You only need to see powerhouses like Peter Sagan or Viviani Elia close a sprint once to understand that strength is an important factor in how well you perform in cycling—but really just about any physical activity, endurance sports included.
“More strength means less relative effort at a given level of power output, so it’s easier to sustain your workload,” explains Craig Weller, NSCA-CPT, Precision Nutrition’s Director of Exercise Systems. “You also have a higher ceiling for short bursts of maximal effort, such as passing someone or climbing a short hill.”
But bulking up is not the same as gaining strength, so if you’re trying to figure out how to gain muscle, you need to consider your motives and your goals, because muscle mass won’t always improve your performance. “Muscle for the sake of aesthetics is a different thing than muscle for the sake of sports performance,” Weller says.
In fact, standard bodybuilding-style workouts (lifting weight that’s heavy enough to exhaust you after 8+ reps, usually blasting only a few muscle groups at a time) could actually interfere with your cycling goals.
“There are a lot of workout variations in bodybuilding, but you might have an entire training session for arms and shoulders, then another for chest and back, and in some cases, different sessions for quads and hamstrings,” Weller says.
This takes a ton of time both in the gym and in recovery, which will ultimately affect your cycling. “You’d spend a lot of your time doing workouts that aren’t directly beneficial to your sport, and the amount of time that you’d spend recovering from each leg workout would reduce the amount of quality training you could do on the bike.”
The extra mass could slow you down, too. “Endurance performance is more about remodeling the muscle so that it has more mitochondrial proteins that process oxygen, not simply having more muscle proteins per se,” says Chris McGlory, Ph.D., assistant professor at Queen’s University in Canada. “If your training is too focused on increasing muscle size, you’ll end up having more muscle mass—but without the ability to pull it up a hill.”
The one exception? Sprinters. “Generally, sprinters are required to produce large amounts of force in a short period of time, so they typically engage in resistance exercise to increase the force-generating capacity of their muscles,” McGlory says. “A byproduct of that process is often an increase in type-two muscle fibers and an increase in muscle size.”
If you feel that your strength status is holding you back, or your goal is to just pack on some muscle, read on for ways to make the most of your gains.
[Want to fly up hills? Climb! gives you the workouts and mental strategies to conquer your nearest peak.]
Lift to exhaustion.
That standard bodybuilding style of training we mentioned earlier? That’s indeed the best way to build muscle, and it’s also known as hypertrophy. “Performing resistance exercise until fatigue recruits type-two muscle fibers and activates pathways that cause muscle to grow,” McGlory says.
He suggests lifting anywhere between 8 to 20 reps until you reach the point of max exertion. “Keep doing this each week until you’re able to lift more repetitions, then increase the load to stay within that rep range,” he says.
Your best bet is to do this during the off-season or on specific strength-training days, so that your lifting doesn’t get in the way of your cycling. “I’m not as concerned about my athletes’ cycling workouts during the off-season, so it’s fine if their legs are a bit sore or tired going into their ride,” IRONMAN U coach Brian Hammond, tells us.
McGlory adds: “It’s important to remember that, at least for the untrained person, the initial bouts of resistance exercise will cause some muscle damage that may limit cycling performance.”
Load up on protein.
Protein shakes are synonymous with muscle-building for a reason: “Protein is critical for gaining muscle because it provides amino acids, the building blocks of muscle tissue,” Weller says. “Not having enough amino acids would be like trying to build the frame of a house without enough 2 x 4s.” That explains why a British Journal of Sports Medicine review shows that protein supplementation increases both muscle strength and size.
So, how much protein should you have if you want to gain muscle? Weller says you need to consume about 0.75 to 1 gram of protein for every pound you weigh, or about 112 to 150 grams of protein a day for a 150-pound person. “More protein won’t necessarily lead to more muscle growth,” he says. Research backs this up, so don’t overdo it.
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Weller says you can use the palm of your hand as a reference. “Aim to have one to two palm-sized portions of protein-rich foods at each meal,” he says. Women should be on the lower end of that spectrum and men would be on the higher end.
Weller says you should eat an extra 360 to 480 calories per day if you want to gain muscle, ideally a mix of protein-rich foods (fish, tofu, eggs, Greek yogurt), non-starchy vegetables (carrots, spinach, cauliflower), healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocados), and fiber-rich foods (whole grains, beans).
“Just make sure you combine your dietary changes with a comprehensive training routine (lifting three or more days per week) so the majority of those extra calories go towards muscle growth and not unwanted fat gain,” Weller says.
Don’t stop riding.
If your goal is to be a stronger cyclist, you still need to, uh, ride of course. The good news is, cardio doesn’t interfere with muscle gains as much as everyone thinks it does. “You can do quite a lot of cardio training and still be strong and muscular,” Weller says. “Outside of the extremes (elite-level cycling, competitive weightlifting), cardio and strength tend to support one another: A better aerobic foundation improves strength-training performance and strength improves endurance.”