Strength and conditioning for cyclists

Winter training so far has turned me into what feels like a walking bundle of Delayed Onset Muscles Soreness, or DOMS.

DOMS can make you feel a bit fatigued, but sore muscles are a sign of adapting muscles (to a certain extent!)– and as the saying goes:


I’ve been off the weights all summer, and I think it’s fair to say my core strength exercises have been pretty half hearted as my attention has been mainly on racing, recovering, training, tapering, and racing again. That’s not uncommon mid-season, but now I’ve got no excuse and it’s time to get on the core wagon again. Unfortunately, my summer tardiness means I’m pretty much at square one – hence the DOMs.

Weight training is a controversial subject among cyclists

Some claim lifting heavy obstacles in strange contortions won’t train the right muscles to work in the right way. That I can understand – Time trial and track legend Graeme Obree favoured hill reps in a high gear as an alternative. Others have a fear of the word ‘weight’ – muscles weighs more than fat and they don’t want to pile it on.

In answer to the former, I agree, but I think for those who don’t have as much time as a pro cyclist, weight training could be a slightly harsher and quicker route to the same goal. My answer to the latter is that cycling performance is about power to weight. Strong muscles are more powerful, it’s worth considering the flipside of any weight gain.

Furthermore, if gaining bulk isn’t one of your key objectives, and you aren’t accustomed to drinking liters of milk in one go (I’m speaking having dated a rugby player for several years), the best you’re going to do is gain lean muscle.

So what do you recommend?

I do believe in weight training that utilises the core, and not just isolated muscles. Weight machines, such as the leg press and abductor machines are better than nothing, but free weights force you to use more muscles, often stressing an entire chain of function from abdomen to your toes.

There is also no point in doing weight training if you’re not backing it up with a stable core. Strength and conditioning exercises build a steady base, to which you can add a few weights to improve.

Personally, core strength is an area I struggle with, and I’ve had enough injuries to prove it, so I don’t claim to be an expert – but I have spoken to quite a lot know-it-all’s so I can report what I’ve learnt, and what I’m implementing myself.

Warm up with core strength exercises

Warm up with a few body weight exercises. These are strength and conditioning exercises, so even if you do fall into the ‘anti weights’ group, you should like these:

Bridges – It’s important to clench your bum cheeks and not to let your derriere sag. Hold each raise for 20-30seconds;


If you can do that, and can honestly say your bum isn’t sagging, lift one leg for 20 seconds, and alternate:

workout 007

I find I often get a tight piraformis from cycling. That’s the little muscles right in the middle of your bum which does a lot of work. I, like many cyclists, need to strengthen my glutes. The clam is a good way to start. Lie with legs together, and raise one leg from the knee. Make sure you can feel that little bum muscles working. I usually do 30 each side:


And next, the good old fashioned plank – you can make the side plank harder by lifting up the leg on the top, holding for 5-10 seconds, replacing it and then repeating, and the front plank by lifting one leg off the ground, and alternating. I’d recommend holding for 60-90 seconds. If you can hold a good shape for longer, go for it – if not, don’t:

0905-poster-side-plank 0906-plank

Once you’re working a bit, get dynamic

The Jackknief is all about using your core, and balance. Start in position A, tense your glutes, quads and core, and lift your bottom up to end in postion B. Personally, I tend to start with my calfs on the ball, as opposed to my toes, and you might find that easier:


Next, still using the ball, you can perform what I fondly call “hammer hamstrings” – roll the ball out from beneath you, and you should feel a burn down your hammies…

SB ham curlAdding in some cardio weights

A really popular weight training tool is the kettlebell. It’s a circular weight, a bit bomb shaped, with a handle. I’ve got one at home and I love it. The KB is really popular because it combines cardio exercise with weight training.

There are loads of exercises you can do with a KB, but I’ll start with the simple swing  – which is the ‘go to’ exercise. This will work your glutes, hamstrings, and core:


If you want a really great high intensity session, try this:

10 KB swings, 50 squats, 20 KB swings, 40 squats, 30 KB swings, 30 squats, 40 KB swings, 20 squats, 50 KB swings, 10 squats

If you can do it in under 10 minutes, you get a gold star- and it’s time to work at doing it quicker.

Another great KB exercise is the clean and press. You can do this with a standard dumbell, too. It’s a quick movement. If you want to target strength, go slower with a heavier weight, if you’re after a cardio burn go quicker (maintaining good form) with a lower weight. This will work your core, quads and hamstrings as you push up, and obviously your arms. I’m more concerned with the lower half of the chain for we cyclists, but we may as well not neglect our arms:

download (1)


The hero of weight training for cyclists.

Start with your body weight. Ideally, try standing against a wall, with an exercise ball against your back. Roll down the wall. This will ensure you’re keeping your body in a good position.

Don’t cheat – go lower than this example, and try to get a 90 degree angle in your legs:


Now try it with a med ball – either in front of you, or above your head:


Once you’re happy with your position doing this (I’d suggest you ask a gym supervisor to check you, and advise any tweaks to your form), you can try it with weight. Start with just the bar, so you can practice lifting it to your knees, over your head, and onto your neck. Then add weight when you’re happy. If your gym has a squat rack, this means you don’t have to lift it over your head and can use heavier weights.

When the weight is heavy, that’s when form will suffer –  so think carefully, concentrate, and stop and take a break if you find your knees are going in, you’re leaning forward, or just not going low. Do not sacrifice good form for a couple of extra KG on the bar.



You don’t need to overcomplicate this, but you do need to do it with correct form. I often find if form is failing, I’ll feel a strain in my lower back.

A good way to teach correct form is to start by using dumbells. The dumbells come back to your side, so you can’t rock forward. Start with the dumbells on the ground, lower your body down from your legs, sticking your bum out as you would in a squat, and pick them up.  Hold the weights with your arms straight, and then return them to the ground. Repeat 6-12 times depending if you’re doing low reps/heavy weight, or high reps/low weight:


When you’re happy with this, you can move on to the bar. Start with your feet hip width apart, underneath the bar. Bend down, pushing you bottom out (this bit is really important – seriously, think Beyonce – get the bum low and push it out), bring the bar up past your calfs as close to your body as you can, hold it with your arms straight, and return:


There are tons more exercises you could do – but these are the ones I’ve heard mentioned time and time again by coaches and physiotherapists – so give them a go!

*Images are from around the web, and are not being used in any way commercially but to provide advice. If you’d like one removed, contact me via email. 

Published by michellearthursbrennan

I'm an NCTJ Journalist and work at Cycling Weekly. Previous to this, I was the Editor at Total Women's Cycling. I've also dabbled in marketing and copywriting - having been Marketing Coordinator and Social Media/Content Editor at Evans Cycles. My first job was working on a local newspaper.  I've written for a variety of titles on a freelance basis, too. I got into cycling when I entered my first triathlon in 2010. I now race crits, road races, time trials, and do a lot of track training for not very much track racing.

3 thoughts on “Strength and conditioning for cyclists

  1. I’m sure all of the above works but it looks, well, too much like hard work! I’m with the Obree method myself (apart from using washing machine bits on my bike). Hard work is more palatable if a bike is involved.

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