climb hills faster
  • Sprint faster
  • Avoid injuries
  • Recover from rides more quickly

To put it simply, getting stronger as a cyclist means more power and speed on the bike. This means better performance and results, whether you're racing or just out for a weekend ride.

Set Goals and Create a Solid Training Plan

The first step in getting stronger is to set goals and create a solid training plan. The clearer you are about your goals, the better you'll be able to create a plan that will help you reach them.

And a good plan will help make sure you're getting the most out of your rides and your time in the gym.

Some things to consider when setting goals:

  • What are your long-term and short-term goals with cycling?
  • Are you looking to improve your power, speed, or endurance?
  • Do you plan to enter any races?

Think about what you want to achieve and then create a plan that will help you get there.

For example, if your goal is to improve your power output, you might focus on riding in bigger gears, riding uphill, or doing block training.

If your goal is to improve your endurance, you might focus on long rides, tempo training, or sweet spot training.

And if you're looking to improve your speed, you might focus on sprints, hill repeats, or time trials.

The important thing is to have a goal in mind and then create a plan that will help you achieve that goal.

Focus on Neuromuscular Training

An important focus when getting stronger as a cyclist is neuromuscular training. Dr. Michele LaBotz, TrueSport Expert and sports medicine physician, describes neuromuscular training as:

"Neuromuscular training is really teaching nerves how to make the muscles work in a way that is consistent with best performance and lower injury risk."

In short, neuromuscular training is a type of training that helps improve the strength and connections of muscles and the communication between your muscles and your nervous system.

This type of training can help you become a more efficient cyclist by improving your pedaling technique, economy, and power output. It also can help reduce injuries due to muscular imbalances or weakness.

Landry Bobo from Evoq recommends adding high-cadence training, low-cadence training, sprints, and strength training to incorporate neuromuscular training into your workouts.

High-cadence training is when you ride at a cadence that is higher than what is comfortable for you. This helps improve your pedaling efficiency and economy.

Low-cadence training is the opposite of high-cadence training. This is when you ride at a cadence that is lower than what is comfortable for you. This helps improve your muscular endurance and power.

Sprints are short, all-out efforts that help improve your leg speed and power.

Including all of these into your rides along with regular strength training will help you become a more well-rounded and stronger cyclist.

Get in Some Intervals on the Bike

When it comes to training on the bike, a good way to get stronger is to make sure you're including intervals in your rides. Ian Boswell, winner of the 2021 Unbound Gravel notes in an interview with Cycling News that:

"...interval training allows you to complete more time at a given power/effort target than you would in a single effort. This means that you can increase the training load on a given energy system and get more out of your training in much less time."

Intervals improve your strength and fitness by letting you push yourself to high levels of performance for short periods. This helps you to become stronger and more fit without completely exhausting your body or overdoing it.

Here are 5 common intervals for cycling:

  • VO2 Max -  These are short, all-out efforts that target your maximal oxygen uptake and are spent at 106%-120% of FTP. These can last between 1-5 minutes.
  • Billats -   These are similar to VO2 max intervals but are shorter in duration and usually last for 30 seconds followed by a 30-second rest.
  • Tabata - These intervals consist of 20 seconds of all-out effort followed by 10 seconds of rest.
  • Over-Unders -  These intervals alternate between 2 different intensity levels. For example, you might ride for 2 minutes at 95% of FTP followed by 2 minutes at 105% of FTP.
  • Sweet Spot -   These intervals are done at 88%-93% of FTP and help improve your endurance without overdoing it. They can last anywhere from 8-30 minutes.

There are of course endless ways that you can structure your intervals, but these are some of the most common and effective. Choose the interval that best suits your goals and then add it to your training rides. Just be sure to give yourself enough time to recover between efforts.

Embrace Hills

Another good way to build strength for cycling is to start embracing those hills. Hills are a great way to increase the intensity of your rides and force your body to adapt and become stronger.

Selene Yeager, author of Climb!: Conquer hills, get lean, and elevate every ride, notes that "Hill climbs are mother nature’s “leg day,” so you build lower body muscle; your heart works harder and gets stronger; you raise your lactate threshold so you can ride faster longer."

Hills are also a great way to improve your power output. By pushing yourself to go hard up a hill, you train your legs to produce more force and become more powerful.

