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  1. #1
    Steel, steel, steel
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    Upper body strength?

    Hi all,

    Since we got over a foot of snow in the last week, my bike has gone to the basement for the winter.

    I am planning on improving my core strength during the winter months, with some jogging and cross-country skiing.

    However I was wondering if there is any benefit in doing workouts to improve specifically upper-body strength. I ask because when I do long climbs on the bike I usually find that my arms and shoulders are almost more fatigued than my legs. It's not a question of bike fit since my bike frames are custom geometry for my body shape and size, and the upper body fatigue only sets in when I'm doing hills (hills=2 to 3 kms at 7-10% grade at the minimum)...

    Thanks for any help!

  2. #2
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    The best pro climbers have pretty skinny arms and shoulders. If anything, maybe lots of reps at low weight to build endurance but not bulk? In my experience, position on the bike and technique are big factors on how much work my upper body does. I try to minimize any upper body exertion by keeping balanced more over the pedals and allowing the bike to rock fairly freely when standing, lower gear and higher cadence when seated....

    Wiggo's got skinny everything...

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    ... 'cuz that's how I roll.

  3. #3
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    Since I'll never get paid to race bicycles at anything but an amateur level, I try and keep my upper body somewhat strong. I don't strive for a huge arms and chest, but I don't want to be a pencil neck either.
    To that end, I lift lighter weights 2 times a week. Probably more than the average couch potato can muster, but nothing like a gym rat. I also hike and canoe and do other things, so having a strong core and upper body makes those things more enjoyable.
    "I felt bad because I couldn't wheelie; until I met a man with no bicycle"

  4. #4
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    I'm finally going back to the gym after a 9 year hiatus. My primary focus at the gym was for core strengthening. I've been doing pilates since moving to a new city 9 years ago. They finally built a decent gym close to our home which had a decent $10 monthly fee, open 24/7 and isn't a hole in the wall either. I didn't do big weight, I focus more on reps and move quickly from station to station. Keeps the HR up. It also gives me a little variety for cardio, since I can use eliptical machines and stair climbers.

    Gym work will not help your hill climbing speed.
    - Character is what you are in the Dark - Dwight L Moody & Dr Emilio Lizardo

  5. #5
    chica cyclista
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    I was wondering if there is any benefit in doing workouts to improve specifically upper-body strength
    yes, absolutely. those pro climbers with the skinny arms and legs are paid to ride their bikes 8 hours a day and hyperspecialize at going uphill only. No amateur bike racer should hyperspecialize to that degree; it's not practical, nor is it really applicable to the type of racing most US mid to lower category riders do. It's entirely likely that the excess bodyfat you may cut from integrating a good full-body weightbearing workout into your regimen, would negate any lean muscular gains you'd make.

    The solution mainly has to do with core and upper body strength. Ever wonder why your lower back gets so sore in hilly races and/or you cramp up after a certain point in a hard MTB race? It's mainly because your abs, obliques, posterior chain and upper back are not strong enough, flexible enough, and interconnected enough to do their fair share of the workload when you're hauling yourself uphill. Rough analogy: you'd rather build a cable span bridge than use a concrete block to support the load, and if your upper body is weak, it doesn't matter how little it weighs, it's just that: a static concrete block. Sitting on a bike, or worse, sitting on a trainer, for more than 3 hours a day does nothing remotely effective for helping build any kind of strength or flexibility in the "bridge" span.

    Another issue is that 4 hours of Z2 riding will make you come home wanting to eat the entire refrigerator, small pets and/or children, random body parts and anything else that doesn't get out of your way fast enough. Snark aside, unless you are incredibly disciplined, know the calorie content of everything you put in your mouth, and weigh everything you eat on a food scale, it's incredibly easy to eat 200% (or more) of the caloric benefit you just got from your workout after one of these deathmarches. There's a lot of older guys out there I hear going on about how much they ride and can never lose weight? There's why - they come back after a century ride and down an entire pizza and a couple pints of beer. Every time you burn 1000 calories but then eat 2500 to "reload" it adds up.

    Conversely 30-45 minutes of full-body weight work reaps you considerably more metabolic boost / caloric deficit, plus you won't feel so insanely depleted/starving afterwards.

