How should I schedule my strength workouts?

When I was sitting pondering over a cup of tea the other day I started thinking about the various ways that I schedule workouts to meet the needs of the athletes I work with. This is particularly interesting at the moment as I am working with Karen Darke at the altitude training centre in Font Romeu and Karen has a heavy gym programme to incorporate into her cycling focused training programme. I thought it would be useful to share my thoughts on the best ways to schedule gym workouts into an endurance programme.

How should I schedule gym sessions into my cycle training? Workouts should be scheduled so that you are most rested for the workouts with the highest priority. It is important to be able to work hard to get the most out of these workouts so they should usually be preceded by easier days. In general, the higher the intensity of the workout, the more rested you need to be to make it effective, so if you are looking for strength gains and lifting heavy weights you need to be sufficiently rested to do that. Another factor to bear in mind is that aerobic activity will stop or reduce the adaptation to high-intensity strength work, so it is good to have as long as possible after your strength work before an endurance workout.

Getting the balance right can be difficult and this will change as you build fitness and mature in your sports. For example, when starting out, an athlete is likely to make gains irrespective of how the sessions are planned or scheduled but as fitness builds, the content and scheduling of the sessions becomes increasingly important.

Be clear about what you want

In all training plans, it is important to know what you are trying to achieve with each workout. There are many reasons for incorporating gym work into your training, these may be to:

  • Improve overall muscle tone and core strength;

  • Build strength that will transfer into higher peak powers on the bike;

  • Avoid loss of muscle mass to combat the effects of ageing;

  • Build fitness after an injury or illness as part of a rehabilitation programme;

  • Add some variety to your training schedule;

  • etc.

Of course, you may be looking to achieve one or all of the above examples but being aware of your goals is the first step and these goals will have an impact on your scheduling.

It is also important to be clear on how important your gym goals are to your overall plan. This is likely to be different at different times of the year, for example, if your competitions are mostly in the summer, you may be looking to focus on gym work during the winter period as you build a base or you may want to build strength closer to your competition times so that the strength carries through into your race season. In most cases, the biggest gym focus is in the off-season, moving to maintenance sessions as the competition season approaches.

Set some clear goals

Once you have decided what you want to achieve, you can set some relevant goals to help you track progress and identify what is working and what you might be able to improve. For example, if you want to build strength that is relevant to your short term powers, you may want to track your maximum dead lift or squat for 1, 3 or 5 reps. If you want to build your core strength you can choose a core exercise that is relevant, perhaps you can aim to extend the duration you can hold front, back and side planks. If you have an imbalance in your body for some reason, you can see how your left/right balance improves over time on various exercises.

Make your goals manageable with suitable steps to focus on. You may have a variety of goals over a given period, particularly if you are training for a major event or race series that may be well into the future.

How many sessions each week

How many gym sessions each week will depend on the priority of your gym work and how much time you have available. In general, it will be difficult to make improvements in your strength with just one session each week but you are likely to be able to maintain your strength with one session a week. Therefore, you will want to include at least 2 sessions each week during the period of time you want to build strength and reduce to 1 or 2 sessions a week after that.

It is also important to be able to recover sufficiently between your gym sessions, which will be harder to do if you are working hard in your other training. Also, if you are focusing on building strength in just one area of your body such as your legs, or in Karen’s case, her arms, you will need more recovery than if you split your gym sessions to focus on arms in one session and legs in another. My feeling is that if you are including gym work to support performance in another sport, 2 sessions per week aimed at building strength in your primary muscle groups is enough, maybe with some core work, yoga, etc, incorporated or as separate sessions.

Keep it simple

Gym work takes time to do well and the more exercises you do the more time it will take. To build strength you need to work hard and recover, typically doing from 3 to 5 sets on each exercise with around 2 minutes recovery between sets. You will also need to build up to your main lift weight with 2 or 3 sets at lighter weights. Assuming you take 30 seconds for each set, this will be at around 10 and 15 minutes on each exercise. Four exercises combined with a 15 minute warm up and warm down would result in an hour to an hour and a half in the gym.

