How to use resistance training to improve your cycling strength

10 resistance exercises you can do at home

Working with weights will give you useable cycling strength without piling on extra bulk. Just follow these simple exercises at the gym or, better still, get hold of a Swiss ball and a couple of dumbbells and you can do them at home.

There are a lot of benefits to be had from working with weights – improvements to your metabolism, bone density, muscle mass, stamina, overall fitness… Just make sure you consistently follow safe practices to avoid injury.

How to avoid injury when working with weights

  •  Train with a partner – it's much safer than working out alone.
  •  Warm up by riding for five minutes before starting resistance training, increasing your heart rate gradually.
  •  Do a warm-up set with light weights each time you start a new exercise.
  •  Cool down for five minutes at the end of your session and stretch all the muscles you've worked.

It's vital that you keep your back in the 'neutral spine' position – its natural S shape – in all of these exercises (except the back extension). This is an important measure to avoid injury. Here's how to find it…

  • Lie on your back with your legs parallel, knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Relax your back, shoulders and neck
  • Use your abdominals to press your lower spine into the floor
  • Then pull your lower spine up and as far away from the floor as you can

The neutral spine position is between these two extremes, with your lower abdominals flat and a natural curve in the lower spine. Getting into this same back position while standing will take some practice, but it's crucial.

Five weight training myths debunked

1. Resistance training will make me heavy and slow. Well, it might if you followed a programme designed to add bulk, but we're not going to give you biceps like Arnie. This plan is designed to increase your muscular endurance.

2. Weight training will reduce my flexibility. It won't if you remember to stretch properly after each session.

3. I might injure myself. Not if you warm up properly, build up gradually and make sure you follow the correct form.

4. It's boring. We're not talking about endless hours pumping iron in the gym. A 45-minute session at home once or twice a week will get you the desired results. If you get fed up with the same routine, it's time to find some new exercises and vary the intensity.

 5. Only professional riders need to bother with resistance training. Nope, we can all benefit, whatever our level of fitness. In fact, beginners will benefit most from resistance training.

10 resistance exercises you can do at home

1. Bench press

The bench press
The bench press

  • Rest your upper back on the ball, brace your core section and position your feet so your body and thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Take the dumbbells out to the side so that your upper arms are parallel to the floor and your elbows are at right angles.
  • Exhale as you push the dumbbells upwards towards the ceiling until your arms are almost straight.
  • Lower the dumbbells slowly until your elbows are at right angles again.

2. Swiss ball back extension

Swiss ball back extension
Swiss ball back extension

  • Lie with your torso on the ball, your feet against a wall for stability and your fingertips on your temples.
  • Draw your body upwards to form a straight line with your legs before returning slowly to the start position.

3. Lunge

  • Stand with your feet slightly apart, your back in the neutral spine position (see above), with a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Keeping your core braced and your chest high, step forward with your left leg. Bend your knees until the left one is at right angles and your right one is just off the floor. You may need to adjust the length of your step until you feel comfortable to get this absolutely right.
  • Push back hard with your left leg and return to the start position. Repeat this movement, but this time leading with your right leg.

4. Bicep curls

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand and your palms facing forward.
  • Keeping your elbows still and back behind the midpoint of your body, curl the weights upwards towards your shoulders before slowly returning to the start position. Alternate with each arm.

5. Bent over rows

  • Stand with your knees slightly bent, a dumbbell in each hand and your palms facing forwards. Keeping your back in the neutral spine position bend forwards from your hips until your upper body is at a angle of approximately 45°.
  • Draw your arms in, bringing the dumbbells together. Your elbows should graze the side of your body, until your hands are level with your navel.

6. Squat

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with your back in the neutral spine position while holding of a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Bend your knees and flex slightly forward at your hips at the same time, lowering yourself slowly until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Exhale as you push yourself back up to the start position. Think about maintaining your spine position while keeping your feet flat on the floor and your chest high. Get a training partner to check that your back and lower legs stay parallel throughout this exercise.

7. Shoulder press

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, dumbbells held just above shoulder level with your wrists directly over your elbows.
  • Exhale as you push the dumbbells up until your arms are almost straight and then return slowly to the start position.

8. Dumbbell wood chop

Dumbbell wood chop combined
Dumbbell wood chop combined

  • Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart, holding one dumbbell with both hands. Reach both arms over your right shoulder. Most of your weight should now be on your right leg.
  • Keeping your chest high and your arms straight, rotate your torso. Shift your weight onto your left leg as you move the dumbbell slowly down to the outside of your left leg, while looking straight ahead.

9. Single-arm tricep extension

  • Begin by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Then take a dumbbell in one hand and reach up towards the ceiling.
  • Keeping your upper arm still, pointing upright, bend your elbow and lower the dumbbell slowly until it nearly touches the back of your neck. Then reverse the movement, straightening your arm in a controlled manner to return to the start position. It's important to make sure that your tricep – the muscle on the back of your upper arm – is doing all the work.

10. Prone fly

  • Stand with your knees slightly bent, a dumbbell in each hand and your palms facing forwards. Keeping your back in the neutral spine position bend forwards from your hips until your upper body is at a angle of approximately 45°.
  • With just a slight bend in your elbow throughout this exercise, draw the dumbbells to shoulder level, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Then return the dumbbells to the start position. And remember to breathe with each movement.

How much resistance and how often?

  • Choose weights that allow you to get 15-20 repetitions without sacrificing form. The last few should be hard work – at an effort level of seven out of 10.
  • If you can do 20 repetitions easily, increase the weight slightly.
  • Start off at just one set per exercise, but work up to with 30-60 seconds rest in between each one.
  • Lots of racers prefer to cut down on resistance sessions in the summer, often just continuing with a small amount of upper body work to maintain strength. But for general fitness it makes sense to keep it going year round, once to twice a week, stopping for a couple of weeks before any big event.
  • If you find yourself adding upper body bulk that you don't want, reduce the frequency of the sessions, but don't cut them out altogether.

Will resistance training make you ride faster?

As usual when it comes to exercise, this is a contentious question. Lifting weights won’t increase your maximum output but studies suggest that it’ll help you to do more work at a higher intensity before you get tired on long, moderately hard rides – the kind that most of us do a lot. And better upper body strength will give you extra control when it’s time to put the hammer down for out-of-the-saddle sprints and climbs.

Resistance training will help prevent injuries too by strengthening your muscles, ligaments and tendons, and it can correct muscle imbalances that, if ignored, could give you problems in the future. Riding doesn’t work your arms, shoulders, chest or back much, so cyclists are often weak in those areas. Train with weights and you’ll balance things out and improve your general fitness.

Why am I doing this to myself again?

Resistance work becomes even more important as you get older. You’ll naturally start to lose muscle from your thirties onwards, and with it strength and power… unless you do something about it. Weight training allows you to hang on to your body’s muscle and bone density in ways that cycling alone can’t. And a bit of extra muscle will also speed up your metabolism, helping you to lose body fat more easily.

Resistance training equipment essentials 

Swiss ball: You can get a Swiss ball — also called an exercise ball, stability ball and gym ball — from most sports shops. Follow the manufacturer's instructions to get the right size for your height.

Dumbbells: You could buy several fixed-weight dumbbells, but adjustable ones with separate weight discs/plates work out cheaper and take up less space.

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