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What are the most effective 'no equipment' (bodyweight only) or 'equipment minimal' strength exercises for cyclists? There's a lot of info out there about core strength, so I'm working on that. However, I'm thinking now specifically about leg strength right now.

I've 'plateaued' in recent years despite lots of quality miles and time on the bike. I think it's time to seriously look at increasing strength to step it up a notch. However, I hate gyms and the associated costs, egos, etc. so I'm looking for exercises I can do at home with no/little equipment. I have a 65cm Swiss Ball, some 15lb dumbbells, but that's about it.

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What are your goals? endurance, sprints, climbing? –  Simone Dec 15 '11 at 11:08
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9 Answers 9

There's been a number of questions about how to improve once you've plateaued with your current training regime. None of them specifically deal with weight training but they are all about improving strength and endurance on the bike.

The commonly accepted answers (and usually championed by wdypdx22) is Interval Training.

Interval Training.

It's a type of workout where you alternate bursts of energy with periods of recovery. There are many variations of interval training. If you want cycling specific intervals, you could try "The Time Crunched Cyclist" by Chris Charmichael. The book is primarily about training for Centuries or racing, but if you follow the methods, you'll get into great condition. Interval training is an excellent cardo workout and a great alternative to jogging.

One popular method of interval training is the "Tabata" method. This uses 20 seconds of ultra-intense exercise (at an intensity of about 170% of VO2max or 90 - 95% of your max heart rate) followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated continuously for 4 minutes (8 cycles). Typically, this is done 3 or 4 days a week and not on consecutive days.

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Good question! I appreciate being quoted by Mac in that I am definitely a big fan of interval training. Interval training is primarily for power and endurance; but only somewhat for strength. So, there's that.

Here are some strength training exercises that can be done with little or no equipment.

These can be done with bodyweight alone; or using dumbbells and barbell. For strength training, it will be more effective with weights than without. It really depends on your fitness level and how hard core you want to be.

So, you have, "...a 65cm Swiss Ball, some 15lb dumbbells, but that's about it." Ok. With a relatively minimal expenditure, you could add in a kettlebell or two, additional weights for the dumbbells and perhaps a barbell set. At that point, you'd be good to go; but you can easily get started with what you have.

  • Ball squats - Place the swiss ball against a wall and your back. Do squats with or without the dumbbells.
  • Split squats - Do these with or without your dumbbells.
  • Single leg Romanian deadlifts - Do these with your dumbbells. (Works core and lower body)
  • Side lying leg lifts (Works the gluteus medius, and helps prevent ITB syndrome)
  • Kettlebell swings (Works hamstrings, glutes, core and back)

However, for real strength gains, you'll need to add to your home equipment a bit.

I workout in a gym, but this is similar to what I do throughout the winter for strength. When spring comes, I switch over to interval training. I've found that strength training during the cycling season is counter-productive.

** Also, there are numerous links for the above exercises. One of the best links for exercises is here at EXRX.net.

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I would recommend training with power and working with a coach. It will be faster and more efficient than trying to figure out how to get stronger on the bike than from a forum like this.

ps. I currently train with power and have worked with coaches in the past. The structured workouts have definitely helped me get stronger on the bike and able to race on the road and cyclocross. I don't do anything in the gym and I have a few core exercises I keep up with but that is all.

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Squat is very good for leg strength. You can do it at home with weights, like your dumbbells, though 15lb is pretty light. You might want to procure a barbell to progress the weight resistance.

Also, it's a good idea to check with a trainer in a gym to learn how to do it correctly.

On the bike exercises are probably better if you ride less than 14 hrs/week, things like sprinting, stomping and climbing.

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Bike James has a bunch of information on strength training for mountain biking, and he has also created a bodyweight workout. I've been doing his workouts for around six months now and it's made a massive difference to me, both off-road and on my daily commute.

Specific exercises I would recommend are the turkish get up (amazingly relevant to cycling), and, focussing on leg strength, deadlifts and squats. If you only have a light pair of dumbbells there are variations of both which will do you a lot of good.

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+1 For "get-ups"! –  user313 Dec 15 '11 at 21:59
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Unless you ride or race a fixed-gear or single-speed bike, the leg strength needed by a cyclist who rides a geared bike is actually quite moderate. In a physiological context strength is defined as the maximum force that you are able to produce, which occurs at close to the point when your muscles are stationary. Even most otherwise healthy non-athletes can leg press around 1.4x their weight at "1RM" (for "one rep max"). On a geared bicycle when you're not trying to sprint away from a dead stop typical pedal forces are closer to the equivalent of around 20% of body weight, way below 1RM. Occasionally, when in a standing start, riders will apply up to 1.2x their body weight on the pedals (this obviously requires pulling up on the handlebars) but this is not sustainable for more than a few pedal strokes.

