The best strength exercises for cyclists

Dr Nic Berger
12 min

We got some pretty positive feedback about my first blog on strength training. If you haven’t read it yet, you can read it here. However here is a quick recap if you’re short on time:

  • Strength training is good for your health. It cannot only make your muscles stronger but will improve your bone mineral density too. This will reduce risk of osteoporosis, which is a danger in a non-impact sport such as cycling. This can lead to brittle bones in the lower back and pelvis.
  • It can enhance your performance on the bike. A general maximal-strength oriented programme can improve maximal force, power, reactive-strength capabilities, economy, delay fatigue, and might lead to higher VO2max.
  • It is a good alternative to purely cycling all the time. Having some variation and other things to focus on or goals to achieve can be helpful and lead to revived motivation.
  • And one thing I didn’t address last time: it can make you look better. Although there is nothing wrong with the typical cyclist’s physique, improving your body composition might also improve the way you see yourself. Feeling and looking stronger are both positive things, both mentally and physically.

In this blog, we’re going to dig into the practical side of introducing gym exercises into your everyday routine and break down the myths around recovery methods.

How do I start strength training?

The first thing worth mentioning is that you do not need a gym membership or lots of expensive equipment to start strength training. Of course, it will make it easier if you have access to a gym, but it is not a necessity. It is entirely possible to do body-weight exercises for both upper and lower body training, although to progress once some adaptations have taken place I would recommend investing in some weights (which are not that expensive compared to lots of cycling equipment, and they do not wear out).

It’s super easy to add in your gym work inside Spoked. Just add it as an “other activity” and your cycling workouts will scale accordingly.  

How cyclists can deal with muscle soreness

Remember that any kind of new activity, training or movement is likely to result in sore muscles (delayed onset muscle soreness; DOMS). Unfortunately, this cannot be avoided, but by planning ahead you can minimise the negative impact this will have. By this I mean not planning any high intensity sessions in the 24-72hrs after your first heavy weights session, especially if this is lower body soreness.

DOMS is a result of muscle damage and put simplistically, you will need to heal and that will result in a slightly more adapted muscle. DOMS refers to the pain or discomfort that is experienced post exercise and is typically due to the effects of unaccustomed or eccentric load placed on a muscle (Cheung et al, 2003).  

Eccentric activity produces a greater number of micro-injuries and at a higher severity when compared to both concentric and isometric contractions. There are six hypothesised proposed mechanisms of DOMS; lactic acid, muscle spasm, connective tissue damage, muscle damage, inflammation, and the enzyme efflux theories, but it is likely to be a combination of the above leading to DOMS (Cheung et al, (2003). DOMS can be a contributing factor in a reduction in performance due to a reduced range of motion and peak muscle torque, which leads to alterations in muscle recruitment and sequencing patterns (Cheung et al, 2003).

“DOMS can be a contributing factor in a reduction in performance due to a reduced range of motion and peak muscle torque, which leads to alterations in muscle recruitment and sequencing patterns (Cheung et al, 2003).”

There are ways of minimising the soreness, but be warned, many of these blunt the training adaptations. Among the popular choices for reducing soreness are ice baths. Many athletes are seen lowering themselves into a bath filled with ice after a heavy tour stage or intense training session. This has two functions: to cool you down and to speed up recovery. It does both well, but what it also does is blunt or minimise the training adaptation response. The body needs the increased temperature of a muscle, and especially circulating heat shock proteins to allow positive adaptations. Cooling the muscle and joints does speed up recovery, but reduces the training gains you might otherwise get. So, save the ice baths for competitive days when you need to fresh quickly between events and not for after training sessions.    

Elite and amateur athletes alike feel the effects of DOMS and consume non-steroidal anti-inflammatories drugs (NSAID; Ibuprofen) to help recover from DOMS (Masoliver 2017). A poll by BBC Sport (2017) found that around 60% of amateur athletes take NSAID drugs to support recovery after exercise. However, NSAID can present a wide range of asymptomatic and life-threatening pathologies, and the consumption of NSAID’s to combat DOMS may cause a detrimental secondary impact to those who consume them, due to the potential damage of the small intestine (Bjarnason and Hayllar, 1993).

A lot can be written about massage, but I will keep this brief: it does not aid recovery or performance after intense exercise. However, it does feel nice, gets you relaxed and even though you might not perform better as a result, it still can be used as a recovery treat.

