As a cyclist, no matter what level you ride at, whether you’re after another stage victory in the Tour de France or simply want to improve your personal best on your favourite Strava segment, you’re always looking for ways to improve your performance.
Adding strength training to your arsenal is a surefire way to get better (read this article for more info on this) and there are many, many ways to do this, so it’s important that you use good periodisation strategies to organise your strength work in the most efficient way possible. This is important for several reasons:
- Time management: Your on-bike performances need will likely take priority (especially in the warmer months), so there’s a limited amount of time to devote to strength training. By organizing your strength training effectively, you ensure you’re making the most of your time and get a well-balanced approach.
- Training specificity: To see the best results in cycling, your strength training should be specific to its demands. This means incorporating relevant movements (squats, hinges, pushes, pulls and bracing) to develop the correct physical qualities (read more here).
- Recovery: Training doesn’t make you better – proper recovery from training is what leads to adaptation and is ultimately what makes you better! Having a disorganised approach to training means that you will not be adequately recovered.
- Avoiding Interference: Concurrently doing cycling training with strength training can interfere with each other if not organized properly. If both types of training are too intense, it can lead to fatigue, injury, and decreased performance. By organising your strength training, you can avoid this interference and see better results.
The method of organising your training is called periodisation, but how should you do it, what options are there and how can it help you as a cyclist?
What are Periodisation Strategies?
Periodisation is simply the term sports scientists and coaches use to describe the organisation of training into manageable blocks and segments. These should link together, varying different training parameters (such as volume and intensity) to achieve peak performance at the correct time(s) of year.
Periodisation was first developed by Soviet sports scientist Dr Leo Matveyev in the 1960s, who systematically studied the effects of different training methods on athletic performance. It incorporates Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome theory, which describes the three phases the body goes through when experiencing a new stimulus: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion.
- Alarm is the initial shock of a new stimulus, which is usually in the form of soreness (DOMS) that we’ve all felt after starting something new.
- Resistance is the adaption to this stimulus, which allows us to continue increasing our workload and progress in a program.
- Exhaustion is when a decrease in workload occurs via overstimulation and fatigue, which is known as overtraining or overreaching.
This organised approach can be utilised by anybody, not just athletes, because it reduces burnout, decreases injury risk, and adds structure to your training.
Periodisation should incorporate all forms of training as they all interrelate to bring together your final performance, but for the benefit of this article, I will describe different approaches to periodisation in relation to strength training only.
Types of Periodisation
There are four main approaches to periodisation, each of which has several sub-categories and have differing advantages and disadvantages depending upon your goals, time available and (most importantly) stage of training.
Before we dive headlong into each, it’s important to learn some terminology:
- Macrocycle – This is the entire training period and can last from 6 months up to 4 years, depending on the length of preparation required. The end goal of the macrocycle is to peak optimal performance.
- Mesocycle – A mesocycle represents a specific training block and generally has a specific aim (eg base building or strength development), although complimentary outcomes can be trained concurrently (see below). The organisation of mesocycles should combine towards the overall aim of the macrocycle.
- Microcycle – Training blocks are organised yet further into microcycles. Typically, this is a training week (as it’s easier to organise), but microcycles can vary between 3 and 10 days.
- Training Day – As the name suggests, this is a single day of training. This may consist of one or multiple training sessions, depending on many different factors.
Linear Periodisation Strategies
Linear strategies separate the development of different physical characteristics, stringing several mesocycles together with the aim of developing peak performance at the end of the macrocycle.
The trend typically progresses from high-volume with low-intensity to low-volume with high-intensity training, which is why it is called linear, although this approach can be reversed (often dubbed reverse periodisation).
Coaches generally plan mesocycles in this sequence: strength endurance, hypertrophy, maximal strength, and neuromuscular power. After which, the rotation starts again.
Long Linear Periodisation
This approach is probably what is thought of as “classic” periodisation and uses longer mesocycles (6-8 weeks) to develop a single training goal.
This method is great for beginners or people who have had a long layoff because it provides plenty of time to learn good lifting techniques. The rapid rate at which novices can adapt to the progressive training loads means that it can be very effective.
In my experience, the main drawback of this method is that it is mentally gruelling and can become monotonous because the same approach is used again and again for extended periods of time.
For more experienced athletes (in the gym), the heavy focus on one training outcome means that others become detained which can lead to stagnation.
Short Linear Periodisation
As the name suggests, this is the same as long linear periodisation, only the mesocycles are shorter in duration (typically 3-4 weeks, but can be even shorter). The same progressive sequence is used.
This approach negates most of the disadvantages of the long linear approach because the shorter duration of each macrocycle means physical qualities don’t detrain as quickly and the varying nature prevents boredom from setting in.
This approach ramps intensity up far too quickly and can be risky for beginners who need more time to learn techniques and develop a level of general physical adaptation to progress safely.
Undulating Periodisation Strategies
Whereas linear approaches plan a progressive change from high-volume, low-intensity to low-volume, high-intensity (or vice versa), undulating methods vary the training emphasis on a weekly (WUP) or daily (DUP) basis, although there are several models where the mesocycles are considerably longer.
Weekly Undulating Periodisation
This approach varies emphasis by manipulating the volume and intensity from week to week.
It’s based on the idea that constantly changing the training variables forces the body to make adaptations thereby allowing for greater recovery and increasing the potential for greater adaptation.
As a coach, I have also had success by varying more subtle factors such as the specific exercise (using a range of squat variations, for example) and even exercise order.
The aim of this method is to use the non-linear approach to prevent burnout and plateaus by providing variety in training.
By regularly changing the training variables, the body is forced to make adaptations and thus gains strength. Another advantage is that it provides variety in the workout, which keeps the athlete engaged and motivated.