Thus, unless you are recovering from injury or have some other obvious motor skill issue, strength is rarely the limitation to improved cycling. Cycling is an aerobic endurance sport, which is why most professional cyclists more closely resemble ectomorphic marathoners than endomorphic weight lifters, and why doping with EPO (which increases oxygen transport) is more ergogenic than doping with anabolic steroids. The obvious exception is track sprinters, where the the intensity and short duration of the race select for cyclists who resemble their sprinter counterparts in track-and-field. See, for example, images of the legs of track sprinter Robert Forstemann.

In general, the key to improved cycling is increased power, not increased strength per se. Power is the product of pedal force and pedal speed. The best strength training you can do to improve your cycling is to do many (many) repetitions at relatively high muscle contraction and flexion speeds at relatively low force. This is not the typical kind of strength training that one performs in a gym with weights -- the muscle speeds are too low and the force loads are too high. A better example of the appropriate speed/force range is interval training on your bike. Thus, most exercise physiologists (and a many cycling coaches) believe the best way to attain the leg strength and leg speed appropriate to bicycle riding is to train on your bike.

To show that the strength demands of cycling are relatively modest, the panel plot below shows two extracts from a ride done by the same rider in the same day. The panels show the rider's speed, cadence, pedal force (in Newtons), and power. On the left side of the plot, in the black dots, is the acceleration away from a stop light, from 0 up to about 30 km/h; on the right side, in red, is an acceleration later in the same ride from about 30 km/h to 60 km/h.

max power doesn't occur at max pedal force

In particular, notice that in accelerating from a stop, the rider hit a maximum pedal force of around 800 N, which is equivalent to just a bit more than the rider's weight (obviously, the rider must have been pulling up or bracing against the handlebars in order to do this). Notice, too, that the maximum power attained during this standing start acceleration was about 600 watts.

Now turn your attention to the red dots. In this case, the rider was coasting along at about 30 km/h so the cadence, pedal force, and power all began at zero. Suddenly cadence jumped from zero to about 100 rpm, then maximized at around 130. Pedal force hit a peak at about 600 N (that is, about 75% of the maximum force during the standing start). The combination of pedal force and pedal speed produced a maximum power of around 1100 watts. The plot below shows the same points, keyed in the same black and red colors, with rpm and pedal force displayed on the axes. Since power is the product of pedal force and pedal speed, "isopower contours" appear as hyperbolas in the plot: four isopower contours are shown at 250, 500, 750, and 1000 watts. The points at which pedal force, power, and speed each attain their maximums are identified.

rpm, pedal force, and power

The take-away message is that cycling is an aerobic sport and (unless you ride a fixed gear or single-speed bike) even under maximum acceleration the strength demands are relatively moderate. See here and here for more discussion of the magnitude of forces concerned, muscle fiber type recruitment, and physiological characteristics of elite riders. Accordingly, the best "strength training" you can do to improve your cycling is to do your strength training on your bike. There are reasons why one might want to do weight-lifting or other "strength" training off the bike (for bone health, for appearance, for injury prevention, etc.) but as far as cycling is concerned do your strength training on the bike.

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Even most otherwise healthy non-athletes can leg press around 4x their weight at "1RM" (for "one rep max"). Really? From a position where heels almost touch butt? –  Kaz Oct 7 '12 at 2:13
    
What you're missing in this answer is that fast twitch muscle (what you develop in strength training) can be conditioned for endurance, so that it mimics slow-twitch. That's one reason to periodize training: go through a period of strength training and then switch to endurance. If you have more muscle that is endurance-trained, you perform better. Less effort at the same speed, or more speed for the same effort. –  Kaz Oct 7 '12 at 2:15
    
Whoops. You're right. I had intended to write 1.4x their weight at 1RM but somehow it came out as 4x, then I brain-farted and made a calculation based on 4. I'll edit it. Thanks. –  R. Chung Oct 7 '12 at 7:04
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Not sure if "turkish get-up's" are the same thing, but there's a particularly effective/comprehensive yet minimalistic exercise called "the man-maker" that was used by the cast of the film "300". All you need is dumbells.

Do what you want for leg strength, but I would argue that core strength is equally if not more vital for cycling (if we're talking about off-the-bike exercise).

On the bike, some righteous category 3-4 hill repeats will promote leg strength as well (if you're lucky enough to have some in your area).

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This looks like an excellent form of torture. I'm doing these at the gym tomorrow. –  user313 Dec 16 '11 at 0:59
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You can do squats with another person on your back. If you do proper squats (almost all the way down) they are a lot harder, and a 110 pound girlfriend can be as effective as if you were using a barbell more than twice that weight for half-squats (knees going only to about 90 degrees). Never go all the way down, and never bounce.

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Just to be sure, have you already been doing muscle tension workouts? Doing some hill climbing at 45 RPM for a whole workout is a good way to increase your leg strength. Ease into these workouts; they can be hard on your knees if you go too hard and/or your bike fit isn't good.

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