How to build strength not bulk

4 tips to avoid building muscle during strength training

You want to keep your body lean for the best cycling performance

Jo McRae, author of Ride Strong: Essential Conditioning For Cyclists, explains the basic rules for building strength and not bulk when training to keep your body lean for the best cycling performance.


1. Get weights right

Many traditional strength exercises aren’t appropriate for cyclists who need to target flexibility, mobility and core stability first. Weightlifting or resistance exercises that are, in theory, excellent for cyclists won’t have any benefit if muscle imbalances, or poor postural or basic core alignment and stability issues, aren’t addressed first. If you don’t perform these drills with basic good form first, you won’t achieve your goal of greater strength.

2. Take a neutral stance

To perfect strength-building technique you need to achieve a ‘neutral spine’ (a position where the natural curves help cushion and protect the spine) during drills. When doing squats, for example, use a Swiss ball initially, as the support of the ball against a wall helps to keep your spine ‘neutral’ as you lower into the squat. Doing resistance work with a neutral spine helps the body manage weights without straining muscles and joints.

3. Revise your reps

Once you’ve mastered correct form, working with dumbbells or your own body weight in a rep range of 8-12 will develop strength without the risk of hypertrophy (size development), especially when performed just a couple of times a week. For drills that focus on postural muscles, like core work, isomeric exercises (ones where you hold a position), are most effective. Hold a muscle in position for 10 seconds then rest, then progress to 20 seconds.


4. Working your upper body

For those rare few who find they develop muscle, doing a mini circuit of exercises, ‘super-setting’ one exercise with another (in a pair with no rest between) or going longer with the repetition range can counter this. Upper body standing push and pull exercises — where the legs and core work together with the upper body to generate force, such as on a cable machine — will develop functional strength and flexibility without developing unnecessary bulk.