As mentioned, physical activity places a mechanical stress on a muscle, triggering an inflammatory response, an increasing inflammation and oxidative stress leading to DOMS or muscle injury. Therefore, reducing the negative effects associated with DOMS in a non-damaging way may improve performance and prevent injury (Nicol et al., 2015). Curcuma Longa (turmeric) is a harmless natural food ingredient and has been used traditionally as an herbal remedy in India and China for centuries to treat a variety of disease, pain, and fatigue (Agarwal et al., 2011;).

Turmeric has been shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory and antinociceptive (the action or process of blocking the detection of a painful or injurious stimulus by sensory neurons) capacities (Agarwal et al., 2011). Turmeric has displayed significant anti-inflammatory properties in both acute and chronic models of inflammation (Liju et al., 2011). As a result, turmeric may prove to be an effective intervention for DOMS (not suitable for those with gallstones). It can easily be consumed in the diet as a spice added to food but can also be purchased as a tablet. Recommended dosage is approx. 500mg per day and ideally taken alongside black pepper as it aids absorption (often added to tablets for this reason).

The best exercises cyclists can follow

Below I’ve made some suggestions for exercises, lifts and movements that will be beneficial to cyclists. This is not an exclusive list, but a good place to start from. For all movements it is important to do these properly. That means the form stays the same, and if you find the form going then stop instead of muddling through. It is better to do fewer reps correctly than doing a higher number badly.

Screenshot. Adding an "other activity" inside the Spoked cycling app.
Add an “Other activity” within your week to ensure your cycling workouts adjust and scale to the right intensity.

Core exercises


A drawing of a person performing a plank exercise
Normal plank. Source.

Use planks to strengthen your shoulders, abdomen, and lower back. Start in a press-up position and bend your elbows until your forearms are on the floor beneath your shoulders so your body is in a straight line from your feet to your head. Keep your abs tight and look at the space between your hands to ensure a neutral spine position. Don’t lift your bum in the air and make sure your back is flat. A variation is lifting one leg, making it more difficult and recruiting the lower back as well. Aim to hold for 30-60 seconds for 3 times and work your way up to 60-90 second hold times.

Then there a number of planks varations you can have a go at too:

Spiderman plank

A drawing of a person performing a spiderman plank
Spiderman plank. Source.

Start in the traditional plank position and draw your left knee up towards your left shoulder then return to the plank position. Once done with one side, draw your right knee up to your right shoulder. Maintain a strong plank position with your hands under your shoulders, whilst keeping your abs engaged. 30 seconds each side, 3 sets (3 per side, 6 total).

Side plank

A drawing of a person performing a side plank
Side plank. Source.

This works your posterior abdominal wall and if this is weak it often results in lower back pain. Start on your side with your feet together and one forearm directly below your shoulder, then contract your core and raise your hips until your body is in a straight line from head to feet. Hold the position without letting your hips drop for 15 seconds initially, then repeat on the other side. 3 sets per side and work your way up to one minute.


A drawing of a person performing a bridge
Bridge. Source.

The bridge works your glutes, hamstrings and lower back. Lie on your back with your knees bent and keep your back in a neutral position, not arched and not pressed into the floor. Avoid tilting your hips. Tighten your abdominal muscles and raise your hips off the floor until your hips are aligned with your knees and shoulders and hold for three deep breaths. Return to the start position and repeat 10 times.

Leg raises

A drawing of a person performing a leg raises
Leg raises. Source.

Leg lifts recruit the abdominals, and hip flexors. When also placing the hands overhead it will also target the upper abdominals. Aim for 15-25 reps per set and 3 sets.

Russian Twists

A drawing of a person performing a Russian twists
Russian twists. Source.

This movement recruits your obliques (side torso); the muscles that rotate your trunk. When cycling they will minimise that rotation as your legs pedal up and down. Weaker obliques can result in too much twisting, cause discomfort, fatigue and potentially lost watts.

Start sitting on the floor with knees bent and heels on floor shoulders relaxed. Whilst keeping a straight back you lean back from the hips until you feel your abs engage. Keeping your heels on the floor and arms close to your body, twist from the waist to the left. Twist back to the centre. Then twist to the right. Return to the starting position to complete one rep. Continue alternating sides.


A drawing of a person performing the superman exercise
Superman. Source.

