Cycling Economy – Core and Strength

By Jiri Kaloc

Many cyclists know that lifting weights can help them ride faster. Interestingly, the benefits don’t come from the increased size of the muscle but from the improvement in cycling economy. Working on core and muscular strength helps you better transfer the power you generate into a forward motion. Let’s take a look at how you can use strength training to ride faster.

Your core balances opposing forces

Physics says that each action causes an equal and opposite reaction. This means that when you use force to push the pedals down, there’s an equal force pushing your legs up. This is why you need a strong core to stabilise you and balance the opposing forces. A weak core means these forces can destabilise your upper body, which leads to more side-to-side motion and a decrease in your pedalling economy.

Stronger muscles lead to less wasted movement

Strength training overall, not just for your core, can improve stability and motor patterns, which leads to better coordination and less wasted movement. Every little wasted movement you eliminate allows you to get more power for energy spent. So, how much strength training do you have to do to see improvements? Scientists did an experiment to find out.

Strength training improves cycling economy

Thirteen well-trained competitive cyclists (10 men and 3 women) were recruited for an 8-week study. Eight of the cyclists (7 men and 1 woman) were randomly assigned to the intervention group that would add strength training on top of their regular cycling. The remaining 5 cyclists continued with their regular cycling training and served as a control group.

The intervention group cyclists did 3 maximal strength training sessions each week. These consisted of 4 sets of 4-rep maximum half-squats with 3-minute rests between each. Every time one of them managed to do a 5th repetition during a set, they would receive an extra 2,5 kg of weight for their next to bring them down to 4 repetitions.

Both groups were tested at the beginning and after the 8-week experiment on a cycle ergometer. The researchers found that the intervention groups improved their cycling economy and increased time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic power. They also observed that their maximal oxygen uptake, cadence or body weight didn’t change.

Strength training helps even untrained cyclists

Different researchers tested something similar on 7 untrained cyclists. They assigned them a similar protocol of 3 leg-strength training sessions per week using 4 sets of 5 repetitions at 85% of their 1-rep maximum. After performing cycling tests, the researchers concluded that this training notably improved cycling economy in previously untrained subjects.

Tips for including strength training

The available research spells good news for all cyclists. Relatively little strength training can produce measurable benefits in under 2 months. It might still sound like a chore to have to visit a gym 3x per week just for a few heavy squats. The good news is that you can do a lot of strength training at home, without any equipment.
For beginners, you will probably see the most progress if you hit both your core and your legs. The safest way to do it is with a set of body-weight exercises. Here are a few examples to form a quick routine that can be over in under 15 minutes.

• Planks
• Lunges
• Single-leg bridges
• Burpees

Check out our article if you want to know how to do these exercises correctly. And if you’re more advanced and have access to weights, you can also read how to create a full-fledged routine with the following strength exercises for cyclists.

• Single-leg deadlifts
• Kettlebell swings
• Front squats
• Turkish get-ups
• Dumbbell lunges

Keep in mind that a very short routine where you only do 4 sets of about 4-5 repetitions is all you need to see improvements in cycling economy. So, keep it short but regular.