Bearing this in mind, unless you have unlimited time (and energy), it is best to stick with a few key exercises. To be most effective, choose exercises that use multiple muscle groups that are relevant to where you want to make gains. Squats and deadlifts are great exercises, working your legs and back as well as your core if you use free weights. However, if you aren’t experienced in gym work, get someone to show you the correct techniques before you start and don’t lift beyond your capabilities. Good form over a good range is much better than struggling and risking injury. It is certain that you won’t get fit if you have to take time off with injury so stay on the safe side and work consistently.


The schedule

Typical week

Planning training is always a compromise because we can’t improve everything at once. Things also get more complicated if we need to account for competitions or other life commitments.

My approach to scheduling is usually to work with a standard week that I have agreed with a particular athlete and then vary things within that week according to the training phase.

For example, since most people have more time at weekends, a typical week might be scheduled according to the table.

Many people do their longer sessions on Sunday mornings, which gives a reasonable recovery before the gym. If it is possible to do the gym on Monday morning or lunch time and then the Tuesday session in the evening there would be a good period of time for adaptation. It is likely that there will be some fatigue carried into Thursday’s gym session but this needs to be adjusted according to priorities.

During periods of heavier endurance work, the gym would be compromised by adding easier endurance work on the same day and if the gym is a priority the days after the gym maybe set as rest days to maximise adaptation.


How many repetitions and how many sets?

I already mentioned that I think it is best to keep gym sessions focused on just a few key exercises. I say this with the proviso that it is good to include some peripheral, lighter exercises that develop general conditioning, core and functional exercises that aid good biomechanics.

The next question is, how many repetitions and how many sets? As with most training, this depends on what you are trying to achieve, your goals. However, you are unlikely to go far wrong by using the following protocol.

  1. If you are new to the gym and strength training, take some time to learn the exercises and stick to sets of sets of 10 repetitions of each of your key exercises. Have around 2 minutes between sets and do 2 or 3 sets, depending on your available time and fitness. Do 6 sessions like this, so if you are in the gym twice a week, that will be 3 weeks.

  2. Next, find the weights that you can do 3 sets of 6 repetitions for each of your key exercises and build up the number of repetitions as you get stronger. Do this for 12 sessions or until you can do sets of 12 reps per set.

  3. Next, find the weights you can do 3 sets of 8 repetitions for each of your key exercises. This time, increase the weights you are using as you get stronger. Do this for 12 sessions, so 6 weeks if you are doing 2 sessions each week.

  4. Finally, stick with the same weight but do the reps faster and reduce the time between sets, increasing the density of your exercises. Be sure to maintain good form and range of movement, form is more important that speed. Do this for 12 sessions.

After you have completed these steps you should be significantly stronger in your target exercises. At this point you can repeat the cycle, starting at step 2. You can do this for the same exercises or try some different ones to provide a new stimulus or focus.

Each of the blocks of steps 2 to 4 will take around 4 months if you are doing 2 gym sessions each week. This could work during your winter training from around mid November to mid March, at which point you may want to make your focus more specific to your race goals and use your strength to develop sports specific powers. If so, you can move into a maintenance period. Alternatively you may want to build on your base to develop some really high peak powers if you want a good sprint, to jump away from your competitors or tackle technical off-road features. If this is your goal you can start at step 2 but do fewer reps per set, perhaps start at 3 and build to 6, doing steps 3 and 4 at 3 sets of 4 reps on your key exercises.

Remember your goals and keep testing

During all this process, keep your goals in mind and keep doing tests to make sure things are working. Remember that it takes around 6 weeks to make a physiological change so don’t worry if you don’t see improvements immediately, but think about making changes if you aren’t improving after a couple of months. Also, remember that if your main goal is to support another sport, you need to see improvements in your performance in that sport. So for cycling you need to do some on the bike tests and see if you improving in line with your expectations.

We would love to know how you get on so please let us know.

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