Weight Lifting for Cyclists?

Every cyclist knows that the best way to get better at riding bikes is, well… to ride bikes.  There is no substitute for good, old-fashioned saddle time.

But this hyper-focused specialization mindset can often be to our detriment.  Sometimes, we focus too much on being the best at one thing, without paying attention all the other good exercises that are crucial to keep our bodies fit and healthy.

This is a problem that coach Doug Zakaras has seen in far too many young athletes.

Doug Zakaras – MOVE founder and Summit Bike Club strength advisor

Doug is the founder of MOVE–a Park City (Utah) based program which focuses on providing a foundation of long-term health and practical, functional fitness for athlete kids.  As part of his own fitness journey, Doug partnered with Crossfit Park City, where he is a certified coach and trainer, to found MOVE in 2014.  He works with young athletes from a wide range of specializations, giving them the basic fitness tools to help them be healthy for their whole lives, as well as improve their competitive performance.

We talked with him about some of the problems he sees quite often in competitive cyclists, and the everyday things you can do to correct them.

“Cyclists in particular tend to be quite weak through the midsection,” Doug told us, “but they have these big, strong frog legs.  And this is desireable because it is a strength to weight ratio, and you want your legs to be stronger and you upper body to be as small and light as possible . . . . So these kids think to get better at riding their bike, they have to aspire to that ideal. But that can actually be more harmful than beneficial to them.”

When it comes to the elite performance of any athlete, regardless of the sport, Doug believes there is a base of important moves and techniques that will provide crucial safety and fitness.  “I look at it sort of like a pyramid, where the point of the pyramid, the very top, is cycling.  Then the next level is qualities that are directly related to the sport, like cardiovascular strength or respiratory endurance.  Those sorts of things.  You can focus training on any one of those things.  But to get the most bang for your buck, I address the bottom of the pyramid, and I teach them this foundation of strength and conditioning.”

I ride a bike,” Doug said, “but I don’t teach them about biking.”

So what are these “bottom of the pyramid” basics?  Doug shared with us some of the physical movements he teaches his athletes.

Squatting, picking things up off the floor (or deadlifts), moving from side to side, jumping on boxes, pushups and pullups and situps. . . really simple stuff, but it actually works.  [Young riders] are often really bad at them, so my goal is to make them really strong in these basic moves so they can be better on their bike.”

Safety is another big concern, especially when it comes to extreme sports like MTB.  Doug reminds us that focusing on proper technique is the key, not only to keeping you safe while lifting, but also preventing injury when riding.

“Crossfit has a reputation for being reckless and sometimes dangerous, but the moves themselves are inherently safe.  The problem comes when you try to do all sorts of crazy things like lifting boxes over your head while squatting and balancing on a beach ball…” Doug said, laughing. “The things we teach these kids aren’t going to hurt them because this is how we are designed to move.”

Building up essential core body strength can also prevent injury and accidents when cycling, Doug told us.

“If they develop some overall body strength, they can be better on their bikes.  Especially . . . we work with a lot of kids and some girls who are just so incredibly weak that when it comes to things like injury prevention–if you can’t do one single pushup, or you can’t keep your back flat when doing basic weightlifting moves, I worry about what’s going to happen to you when you fall off your bike.  Are you gonna flop around like a ragdoll?

So how can we build up the strength to get faster and safer on the bike?

“Bodyweight exercises absolutely are effective!” Doug says.  Often the biggest mistake he sees young athletes making is pushing themselves too hard because they don’t feel like they’re getting anything out of it.  “You don’t need much, especially for those who are new at it. . . . Just simple squats can do a lot.”

“The most important thing I focus on is the core, and the way that I train it is through compound movements . . . . that strengthen the front but also the back and sides, to help brace your spine.”

But the most important thing is not what exercises you do.  It is how often you do them.  Consistency is key.  So whatever you choose to do, do it regularly!

“Consistency is important for kids in whatever activity they want to do.  They get great results because of consistency inside the gym, and . . . that those things translate to better results on the bike.”

Don’t worry, though!  Lifting weights a couple of times a week won’t suddenly turn you into a 250lb bodybuilder!  Doug was adamant about the fact that you can incorporate strength training into your regime without fear of losing cycling gains or radically altering body composition.

“Just because you start lifting weights on a regular basis, it’s not going to make you into something you’re not . . . . there is no way that me having an elite level cyclist do a bench press one time per week is going to make them worse at cycling.”

Despite the stigma around bulky muscles and lifting heavy weights, Doug’s experience has proved that it can ultimately give you an edge in the cycling world.

If you are looking for a way to freshen up your training, increase power, and bring your cycling to a new level, try taking Doug’s advice and incorporating some functional strength training into your routine!  If you are in the Park City area, check out MOVE.  It is a great way to get started safely and as part of a great, fun community!

Summit Bike Club athletes in northern Utah regularly attend MOVE classes with Doug on Tuesday and Thursday evening 6:30-7:30.

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Christine Mullins

An outdoor enthusiast and an artist, Christine grew up in Seattle. She moved to Utah six years ago, where she was introduced to mountain biking for the first time.