Strength training

Before we start, let’s talk about the process of weight training, the goal of weight training and how you’re going to ease into it.

The process:  Weight training is the overload principle, ask for too much and the system will adapt. This means you have to do some damage to see results, so we need to define a safe method of doing this.

The goal: Your muscles have two limits, tensile strength and maximum force generation – they’re not the same. The limit of tensile strength is where tears start to occur in the muscle, that is often lower than the maximum force generated by that muscle. In other words, your muscles are strong enough to damage themselves. The goal of weight training is to increase both tensile strength and maximum force.

Tensile strength: When you go on a long ride and put in a lot of short but hard efforts, you experience fatigue. That fatigue is really damage done to the muscles from those hard efforts exceeding the tensile strength. Weight training is a controlled cycle of damage and repair of the muscle to put the tensile strength outside the usable range on the bike.

Easing into it:  The first two weeks at the gym are acclimation – figuring out where the real program starts. Lifting far less than you think you can. The real test comes the next day in using your quads or glutes. Try walking up stairs two steps at a time, does it feel normal, a bit stiff or downright painful?   If it feels normal, it’s time to increase the weights. If it’s painful, you’ve started too heavy.  A little stiff, but not so bad that you can’t do the same workout in two days is about right.


Two machines, two large muscle groups:



Technique first.  Much like trying to push the pedal down, there are two large muscle groups you can recruit to do the work. The quads extend the leg at the knee, they will push the sled, but that’s not what we’re focusing on with this machine.


Take a look at figure 0 and figure 1 above.  In figure 0 their back is against the back rest, which disengages the glutes, so the quads do more of the work. In figure 1 they have rotated forward. This rotates the pelvis and engages the glutes to extend the leg from the hip.

The leg press and “pyramid of fun”

Muscles are funny things, they feed back information about how much tension they see, but they’re not very accurate. Your perception of force is based on how much force you’ve generated recently. In other words, the body can be tricked into pushing more weight. The pyramid sets are a way of cycling the weight up and down, increasing both the weight and the number of reps as you go. It’s a balancing act between tricking the body into producing more force and muscle exhaustion.

The starting set:

  • 50 reps, 1 plate
  • 40 reps, 2 plates
  • 30 reps, 3 plates
  • 20 reps, 4 plates
  • 10 reps, 5 plates

About the actual weights:

I can’t tell you what those weights are, that’s up to the individual. The first two weeks at the gym are spent figuring out where that ending point is. If your ending point is X, your starting point is x/5 for 50 reps.

Cycling the weights up:

  • 50 reps, 1 plate
  • 42 reps, 2 plates
  • 34 reps, 3 plates
  • 26 reps, 4 plates
  • 18 reps, 5 plates
  • 10 reps, 6 plates
  • 20 reps, 5 plates
  • 30 reps, 4 plates
  • 40 reps, 3 plates
  • 50 reps, 2 plates

Down by 8’s, up by 10’s. This means the second time you do 50 reps, it’s at 2 plates. If you were to add a second pyramid starting at 2 plates, you would reach 7 plates.


At some point I always get the argument that lots of reps at lower weights isn’t really strength building. There is a focus on the needs of a cyclist here, here are the goals:

Strength and fatigue resistance:  The combination of cycling up the weights and a series of weight increases over time address this.

Building capillary: The oxygen supply to the muscles is as important as their tensile strength – cycling is an endurance sport. Longer sets are about building capillary capacity to deliver blood to the muscles.

Learning to relax: As motors, muscles are slightly defective – they deprive themselves of oxygen under use. In doing longer sets, you will either learn to relax the muscles enough to get blood flow, or you’ll fail to finish. The same technique is used on the bike for sustained power.

The long set:

  • 70 reps, 1 plate
  • 60 reps, 2 plates
  • 50 reps, 3 plates
  • 40 reps, 4 plates
  • 30 reps, 5 plates
  • 20 reps, 6 plates
  • 10 reps, 7 plates
  • 22 reps, 6 plates
  • 34 reps, 5 plates
  • 46 reps, 4 plates
  • 58 reps, 3 plates
  • 70 reps, 2 plates

Round 2

  • 60 reps, 3 plates
  • 50 reps, 4 plates
  • 40 reps, 5 plates
  • 30 reps, 6 plates
  • 20 reps, 7 plates
  • 10 reps, 8 plates
  • 22 reps, 7 plates
  • 34 reps, 6 plates
  • 46 reps, 5 plates
  • 58 reps, 4 plates
  • 70 reps, 3 plates

By this time everybody else in the gym has gathered around the leg press, and they’ve started betting on when you’ll give up.  The limiting factor on how high you can push your maximum weight is often muscle exhaustion from the longer sets, so here’s a little cheater pyramid to bypass that. Let’s say you’re at 10 reps, 7 plates, and you want to push the high weight to 8 plates, but you don’t have another full pyramid in you:

  • 10 reps, 7 plates
  • 22 reps, 6 plates
  • 34 reps, 5 plates
  • 26 reps, 6 plates
  • 18 reps, 7 plates
  • 10 reps, 8 plates

Down by 12’s, up by 8’s.  The working theory here is once you’ve pushed a weight, the weight below it seems easier. Don’t think about it too much…




The leg extension machine is used to work the quads.  There are two main muscles that are going to be the focus of this section, the vastus lateralis and the vastus medialis.


The vastus lateralis is the large muscle on the outside of the leg, the connective tissue comes over the patella and connects at the tibial plateau.  Using the patella as a fulcrum point allows greater mechanical advantage to handle the beginning of rotation, but it comes at a cost. The tension generated to rotate the lower leg from end range of motion also generates sheer force at the knee joint.  It’s that sheer force along with the range of motion which causes most knee problems in cycling.

The vastus medialis is the muscle on the inside, above the knee. It’s job is to handle end range of motion – the final 10 – 15 degrees of rotation. The vastus medialis also acts to stabilize the patella, which is why use of the leg extension machine will go beyond the range of motion used in cycling.