    The best part of this whole thing is that you don't even need to go to the gym or buy a bunch of equipment. Try doing military or "prison" style bodyweight workouts instead: burpees, pushups, pullups, v-ups, plank (standard and side planks), lunges and squats (weighted or non). Get a 5 gallon bucket (something everyone's got, right?), put some water in it, then just pick it up and haul it around. Start light and work on form and balance first. Put more water in the bucket as your form and flexibility improves. Once you get decently strong in the p-chain from these, graduate to side lifts, then fill that sucker up and march it across your yard (or garage) a dozen times. Do both sides, or switch to 2 buckets, one in each hand, as you progress. Do stair or box jumps, using full body / arm "rows" to engage the core and posterior chain. Practice kneeling, then standing on that yoga ball you've got sitting around gathering dust. Get a jumprope (dead seriously) and learn how to use it. None of this costs much cash at all, and all of it is beneficial. Buy (or borrow) a book called "You Are Your Own Gym" for more info - that book has done more to get me fit and fix my back problems than anything.

    None of these has much to do with conventional "lifting" but all of them are fun, engaged, full-body workout type exercises that are easy enough to fit into a 30-45 minute 2x-week "core maintenance" program. Every cyclist should be doing this stuff, if only to avoid the sort of low back imbalance/inflexibility injuries (specifically L5, SI and sciatica) that the static position and slack upper body of high volume road cycling can trigger.

    (n.b. none of us here are likely to "bulk up" from any amount of lifting we could fit into our existing daily schedules - it takes daily hours of focussed effort tossing around absurd amounts of heavy objects, and most of all: DRUGS to look like a bodybuilder fwiw)

    Oh and last but not least: if you're stuck trying to do any sort of volume / base indoors owing to weather, consider using rollers (if you have or can get a set) rather than a stationary trainer. Save the stationary for the hard interval work, and stick to the rollers to work on your form and balance during lighter days. It's a much better core and full body workout. Riding the turbo day in and day out can encourage some really lousy pedaling and upper body form that can get "burned in" if you aren't careful.
    Grandpa LFR: "Kid, don't wrestle with pigs; you'll just get covered in crap, and the pig enjoys it."

    /Grandpa LFR

  6. #6
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    @ looigi: LOL, I wish I had even 10% of anything wiggo has...and you touched upon one of my weaknesses i.e. technique: a lot of my riding buddies tell me I'm too tensed up when climbing.

    @ n00ky: thanks for the advice, I'm not a racer myself either, just a guy who hit middle age and can't train and bike as much as he wants (kids and work keep getting in the way). Not much of a gym rat either, for the same reasons...

    @ lonefrontranger: wow, thanks for the informative and lengthy response - it's really appreciated. I'm 5'8" and 132 lbs, so not much excess weight, but the core is definitely weak, and you've given me lots of stuff to look into to improve that aspect of my "winter routine". I'll check out the book you suggest...oh and unfortunately rollers are not an option for me (my 3, 4 and 9 y.o. are sometimes running around me while I'm on my trainer...all sorts of catastrophes will happen if I'm on rollers with them around...) but my trainer is a Tacx i-Magic which keeps training as efficient as possible.

  7. #7
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    I have added Kettlebell workouts to my winter cross training this year. I'm hoping this will improve my upper body/core some. I'm hoping some improvements on my least fit muscles will allow me to come out stronger in the spring. I still ride the trainer at least 4 days a week to maintain my cycling base.

  8. #8
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    lonefrontranger has some good advice about working out to strengthen your upper back, lower back, and core. You don't need a gym, but even if you do hit the gym, things like planks, pushups, burpees, etc. can really help. Unless you're really prone to it, you won't bulk up enough to counteract the benefit you'll gain.

    Last summer I did a boot camp style workout that included lots of planks, burpees, lunges, squats, crunches, and stretching. About half way through I felt much more comfortable on the bike, more stable, and thus faster.

    Edited to add: One big advantage of doing planks, burpees, etc. is that you'll really work on your balance, something you won't get from working out with a machine.

  9. #9
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    Re: Upper body strength?

    I agree with lone front ranger too. But i do like the gym. Arc trainer elliptical followed by a core focused circuit training and then ten minutes on the stretching machine.

    Have some free weight dumbells and a balance ball at home but not currently into that. But also a good method.

