Cyclists: time to bone up on weight training

It’s a well-established fact that vigorous weight-bearing physical activity is very effective at helping to build bone mineral density (BMD) in the early and mid years of life. This is extremely important as low BMD levels significantly increase the risk fracture and of developing osteoporosis (quite literally ‘porous bones’) later in life – a serious condition that can dramatically reduce quality of life and lead to numerous health complications.

Cycling is generally recognised as one of the best forms of exercise there is. However, the low-impact, smooth spinning nature of the pedalling action leads to only low loading of the bones, which although kind to joints, doesn’t appear to offer the same bone mass building benefits of say running or weight training. Moreover, a growing number of studies have reported that competitive pro and amateur road cyclists have lower bone mineral density than inactive non-cyclists. This has set alarm bells ringing because it suggests that high-volume, non weight-bearing exercise such as cycling may actually be detrimental for bone health. However, if you’re a cyclist, you can take heart because some studies have suggested that by adding in other types of training, BMD loss may be less of a problem.

Cycling and BMD

In an excellent study published earlier this year, US scientists evaluated training and dietary factors associated with BMD in a sample of competitive male cyclists [J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Jan;32(1):274-279]. To do this, the bone densities of the lumbar spine, hip, and femur (the large thigh bone) were measured with using a highly accurate technique known as dual x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) in 40 cyclists at the start of a cycling season. During the season, all the cyclists were asked to report their weekly hours of cycling, years of competitive cycling experience, and any other activities they participated in such as weight training. They were also asked about their dietary habits. This was to allow the researchers to estimate the cyclists’ intake of dietary calcium (low calcium intake is also associated with lower levels of BMD). At the end of the season, the data was gathered and analysed to allow the researchers to see which factors most affected the cyclists’ BMD levels.

Key findings

There was one key finding that emerged from the data: cyclists who were regularly participating in weight training were found to have significantly higher levels of BMD than cyclists who didn’t weight train – regardless of other factors such as diet and training volume. Moreover, the higher levels of BMD in the weight-training cyclists were observed in all regions – ie lumbar spine, hip and femur. No other factors appeared to significantly affect BMD, indicating that the weight training had produced a large and positive impact.

Implications for cyclists and practical recommendations

The researchers were unequivocal in their conclusion stating that ‘all competitive cyclists should engage in weight training to prevent BMD losses’. And given the accumulating evidence about BMD losses in cyclists and the protective effective of weight training on BMD, this is something we fully endorse! Here then are some practical recommendations (don’t forget to check the articles below also):

  • If cycling is your sole sport or activity, consider adding some regular weight training or running into your weekly schedule once or twice per week. This will ‘load’ the bones, stimulating the uptake of calcium and the synthesis of bone mineral.
  • Weight training appears to particularly effective for combating the loss of BMD; select exercises that load the legs, hips and lower back such as squats, lunges, deadlifts etc.
  • When performing weight training, use less reps and higher weights, allowing you to (just) perform around 6-8 reps with good form. This approach will also produce performance benefits, such as increased cycling efficiency (you can read more about cycling efficiency here).
  • Consider weight training as part of your year-round programme – not something you just do in the off season.

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