Top 5 Weight Lifting Exercises for Cyclists


The off-season is a great time to tone down your intense cardiovascular training and focus on building your leg muscles in the gym.  Building your leg muscles will help with overall power as well as endurance.  Weight lifting also requires your body to use many of the smaller muscles required for balance and agility.  Here are 5 exercises to build stronger muscles for increased power and strength.

Squats for Cyclists

The squat is the single best exercise for developing powerful legs, as it works the entire upper leg muscle, butt and lower back.  When done right, you will quickly see results in increased power output and sprint speed weather you are on a road bike or mountain bike.

In doing the squat exercise, you first hold a weight bar across your traps just at the base of neck and top of back.  You will want to be in a standing position with knees slightly bent,  your feet pointing straight ahead or turned out just a bit, and positioned slightly wider than your hips. Then while keeping your back straight, bend your legs and lower your hips until your upper thighs are parallel to the ground. From this point you then push straight up, returning yourself to the standing position.

If you haven’t done squats before, we would recommend that women use just the weight bar and men can add 10-25lbs as a starting point. What’s great about this weight range is that it allows you to develop proper form, which is most important with a technical exercise like squats.

As with all movements described here, in order to thoroughly exhaust the muscle and attain the most amount of blood flow (increased blood flow brings more oxygen and nutrients to the muscle helping it become stronger and recover quicker), you will need to focus solely on isolating the muscle and not tensing the rest of your body.  Pay attention to a complete range of motion at the top and bottom of your movement flexing the muscle at the peak of each repetition.

In cycling, along with your hamstrings, the quadriceps in your upper leg will carry a majority of the load, the squat will help you develop strength quickly.

Calf Raises

The Calf Raise is a great exercise to improve your lower leg muscles for two reasons. It will increase your cadence allowing you to pedal faster on a road bike and also increase your ability to push off your pedal transitioning into the next pedal stroke on a mountain bike. There are a number of machines to work this muscle group, all with virtually the same range of motion and movement.

To do calf raises, first position your toes on a raised bar that allows your heels to drop several inches below your toes. A curb or set of stairs will work just fine for this. You can hold dumbbells in your hands, or do this with no external weights.

The secret to this movement  is to really stretch your calf all the way down at the bottom of your contraction, and when raising all the way up pinching the muscle at the top.  Stand on the ball of your foot with your heel hanging off of the ledge, slowly lower heels down as far as your can then raise up to your tip-toe, and back down.  You will feel a nice stretch in the back of your calf. Then raise yourself back up to tip-toe and repeat. Do four sets of this, with 20 repetitions each time.

Hamstring Curls

Strong hamstrings help when sprinting towards the finish line as well as in the steep section of a single track climb.  Having strong hamstrings also balances out the quad muscle giving you more power overall.

The Hamstring Curl is done on a bench with a pulley system that allows you to raise a stack of weights. You lay on your stomach, with your legs out straight out behind you. With the back of your lower leg against the bar, you bend your legs so that your heels come up toward your rear, raising the stack of weights.

In this exercise, do three sets of lifts with ten repetitions in each. The weight can be the same in each, but the rest interval between sets should be only 30-60 seconds. Start light at 20 % of your body weight until you find the right weight for you for these exercises. The right weight is one that challenges you over ten repetitions, and failing in the 12-15 rep range.

The Leg Press

You can do three sets of leg presses, performing 12 repetitions in the first set, then 10 in the second and then eight repetitions in the last, getting progressively heavier (10-15%) each time. Allow three minutes rest between sets.  This exercise will mainly work the outer muscle of your thigh and your upper quadriceps.  This helps to balance the muscles worked in the squat exercise building muscle evenly across the top of your quad.

To determine the right starting weight for your exercise, a good rule of thumb is to start with an amount roughly equal to your body weight. If you can do this twelve times easily, bump up the weight by 10-15%. If it is already too difficult, trim it down by the same amount, making these adjustments until you get to that good starting point.

Leg Extensions

The leg extension is performed on a bench with a pulley system that allows you to raise a stack of weights. You sit on the bench with your feet and ankles pressed against a bar that, when raised by slowly kicking your feet out and forward, lifts the weights into the air.

In these exercises, do three sets with ten repetitions in each. The weight can be the same in each, but the rest interval between sets should be only 30-60 seconds. Start light — maybe just 20% of your body weight at first — until you find the right weight for you for these exercises. The right weight is one that challenges you over ten repetitions, but that you can ultimately complete.

This exercise will develop the quads right above your knee, along with the squat, hamstring curls and leg press your will successfully isolate all muscle in the upper leg, seriously increasing your climbing and sprint speeds, as well as enlarging your endurance potential.

Whether you are a trail hunting All-Mountain/XC rider or a pavement seeking road cyclist, this group of leg exercises will bring immediate results and bring more enjoyment into your biking.

  1. Haa, this is most interesting. The book Weight Training for Cyclists, 2nd Edition, by Doyle and Schmitz says (on p. 112) “…extending your leg in a arc away from the body against resistance is not consistent with any natural activity. For this reason, the old-school thigh-burning exercise, the leg extension, is not included in this program.” This book is written for cycling specially and it lists many weight training exercises. Jesse are you a certified trainer? Funny that you recommend leg extensions as “top of your list,” but yet it is NOT endorsed by this authoritative book!

    • RandoRichard Raises a good point, as with all sciences and it is especially apparent with nutrition and training, there are many different methodologies of fitness and a hundred ways to obtain a competitive fitness level. While the sited source mentions the leg extension exercise as an abnormal motion not done by cycling and most activities, this is the reason why it is included in the workout plan. Cross training is used to enhance your overall physiology by using exercises that work muscle groups that your main workout doesn’t hit to avoid injury, aid rehabilitation and improve fitness. However, every athlete needs to develop a plan incorporating various ideas and exercises tailored to their activities, body type and lifestyle. Thanks for your comment. Ride on!

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