To strengthen your lower back, lie on your stomach on a flat surface and raise both your arms and your legs at the same time as though you are flying. Hold the position for five seconds and repeat 10 times initially. As you progress, hold the position for longer periods. You can also make this more diffcult, bu fluttering the legs.

How you can work out your 1 repetition maximum (1RM)

Compared to core exercises you will be doing less reps and have more rest between sets for upper body and lower body exercises. Maximal strength should be built up in the preparatory period, i.e., in the off-season. 2-3 sessions per week (2 is sufficient, but 3 might allow more rapid adaptations) over 12 weeks, with lifts at 4RM-10RM and 2-3 sets with approx. 2-3min rest between (4RM is the weight you can lift with good form 4 times).

It is important that the proper technique is learned before heavier lifts are attempted. Before you attempt heavier lifts get used to the movements and use weights you can comfortably lift 10-12 times. Once you have mastered the technique and are comfortable you need to determine what your 1RM is, so that you work out the correct resistance for maximal strength training. Remember, this type of training is designed to make you stronger without adding a lot of muscle mass.

For an easy estimate use Haff and Triplett (2015). To find your 1RM find the weight you can do 10 repetitions of and multiple by 0.75. e.g., if you can bench-press 60kg 10 times that would be 60 / 0.75 = 80kg.

A table that guides people on how to determine their 1 rep max
A guide to work out your 1 rep max. Source.

For a slightly more complicated, but accurate measure that differentiates between your upper and lower body use these equations by Reynolds et al. (2006). For example, for your upper body find the heaviest weight you can bench press 4-to-6 times and use this equation: (4-to-6RM x 1.1307) + 0.6998. So, if you can do 5 reps of 60kg, then – (60 x 1.1307) + 0.6998 – your 1RM will be 68.5kg. For your lower body use this formula: (4-to-6RM x 1.09703) + 14.2546.

Upper body exercises

Pull ups

A drawing of a person performing the pull up exercise
Pull ups. Source.

When you do a pullup your back and arms pull your body up and strengthen your arms and back. Depending on the grip you can vary which muscles are recruited. For example, a chin-up uses a narrower grip with your palms facing you and is easier than a pullup. For a standard pull up grab the pullup bar with your palms down / facing away from you (shoulder-width grip) and hang off the pullup-bar with straight arms and your legs off the floor.

Then pull yourself up and go all the way up until your chin passes the bar and then lower yourself until your arms are straight. Initially you might only be able to do a few of these but aim for 4-10 reps and 3 sets. Once you can easily do 10 reps you can add some weight to yourself to make it harder.

A drawing of a person performing an easier variation for the pull up exercise
An easier vacations for pull ups. Source.

For a slightly easier variation do a chin up and grip the bar with your palms facing up. You can also use a resistance band or spotter to help you on the way up. Resistance bands are large rubber bands you wrap round the bar and your lower leg which assist you on the way. There are different strengths for varied assistance.

Push ups

A drawing of a person performing the push up exercise
Push ups. Source.

Push ups are excellent exercises that work your chest, shoulders, arms, abs, and the muscles under your armpits. There are variations in width of your hands and a narrower width will work more of your triceps and pectoralis (chest). Good form is important, but if you struggle to do a full push up you can do it kneeling instead of the full traditional one.

Get down on all fours and place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Then straighten your arms and legs and lower your body until your chest nearly touches the floor, pause, and then push yourself back up. Initially do as many as you can with good form and perform 3 sets. Aim for 10 and work your way up. Being able to 20 or more is a good goal to aim for, so that you might be able to do 3 x 25 in a session.  

Barbell row

A drawing of a person performing the barbell row exercise
Barbell row. Source.

Barbell Rows work your upper-back, lower back, hips and arms. Stand with your midfoot under the bar (medium stance) then bend over and grab the bar (palms down, shoulder width grip). Unlock your knees while keeping your hips high, lift your chest and straighten your back, then pull the bar against your lower chest and return the bar to the floor. Make sure your back is straight and use a weight that allows you to do 4-10RM and 3 sets.

Lower body exercises


A drawing of a person performing the squat exercise
Squats. Source.

Squats are very good exercises as they recruit a lot of muscles in the lower body, such as quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, hips, calves, inner thighs, and your core. It is a complex exercise and often done incorrectly, so it’s important to get the technique right before adding weight. It’s best to start with bodyweight squats and work your way up to adding weight. Either by holding dumbbells or an actual bar, but you will need a squat rack for this to do it safely with heavier weights.

