Are Upper Body Exercises Beneficial For Cycling?
Cycling and Weight Lifting
Cyclists have traditionally been sceptical about the benefits of lifting weights as part of their training. When cycling in the mountains, the old adage that every ounce of weight that you are carrying matters, has led to many cyclists shunning weight training completely. The idea that gaining several pounds of weight (even in the form of muscle) could significantly help performance was often discounted before cyclists looked into the science behind it.
In recent years, however, many cyclists, including professionals, have come to realise the positive impact that a carefully structured weight training plan can have on their performance. The benefits of including squats, deadlifts and core strengthening routines are now well documented. By performing heavy sets with low repetitions, it is possible for a cyclist to significantly improve their strength, without the excessive hypertrophy that is more commonly associasted with bodybuilders.
Voeckler on Tourmalet
Upper Body Training
One area, however, that many cyclists remain sceptical about, is the potential benefits from upper body weight exercises. You will often hear cyclists say 'I don't need extra mass on my upper body' or 'the riders in the Tour de France do not have big arms and chests so why would I want them?'. The key factor that is being overlooked here, is that improving the strength of the upper body is not synonymous with improving its size.
Weight training for the upper body is used extensively by professional cyclists and has numerous benefits which, when followed carefully, far outweigh the negatives. In mountain biking and BMX the benefits of improving upper body strength are more obvious than in road cycling. The need to forcefully move the handlebars around tight turns, and the need for the shoulders and upper back to provide support when landing from jumps or ending steep downhill sections are evident. Having decent upper body strength not only improves bike handling, but also improves endurance, as you will have enough strength to ride with perfect technique even on the last laps of a tough event. Muscle fatigue (along with dehydration, although if you are a serious cyclist this should not be an issue) is the greatest cause of poor technique and loss in concentration in all sports.
In road cycling, the benefits of a strong upper body are less obvious, nevertheless, there are some. The most obvious is riding out of the saddle. When you get out of the saddle, either on a climb or if you wish to accelerate quickly on the flat, much of your bodyweight moves from being supported by your pelvis to being supported by your shoulders. It is this mechanism that allows you to generate more power; although with the consequence of requiring more energy. Strong shoulders and arms, when standing on the pedals, can help you to minimise the energy expenditure through this area - meaning that you can put more effort into turning the pedals.
At Cycle Fiesta, we run cycling holidays to Tenerife which have several short steep sections where most riders get out of the saddle. The endurance on staying out of the saddle is generally greater on riders with stronger arms and shoulders, even though they are carrying a small amount of extra mass.
I can here you saying now 'but Contador is always out of the saddle, and he has arms like toothpicks!'. Firstly, although riders like Contador do not have huge arms, they have certainly strengthened them with weights, and they look like toothpicks more because of the very low bodyfat and lack of water retention and glycogen in the muscles. Secondly, once again, it is important to remember that strength training does not necessarily equal much more mass (Indeed, muscle mass is increased primarily by diet, if you do not eat more calories than normal, then your muscle gains will certainly be limited).
The other major benefit of upper body strength training for cyclists, is the benefit that it will provide to the core muscles. Exercises such as bench press (including with dumbbells), shoulder press and pull-ups have a huge impact on strengthening the core muscles in the stomach and the lower back. Having a strong core is vital for all sports; in cycling the core allows you to maintain the correct position on the bike (especially important for time trials), as well as being much more efficient than if you are constantly wasting energy to stabilise weak muscles in the mid-section.
What Is A Good Upper Body Training Plan For Cyclists
It is not possible to give a one-size-fits-all plan to weight training for cycling; everyone is different and their body responds to different stimulus. However, there are several exercises that will be of great benefit to the vast majority of cyclists. As mentioned previously, the key exercises are the bench press (with barbell or dumbells), the seated shoulder press, pull-ups and bent-over rows. Exercises such as bicep curls or tricep extensions, that most people do far too often in most commerical gyms, have little benefit for cyclists.
In order to priotise improvements in strength rather than size, the key is to lift heavy weights for low repetitions. Each exercise only needs to be done once per week, and it is possible to do them all in the same session if you do not have the time to split them. Exercises can be done to failure, or close to failure, and you should aim to increase either the amount of weight that you are using (even if only by 1-2kg) every one or two weeks. There is no need to do any super-sets, and take as much time as you need to recover between sets (this is weight training - leave the cardio for when you are on the bike!)
A sample plan would be the following:
3 (sets) x 6 (repetitions) Bench Press (or dumbbell bench press)
Pullups (as many as you can do to failure in three or four sets)
3 x 6 Shoulder Press (using barbell or dumbbells)
3 x 6 Bent Over Row (using a barbell is preferred here)
For cyclists, strength work clearly does not make up the bulk of their training; however, it is an important area not to be neglected. Spending less than one hour, twice per week in a gym (or just with a barbell and set of dumbbells at home) it is possible to greatly improve both lower and upper body strength, giving you a real advantage over other cyclists whose dated training methods are holding them back.