This approach has the strong potential for confusion and lack of structure if not properly planned.
It is not recommended for beginners because they will suddenly jump into high-intensity lifting when they have not had the time to learn solid technique or prepare their soft tissue adequately.
Daily Undulating Periodisation
No prizes for guessing that this method is the same as the weekly undulating method, but the variables change each training day throughout the microcycle!
I have personally experienced the greatest improvements using a daily undulating model where the emphasis is changed for each training session throughout the week and then repeated for several weeks.
For me, this looked like this:
- Day 1 – Volume based approach
- Day 3 – Recovery (low volume), aiming to keep moving and groove movement patterns.
- Day 5 – Intensity approach – looking to lift the most weight possible for the prescribed number of reps on that day. The aim is to progressively lift more week on week.
Working with this method consistently over around 4 months kept me interested and led to consistent improvements every single week.
The shorter mesocycles prevent boredom and (more importantly) avert detraining of other physical qualities. Furthermore, the undulating nature of this approach prevents overtraining by regularly changing the stimulus.
As with the weekly version of this approach, it is not appropriate for novice or beginner lifters because there isn’t enough time to learn adequate lifting techniques before the intensity (weight) is dramatically increased.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, advanced lifters may need longer periods devoted to a single physical quality to generate adequate overload to stimulate adaptation; although this is very unlikely to be of concern to cyclists who have no need to achieve this level of strength.
Block periodisation is a method of planning and organising a training program over a period of time that involves focusing on one or two physical qualities at a time, usually for a 4-6 week period or ‘block’.
The idea behind block periodisation is that by focusing on a few qualities at once, athletes can make the most of each block to improve the quality of their training over the long term.
Block periodisation is usually broken down into 3 stages:
- Block 1 – Accumulation
- Block 2 – Transmutation
- Block 3 – Realisation
So, for example…
The accumulation block would focus on muscular hypertrophy, the transmutation block would focus on maximal strength (using the additional muscle gained in the accumulation block), and the realisation block would be to transfer that strength into power.
Variations of this approach as worked very well for track sprinters and BMX riders I’ve coached in the past, who already had a very good strength base.
We took this approach:
- Accumulation – Maximal strength development + standing starts/high gear efforts on the bike (gym work too the priority here).
- Transmutation – Power development + rolling efforts (equal weighting to gym and bike work, ensuring high-quality efforts with lots of recovery).
- Realisation – Maintenance gym work (low volume and core work) + flying efforts (on bike work was a strong priority).
Our ultimate goal was to allow the rider to stay at their peak performance for longer by blending progressions in torque and cadence which highlighted the relationship between strength in the gym and power on the bike!
The advantages of block periodisation include the ability to focus on one or two qualities at once, allowing athletes to make more progress in each block.
This approach also allows athletes to have more variety in their training, as they can change up exercises and focus on different qualities in each block.
Finally, it allows athletes to plan out their training over longer periods of time, ensuring that all of their physical qualities are developed over the course
Although it lends itself extremely well to the sprint-based cycling disciplines I described above, it’s far less appropriate for endurance riders.
As with some of the other methods, this approach is not suitable for beginners as it requires a very strong gym foundation to get the most out of it.
Conjugate periodisation is a strategy popularised by powerlifting coach Louis Simmons, whereby multiple training goals are trained somewhat simultaneously. Although primarily utilised in strength and power sports, I feel it has its advantages for cyclists (who are more experienced in the gym), who need to manage fatigue throughout a training week.
Cyclists can use the different forms of conjugate periodisation to focus on different elements of training. For example, you can use the maximal effort method to develop maximal strength and power, the dynamic effort method to develop speed and power, and the repetition effort method to develop muscular endurance and hypertrophy (at the right times of year!).
This allows you to become a well-rounded athlete, making you more competitive and resilient to injury.
There are several different forms of conjugate periodisation. These include:
Maximal Effort Method
This method focuses on maximal strength development through very heavy loading. Near-maximal loads are used (90-100% of 1RM) for 3-10 sets of 1-3 repetitions with long rest intervals.
Heavy loading like this primarily works by improving neuromuscular activation and motor-unit firing characteristics within and between muscle groups, allowing the muscles to work together more efficiently and produce greater force output.
Obviously, sound technique is required for any and all exercises used and if done too frequently, can lead to central neuromuscular fatigue.
Dynamic Effort Method
This method is probably the hallmark of conjugate periodisation and generates high forces by utilising the speed of movement rather than the weight being lifted. Therefore, lighter loads (50-60% of 1RM) are used for 3-10 sets of 1-3 repetitions.
This lower loading is an advantage if lifting heavy loads too often is becoming a problem, but if the speed of movement is not maintained it becomes ineffective and therefore pointless.
Although loads are lighter, the velocity of movement increases the injury risk and I’ve seen many riders with a false sense of security in these circumstances!
Repetition Effort Method
This form of conjugate periodisation focuses on developing muscular endurance and hypertrophy through higher-rep exercises. It involves using moderate loads (60-80% of 1RM) for 3-5 sets of 8-12 repetitions with moderate rest intervals.
In my opinion, this should only be done by cyclists rarely and at times of the year when it doesn’t matter whether it interferes with any on-bike work because this causes significant fatigue!
This is just a basic introduction to organising your strength training with a periodised approach and how it can be applied to improve your cycling performance.
By varying the intensity and volume of your training (as well as other factors) with a well-planned approach, you can target specific areas for improvement and achieve peak performance at the right time.
It’s worth reiterating that each type of periodisation has its own advantages and disadvantages and the best method for you will vary depending on your experience, goals and needs.
It’s also important to note that periodisation is not a one-size-fits-all approach and the best way is to consult a coach or professional to design a program that fits your needs and goals.