For bodyweight squats, set your feet shoulder-width apart, toes slightly turned out. Pull in your lower abs and keep your eyes forward. Then slowly bend at the knees and drop your hips to lower your body until your thighs are about an inch under parallel to the floor. Keep your heels flat on the floor. At the bottom of the exercise pause for a moment and strongly push back up to the starting position, mirroring the descent. To counterbalance your weight, hold your arms out in front of you at shoulder height and keep your back as straight as possible throughout the lift to avoid strain or injury. It is recommended to do these in front of a mirror to check your technique. You can also film yourself or have someone watch you. To add some weight, you can hold a dumbbell or other type of weight in front of your chest, or two dumbbells over your shoulders. Aim for 10-15 reps and 3 sets.    

Weighted barbell back squat

A drawing of a person performing the weighted barbell squat exercise
Weighted barbell back squat. Source.

A weighted squat with a bar needs to be performed in a squat rack, especially for maximal strength training. Start with just the bar. Often gyms have very light bars to practice technique, so if your gym does, try to use one of them. Take the bar out of the rack with it resting on your rear shoulder muscles and take two big steps back and stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart, toes pointing slightly out.

Keep your spine in alignment by looking at a spot on the floor about two metres in front of you, then “sit” back and down as if you’re aiming for a chair. Descend until your hip crease is below your knee. Keep your weight on your heels as you drive back up. Technique is the most important here, and aim for 4-10RM and 3 sets.


A drawing of a person performing the deadlift exercise
Deadlift. Source.

Deadlifts work out your hamstrings, glutes, back, hips, core, and trapezius. Like the squat, the technique needs to be refined before heavy weight is added. Stand with feet under the barbell, then bend over and grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip and bend your knees until your shins touch the bar. Lift your chest up and straighten your lower back, then stand up with the weight. Once at the top, hold the weight for a second with locked hips and knees. Then return the weight to the floor by moving your hips back while bending your legs. Rest a second at the bottom and repeat.

Your lower back must stay neutral to avoid injury and rounding it during heavy Deadlifts is dangerous for your spine. It puts uneven pressure on your spinal discs which can injure them. Therefore, always Deadlift with a neutral lower back – maintain the natural inward curve of your lower spine. Again, start with just the bar or some dumbbells and perform 8-12 reps 3 times before adding weight. Once you are comfortable aim for 4-10RM and 3 sets.


A drawing of a person performing plyometric exercises
Plyometrics with box jumps. Source.

Plyometrics is a type of training that uses speed and force of different movements to build muscle power. It is also good for bone health, as it puts a lot of force through your bones and joints. For cycling you only need to concentrate on lower body plyometrics, and the main goal is to get the muscles to stretch and contract fast.

For box jumps you’ll need a box or stable bench with a height of around 50cm while you work on getting the form right. You can go higher later, but this is a good height to start with. Stand in front of the box with your feet shoulder-width apart and bend into a quarter squat, swing your arms back, then swing them forward and explode up off the ground. Land on the box as softly as possible and aim to mimic your take-off position on landing – feet flat and knees slightly bent. If you land in a deep squat rather than a quarter squat, it’s a sign that you’ve picked too high a box. Then either jump back down, aiming to land as softly as possible, or step down slowly one leg at a time, which will work your glutes and is easier on your joints. To build power with box jumps aim for 1-3 sets of 3-5 reps, using as high a box as you can jump on without sacrificing good form. You can also do lateral jumps where you jump over a line or build up to a bench. Make sure you rest at least 2 minutes between sets.  

Final thoughts

Overall, if you’re starting from zero it’s best to take a staggered approach. This means be progressive in the way you introduce yourself to new exercises. Otherwise you’re going to be suffering with DOMs for a number of days, which will not allow you to be consistent and it may even have a knock on effect on your cycling. Remember, as you become stronger it’s not always about adding more weights. It can decrease the stability of your exercises, which forces you to recruit more muscle to maintain correct form and movement. Or you can increase the number of repetitions you perform.

However a good rule of thumb is always to have two reps left in the tank. If you want to add gym work into your Spoked training plan, simply add it as an other activity, set the difficulty and duration and your planned cycling work will adjust to this within your training week.


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