  10. #10
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    You could try swimming. I used to, still do somewhat, have a weak core. Always used to slouch when sitting in chairs, or just walking. Swimming has taught me how to keep my core engaged, without flexing the crap out of it, and it's improved my posture in general a lot. Also will help you build up some arm and shoulder strength.

    I hate lifting weights and doing sit-ups. But I'm just about 6 feet tall, and weight 195 pounds, at 12-13% body fat, and I've actually gained muscle mass from swimming. Guess I need to put the cheeseburgers down.

    Just my .02

  11. #11
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    Nothing wrong with wanting to have a reasonable physique, except perhaps if you're a pro cyclists, but IMO, it will do nothing for climbing and possibly be counterproductive WRT climbing, and maybe for cycling in general. The OP did ask about working out to improve climbing, not to improve self esteem, pick up chicks, or prevent getting sand kicked in his face at the beach. Check out the contrast between thighs and upper body on Tony Martin. His upper arms are very....aerodynamic?

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    ... 'cuz that's how I roll.

  12. #12
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    Not to make this about semantics but there is a difference between strength and fitness.
    You won't gain anything in the way of bike performance by increasing upper body 'strength'. But that's not to say you can't benefit greatly by working your upper body and increasing fitness/stamina.
    It's doubtful your upper body gets tired on long climbs because you lack any strength. You probably lack some stamina and that can certainly be helped by upper body workouts designed for stamina not brute strength.

  13. #13
    Steel, steel, steel
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    Interesting points...

    Someone once famously said "It doesn't get easier, you just get faster"...

    Actually, I'm NOT at all aiming to go faster...I'm not a racer and I already make it up hills as fast or faster than most of my riding buddies. I think my relatively light weight, and NOT my fitness, is what makes the difference in that regard. I want to make it EASIER.

    What I mean to say is, I want to feel less "beat up" after the longer climbs...so I'm hoping that better fitness though improving core and arm & shoulder strength will help, since a lot of the aches and pains when climbing seems to come from my upper body.

    Thanks to all for the thoughtful answers.

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by CBS78 View Post
    I have added Kettlebell workouts to my winter cross training this year. I'm hoping this will improve my upper body/core some. I'm hoping some improvements on my least fit muscles will allow me to come out stronger in the spring. I still ride the trainer at least 4 days a week to maintain my cycling base.
    I love these, esp the swing. 30 minutes. 1 min on, 20 sec. off. Done. This is great for core work.

  15. #15
    chica cyclista
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    ...rollers are not an option for me (my 3, 4 and 9 y.o. are sometimes running around me while I'm on my trainer...all sorts of catastrophes will happen if I'm on rollers with them around...)
    I get it, my husband and I have to shut our 6 month old kitten out of the garage because he's a bit too fascinated by roller bands right now. Our teammate & training partner has 2 preschool aged boys (they are 3 and 5 years old now and INTO! EVERYTHING!). he had the same concerns too, but he's been riding rollers and the trainer for several winters now with them and had no problems (just as a data point).
    Grandpa LFR: "Kid, don't wrestle with pigs; you'll just get covered in crap, and the pig enjoys it."

    /Grandpa LFR

  16. #16
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    Best upper body training for those steep climbs is riding up steep climbs. Remarkably effective.

  17. #17
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    @ lonefrontranger....good info.

    I started TRX at my local Y last summer and love it. Not looking to bulk up, just strengthen core & back. Plus, our Y offers a 'bootcamp' class which hits everything lonefrontrunner mentioned.
    Plus, as Sean B stated, swimming is a plus. Little to no stress on the joints, aids in my breathing.
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  18. #18
    chica cyclista
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    ooh, also - I like Tony Gentilcore's blog - he's one of the better "meatheads" at explaining real-world full-body fitness and strength cross training for folks who aren't necessarily gym rats or meatheads themselves.

    Here is one of the more useful core full-body exercises my husband and I do that I picked up from Gentilcore: "stirring the pot", using a yoga ball (something most people have lying about).

    also, fair warning: go easy on this one at first. it is BLOODY. DIFFICULT.
    Grandpa LFR: "Kid, don't wrestle with pigs; you'll just get covered in crap, and the pig enjoys it."

    /Grandpa LFR

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