Chris Carmichael, Founder and Head Coach of CTS, recommends the 5x3minute PowerClimb workout. Here's how to do it:

  • Do a 3-minute climb up a hill. Pace your climb so your power output and pace start fading in the final 20-30 seconds. Each interval should be at about 120%-125% of your FTP. Take 5 minutes of easy spinning recovery between climbs.

Whether you stop to do a full workout or not, the next time you see a hill on your ride, don't shy away from it. Embrace it and use it as an opportunity to become a stronger rider.

Gradually Increase Your Distance

Another good way to get stronger as a cyclist is to gradually increase the distance of your rides.  This will help to increase your endurance and stamina, both of which are important for cycling.

Start by adding 10-15% more distance to your rides each week. If you're riding 30 miles one week, aim for 33-34 miles the next week. Once you start getting closer to your goal distance (remember we talked about setting goals at the beginning of this guide!), you can back off the mileage increase a bit.

Just be sure not to do too much too soon as this can lead to burnout or injury.

As you gradually increase your distance, you'll find that you become stronger and more capable of riding for longer periods.

Start Weight Training

Another important way to get stronger as a cyclist is to start weight training. Weight training can help to improve your power, force production, and muscular endurance - all of which are important for cycling.

I recommend weight training for 5-6 days per week in the off-season to build strength and at least 2 days per week in-season to help maintain your strength gains.

And be sure to weight train your entire body. Even though you only pedal with your legs, training your upper body and core can help prevent muscular imbalances and injuries.

Bodyweight exercises for cyclists

Here are some good exercises to do that only use your body weight. These are great if you're traveling or at home and can't make it to the gym for your regular workout.

  • Squats
  • Single leg squats
  • Bulgarian squats
  • Single-leg Romanian deadlifts
  • Glute bridges/single-leg glute bridges
  • Planks
  • Side planks
  • Push-ups
  • Spiderman push-ups
  • Split squat
  • Hollow knee tuck
  • Single leg calf raises
  • Lunges

Gym exercises for cyclists

If you can make it to the gym and start adding weights to your strength training, you'll see even faster results. You can do the majority of the exercises listed above, just add in some dumbbells or weights.

Some additional exercises to do when you're at the gym are:

  • Bench Press
  • Barbell row
  • Weighted Step-ups
  • Box jumps
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Turkish Get-up
  • Renegade rows
  • Pull-up
  • Lat pulldowns
  • Bicep curls

These are by no means all the exercises you can do, but they're a great place to start. If you have other strength training exercises that you prefer to do, feel free to add them to your workout.

Eat Enough Protein

A key part of getting stronger is making sure you properly fuel your body and your muscles. As you exercise and train, your muscles break down.

In order to repair those muscles and help them grow stronger, your body needs plenty of protein. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes consume 0.5-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.

Here are some good foods to eat to hit your protein quota for the day:

  • eggs
  • salmon
  • chicken breast
  • Greek yogurt
  • tuna
  • lean beef
  • shrimp
  • soybeans
  • cottage cheese
  • turkey breast
  • tilapia
  • beans
  • quinoa

If necessary, you can try adding protein shakes to your diet too. However, you'll get more benefit from consuming protein from actual food than you will from dietary supplements.

Keep Your Energy Up

The last thing you need to do to get stronger for cycling is to make sure you’re taking care of your body and keeping your energy levels up.

Exercise, especially endurance exercise, can take a lot out of your body. It's important to replenish your energy stores by consuming plenty of carbohydrates before and after rides.

Even when athletes are sure to hit their protein goals, they often don't meet their carb requirements. 

The Mayo Clinic recommends "For most athletes, 5 to 7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight daily is right for general training. (Note that 1 kilogram equals 2.2 pounds.) Endurance athletes may need up to 12 grams per kilogram."

Some good carbohydrates to eat for energy are:

  • brown rice
  • quinoa
  • sweet potatoes
  • oats
  • bananas
  • sprouted breads
  • dried fruit
  • whole grain pasta
  • beans
  • spaghetti squash
  • yogurt

Also, make sure you aren't skipping your rest days. Giving your body enough time to rest and recover is crucial for making gains in strength and avoiding injury.

The Takeaway

Building strength is an important part of taking your cycling to the next level. By following the tips above, you can increase your strength and improve your performance on the bike.

It may shake up your regular riding routine a little, but focusing on strength alongside endurance will make you a faster, stronger, and all-around better cyclist. So don't be afraid to mix things up and start pushing yourself—your cycling will thank you for it in the long run!

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