Skill Training vs Strength Training


TOOLBOX: Last month we spoke about the importance of intent, and purposeful movement in your strength training practice, and how these should be the guiding factors, not just adding weight week to week, or more repetitions per set. This month we will focus on knowing when to progress the weights. It’s not always as black and white as we’d like.

van der poel
This young lad was quite good from the start

Strength training for cyclists offers you fantastic rewards in performance when you focus in on performance outcomes, not weight room gains. But this is very challenging to do, as it requires us to change our mentality from thinking of “heavier weights / more reps” as being improvement, versus the quality of the movement itself.  Add to this the fact that there are massive, massive gains to be made through mostly bodyweight and positional challenges, and we have a completely different world / mental map of what strength training for performance is, and where it needs to start.

Before we go any further, we need to make a few things crystal clear.

Bodyweight movements/exercises are not resistance training. While these exercises tend to get thrown into the mix when the term “strength training” is used, they are often much more SKILL training.

Much akin to how we tend to use the term “being in menopause” for those women who have had a cessation in their cycle, when in truth, these women are “post menopause,” as menopause itself is a very short period of time.

It may seem like to-may-toh vs. to-mah-toh, but these differentiations are vital in being able to reframe your mental map and thinking to get more out of your training.

Skill Training vs. Strength Training

The first step in building towards improved performances and strength, is to learn how to move better. When I first started as a personal trainer over 15 years ago, I thought, like many well-meaning coaches and personal trainers, that this meant spending a lot of time performing corrective exercises.

xpedo cxr pedalbanner with Brian McCullough

However, this is a mistake, as we do need to work on the FUNdamental 5+1 movements in a way that challenges the body and its tissues to get stronger and adapt. These things can be done, relatively easily, when one understands the stages of adaptations throughout the training year that you need to go through, and that strength training must be done year-round.

While the primary reason for a year-round strength program is to ensure that you are stimulating the continual adaptations to the tissues and structures of the body, another very important reason for this, is skill maintenance.

If you’ve ever raced a road bike in the northeastern United States in the early spring, you are very well aware that there tend to be a very high number of crashes in the early and mid-spring races. While some blame these on early season jitters, it actually has a much simpler explanation.

Nearly everyone has been indoors riding on their trainers, and have not practiced the skills of riding their bikes: braking, cornering, bumping, gear selection, climbing out of the saddle without throwing the bike into the wheel behind you, etc.

Strength training is much the same. Each time you’re performing a variation of the FUNdamental 5+1 movements (push, pull, squat, hinge, press, rotary stability), you are teaching the body how to do it better. . . well, that is only if you’re paying attention to HOW you’re doing it.

Unfortunately this linchpin is lost on many, as they believe that simply showing up and “doing the work” will get them results.

Certainty, if you do the work you’ll see some improvements, but by taking the time to focus on HOW you’re doing something will allow you to see much bigger and further gains over the coming months.

Big improvements can be made

Layering Strength Atop the Movement Skill

When I teach young athletes the Olympic lifts, we exclusively use wooden dowels for the first few months. This is always met by some of the parents or adults by:

“Olympic lifts are supposed to be explosive, and fast, and with heavy weights. . . why are you wasting time on a 24 ounce bar and practicing at slow to medium speeds. . . you’re wasting time!”

In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth, and is something that you’ll want to practice in your own strength training approach:

  1. Teach the skill
  2. Reinforce GREAT technique for the skill (while getting anatomical adaptations)
  3. Perform increasing number of repetitions of the skill
  4. Add speed
  5. Only add resistance and weight when the skill can be performed extremely well, even under slight fatigue

THAT is what many adults and masters are missing in their strength training. They never take the time to learn or ingrain the movement skills needed to get the muscles, joints, and tissues to function at their best.

‘Simply picking things up and putting them down’


Simply picking things up and putting them down is certainly something we need to help balance out the demands we place on our bodies as endurance athletes. But by simply taking a step back to understand that movement is a skill that needs to be developed, maintained, and refined, can help you unlock not only more performance, but also better overall function of your body as well.

While I’ve covered much of this from a 10,000 ft view in my previous articles here on Pez, I do go into detail in my Strength Training for Cyclists Certification Course, as well as discuss this skill vs. strength concept with Miguel Arragoncillo on Episode 51 of my Strong, Savvy Cyclist & Triathlete Podcast, as well as discuss the importance of purposeful movement in Episode 52.

If you’re truly seeking to get better performance from your strength training, and want to feel and move better in your life outside of your cycling, these 2 podcasts are a must listen.

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