Training: How to build strength and lean mass

The secrets of training and eating for better muscles


To get faster you must generate more power, be more aero or weigh less. In this article I’m not going to talk about getting aero or losing weight, but how to train and eat to gain lean mass.

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As you will discover, it’s hard to get more muscle when training in the gym, but adding on this extra muscle tissue is important for those who lack strength in key areas, who need rehab, or perhaps want to look good and be more functional off the bike. You will also learn a few on-the-bike tricks. Please enter the body transformation zone…

Genetic mix

Each of us has a mixture of genetics that makes some of us naturally skinny ectomorphs who climb well but offer little to hide behind in a headwind, while others are stocky mesomorphs, with rounded muscles and plenty of power, who may still climb well, but into the wind and quick efforts are their forte. An endomorph easily gains fat weight, but this is only if they’re taking in too many calories or not doing enough activity.

In the world of pro cycling, resistance training is often used in off-season training for rehab and specific muscle strength objectives

In all these body types, muscle is a vital ingredient – the ectomorph may not add it easily but muscles can still be trained to recruit better thanks to a nervous system that fires better. The mesomorph, not wanting to add useless mass for climbing, may want even stronger legs or might be willing to sacrifice some biking prowess to look good in the mirror. The endomorph needs to train to burn calories, and in addition, extra lean mass means a high metabolic rate so future calorie intake is less likely to be stored as fat.

Sports doctors and team advisors have suggested that resistance training in November to January is useful when road mileage is lower, using “low intensity and high frequency”. However, the late Ed Burke suggested two to three days a week from October to March with bodyweight exercises and specific exercises used to target areas not trained when on the bike. Some teams use minimal gym work while others advocate regular workouts. Lightweight riders fear adding a single ounce of non-specific muscle, so weights are often shunned.

This scenario is a bit extreme, though. You just need to remember one thing: lean mass is very hard to gain and to keep hold of. Here’s some data and anecdotes that bear out how hard you are going to have to train if you want to gain more muscle and/or power:

A group of six recreational weightlifters did 10 weeks of hard training in the gym involving three days a week, five exercises each session and resistances allowing only four to eight reps before fatigue. They supplemented with 30g whey protein four times a day. After thousands of kilograms of work they added 5kg of lean tissue and lost 1.4kg of fat. Squat strength went up 60%. Note: seven weight trainers using a casein protein gained only 0.8kg lean mass and failed to lose fat.

Learning point: lean mass takes a lot of hard work and good nutrition to be built, not just a few 4kg bicep curls and some beans on toast.

When a mixed group completing a three-month weights programme were divided into slender and solid body type groups, despite average group changes in lean mass, the slender group actually failed to gain lean mass while the solid group gained 1.6kg. The authors concluded that differences in potential to increase lean mass are genetically determined. Anecdotally, talking to ectomorph international mountain biker Oli Beckingsale, he reported that weight training had increased strength but failed to make any significant body weight changes.

Learning point: your body type will determine whether strength comes about with little lean mass gains or if larger muscles may also occur

It is possible to get on-the-bike specific power gains with no extra gym work but with some hard interval training. Studies have found that just four sessions of intervals (20 one-minute efforts at peak power with two minutes recovery between) can increase power and ability to maintain subsequent high intensity intervals. However, improvements in endurance performance following interval work of several weeks “although statistically significant, have been relatively small (2 to 4 percent)”.

Learning point: intervals will add power or ability to work at high intensities due to neural changes and enzyme systems adapting – lean mass gain is not likely.

Although conventional nutrition advice says we get enough protein, around 15 per cent of calories, the hard training weightlifters in the first example prove otherwise when taking in 20 per cent of energy in the form of protein. Additional research on one-legged training using a leucine and whey supplement or a placebo showed the protein supplement improved strength gains of 30 per cent in eight weeks compared to 22 per cent in the placebo. The 20g whey 6g leucine was taken before and after training, and on non- training days it was taken before breakfast. Use of 40g whey 8g casein each day to improve resistance training gains have been supported by others.

Gain and pain

No one gains lean mass by just over-eating – that simply promotes weight gain in the form of fat. Lean mass takes hard work to build, but it can be worth the effort for the increase in power. It can also be useful if you want to develop your muscles after an illness or period of non-training. The road racer or time trial rider needs to work out if extra lean mass is required or not – you need to ensure that the gains in power are greater than the increase in bodyweight. Whatever your reason for wanting to develop lean mass, hard work is the primary way to get there.

Tips for building lean mass

1 Resistance train in the gym for 30 to 60 minutes two to three days per week using a resistance that causes fatigue in 6 to 10 repetitions with at least 2min rest between efforts

2 Add 50-100g (2-4oz) of whey protein spread over the day in servings of 25g (1oz)

3 Don’t overdo the endurance work beyond what you need to – up to around 150 per cent of your goal event duration is adequate

4 Reduce your stress one day a week by not training; relax and rest quietly for several hours in the evening

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5 If you want power but not lean mass, use short interval work (for example, 10x [30sec max every 5min]) in the four to six week period before your first events