Question: I'm doing a leg workout that's so hard I can handle it only once per week: one set of squats or leg presses, one set of leg extensions, one set of calf raises. Each exercise is for 20-60 reps until failure; I can't possibly do another rep. I'm already getting stronger, so how much improvement I can expect in my cycling next summer? – Ian G.

Coach Fred Matheny Replies: First, remember that the purpose of the weight room is to build strength, not endurance, which is best built on the bike. Strength, on the other hand, is developed with relatively low repetitions and heavy weights. However, many riders can't use heavy weights without the risk of injury, so you are the best judge of the mix of weight, sets and reps you can handle.

That said, a weight training program like you describe can boost max strength quickly. I've done something similar and it worked.

Weight training gets a lot of attention in my RBR eBook, Off-Season Training for Roadies. Here are two thoughts on the program you've described:

  • Leg extensions don't have much application to our sport. They train your muscles to thrust your foot up, and you never do that in cycling – unless you're kicking the bike in frustration after a poor result. Also, leg extensions create a great deal of shearing force on the back of the kneecaps. If you persist in doing them, limit the range to the last 15-20 degrees before full extension. Alternating squats and leg presses might be a better way to "superset."
  • Your workout is great for strength with fairly low reps, but it's not so effective for cycling, which involves thousands of repetitions during a ride. Of course, strength is good to have because it serves as a physical foundation. But you don't want to use too much energy for lifting, even in the winter, at the expense of developing an aerobic base.

I recommend two workouts to address both needs:

(1) Do leg presses or squats in a ladder arrangement, using progressively higher weights and lower reps. For example, you might do 6 sets. Start with a 25-rep warm-up set and progress to some serious tonnage for 10 reps. Then end with a "burnout set," using a light weight for 50 reps. It'll hurt!

(2) Do the 6 sets of the ladder and alternate each one with 30 to 60 seconds of hard effort on a stationary bike or indoor trainer. In theory, this helps convert the strength gained from the squats or leg presses into cycling-specific power. My eArticle WinterPower: A Cardio-Resistance Workout Regimen provides a complete system for combining strength training and indoor cycling.

Now, will developing this sort of strength improve cycling? The jury is out. Studies contradict each other. There's no doubt, however, that added strength helps a great deal if it means more pedaling power.

Part of it is psychological. If you know you can squat 400 pounds, tough hills seem way less threatening.

Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred's full bio.

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