Friday, February 18, 2011

Endurance Phase 2


Lee Unwin, Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach

In this article I am going to discuss the second 8-week phase of your strength-training plan: the Endurance Phase. Again, like your cycling year, there are 5 phases of the strength training year: Transition, Endurance, Strength, Power, and Competition. To stave off a flurry of comments, remember that this is my plan for my athletes. There is science that supports it, and science that refutes it. This is not a step-by-step plan to victory; however, you may find a few big stones to help create your path to that end.

The focus of the endurance phase of training is to build strength that can be maintained for a prolonged period. You should pick several strengthening exercises that target all the main muscles of the body, such as leg curls for the hamstrings, leg presses for the quads, arm curls for the biceps, and so on. Once you have a good repertoire of lifts in your routine, you can follow the suggestions below to create your own Endurance Phase strength workout and incorporate it into your training.

If you followed the first 8 weeks (Transition Phase), you should now be ready to increase the intensity of your weight training regimen, and you can begin this section as it is laid out; however, if you are just starting from this point, avoid going to muscular failure for at least the first 2-3 weeks. Remember that muscular failure is the inability to perform a lift or movement with correct form one more time. You may be able to perform one more repetition, but if it is with poor form, it does not count, so don’t do it.

The following is just a few of the methods I have found particularly advantageous to my athletes and myself. There are hundreds of methods and modalities, but give these a try and see if they don’t make you a stronger cyclist. If you are using a PowerTap be sure to do regular bike tests to confirm that the strength training is maintaining and or enhancing your power output during the winter months.

1. Avoid Injury

For each exercise, find the weight that you can do at least 8 times, but not more than 10. This is your hard deck weight that you WILL NOT go above.

Example: Single Leg Squats
110lb 8x to Failure. (Never use more than 110lbs for this exercise)

Example: Single Leg Hamstring Curl
60lb 8x to Failure (Never use more than 60lb for this exercise)

2. Be Efficient

When racing, you don’t stop to take little breaks, so train the way you race. Set a time limit of 30, 45, or at most 60min of strength training. Keep moving from one exercise to the next without a break and repeat until the time is up. You can give the legs the rest they need by doing two things: Work opposing muscle groups such as quads then hamstrings, or you can work legs individually, right then left, repeatedly going back and forth until you have little left and need to move to a different exercise. I find that using a limited time to accomplish the workout keeps athletes focused and mimics the exhaustive nature of cycling.

3. Slow Down and Breathe

Don’t get overly concerned with speed just yet. The general rule of thumb is that it should take you 2 seconds to lift the weight (concentric phase) and 4 seconds to return it (eccentric phase) to its starting position. Just remember to slow down and occasionally check yourself to be sure you are keeping it slow and in control. With these lower weights you don’t need to be overly concerned about when to breathe; however, the correct method (for heavy lifting) is to breathe in during the lifting or concentric phase and breathe out during return or eccentric phase. Just breathe!


The following are different ways you can structure each set of your strength exercises to maximize strength gain. Pick one method that suits you well or change it up each time you visit the gym or switch lifts to keep your workout motivating and engaging.

1. Drop Sets

This should remind you of starting a climb in a big gear at the bottom, and as you fatigue at each gear, you need to continue to shift to an easier gear to get over the top. Start with a weight that you can lift at least 8 -10 times but not more. The moment your leg fails, reduce the weight by just a few pounds (10lbs or less) and perform another set immediately. Continue this process until your leg fails at the lightest weight still available; if you are using hand weights, this might mean your body weight is the last weight left.

Example: Single Leg Dumbbell Squats 100lb failed @ 10x
90lb failed @ 8x
80lb failed @ 5x
70lb failed @ 20x
60lb failed @ 15
50lb failed @ 8
40lb failed @ 6
30lb failed @ 5
Body weight (160 lb no hand-weights/dumbbells) failed @ 3

Your reps will go up and down as you decrease the weight, what is important is that you lift to failure at each descending weight.

2. Ascending Pyramid

This should remind you of climbing an ever-steepening hill that turns into a wall. You start with an easy gear at the bottom and continuing to try to spin it, but near the peak you can barely turn the crank.

Start with a weight that you can lift at least 30-50 repetitions with. After you lift to failure, do one of two things: take a short 30-60sec break, or work another muscle group/opposite leg. Then add 5lb-10lb and repeat again until failure. You can continue this process until the last weight you can do only allows you to do 1 or 2 with good form.

Example: Single Leg Dumbbell Squats (30sec. rest between lifts)
Body Weight (160lb no dumbbells/hand-weights) failed at 35reps
Add dumbbells
30lb failed @ 20
40lb failed @ 15
50lb failed @ 10
60lb failed @ 8
70lb failed @ 2

3. 100’s or 50’s

Perform 100 repetitions total without more than 3 seconds of rest to switch weights. You can jump around with weight, but you must fail at each weight, and you must achieve 100 repetitions total in the process. This should remind you of riding up a mountain road at different grades and in different gears

Example: 100 Standing Hamstring Curls, each weight done to failure.
50lb 10x
10lb 40x
20lb 20x
30lb 10x
10lb 20x
100 Reps Total

4. 50s

Select a single weight that has you failing at or just above 50 repetitions. This should mimic a long moderate grade hill that you ride in one gear and then are completely spent by the top.

Example: 50 Standing Hamstring Curl
25lb failed @ 53

4. Single Leg Exercises

I encourage single leg exercises for several reasons. First, you will quickly find that if you can leg press 100lbs 20 times with both legs you can probably only press 40lbs 10 or less times with one leg. This happens because when training one leg at a time, there is no sharing in the responsibility, so one leg can’t rest while the other is pushing.

Second, I favor single leg strength training because it prevents injuries. Cyclists in general are disproportionately strong in the lower extremities as compared with their total muscle and body weight. This puts them in a precarious position when performing certain lifts, such as barbell squats. I recommend every form of squat or split squat, but not barbell squats for my folks, male or female. I know most trainers think squats are the end-all be-all, but cycling is about being lean and strong. Because of this, most cyclists can lift more weight than their spine can handle. I am not talking about a lack of core strength as a problem or even a solution; I am talking about the spinal compression that occurs when great amounts of weight are placed on it. Cyclists have leg strength that often rival and exceed many weight lifters or bodybuilders; however, they lack the upper body mass needed to support that weight. If you are a male, as this tends to be a “guy” problem, I realize there is no better feeling than lifting more than the resident gym gorilla, but there will be a price to paid so at least heed my warning: cut the weight down and perform a split squat or dumbbell i.e. hand-weights squats instead.


The exhaustive method of this training will require that you have many days of recovery; therefore, this method needs only be performed 1 or 2 times per week. The levels of muscular recruitment for this type of training is as greater than any interval or peak power training day, so give your body the time it needs to rebuild.

For the mainstream public this type of training may be too intense; however, the cyclist's goal is to push the largest gear they can as fast as they can. Riding your bike more or finding bigger hills will only provide a certain amount of stimulus before you need a greater stimulus to get stronger; weight training can easily and efficiently provide that.

Try a few of these suggestions this fall, and you should have a set of legs that never fatigue next spring.

Lee Unwin holds a BA in Exercise Science. He is also a Certified Massage Therapist, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach, and a Certified Training with Power Coach. He and his wife own and operate Unwin Chiropractic and Wellness Center. Lee is also representing CycleOps this year in Marathon Mountain bike events.

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