Introduction To Strength Training Terminology for Cyclists

By Christopher Schwenker

Make informed decisions about your training plan by mastering the basics of strength exercises

Whether you’re a newcomer to the sport or an experienced rider looking to incorporate strength training into your regimen, it’s critical to demystify the jargon and break down basic concepts into simple, actionable insights. By understanding the fundamentals of how muscles work while cycling and the science behind it, you can optimize your training, boost your performance, and achieve your fitness goals more effectively.

Let’s dive into the essentials of strength training and build the foundation for a more informed cycling experience.

Types of Muscle Contraction

There are two main types: concentric and eccentric. A concentric contraction occurs when a muscle shortens as it contracts, like when lifting a weight. In contrast, an eccentric contraction involves the muscle lengthening under tension, such as when lowering a weight.

What is the difference between concentric and eccentric?

Concentric contraction involves muscle shortening as it generates tension, for instance, during the upward phase of a biceps curl. This type of contraction uses more energy but produces less force, and because it causes only minor muscle damage, it typically results in less soreness afterward.

Concentric Contraction Characteristics:

On the other hand, an eccentric contraction occurs when the muscle lengthens while still under tension, like during the lowering phase of a biceps curl. In this scenario, the external load exceeds the muscle’s force, forcing it to elongate.

Eccentric contractions consume less energy but generate a higher maximal force, often leading to more muscle damage and a greater likelihood of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Eccentric Contraction Characteristics:

Is the Pedal Stroke Eccentric or Concentric?

Cycling is a sport dominated by concentric muscle contractions. The primary leg muscles—such as the quadriceps and glutes—shorten to produce power during pedaling. It is evident as cyclists push down on the pedals to propel the bike forward.

However, the role of eccentric contractions in cycling, mainly related to the stabilization and coordination provided by other muscle groups, adds a layer of complexity regarding its impact on overall cycling performance.

Eccentric contractions occur in cycling when stabilizing muscles like the hamstrings lengthen under tension to control the motion of the leg and maintain balance and power transmission throughout the pedal stroke.

Open-Chain vs. Closed-Chain Kinetic Exercise

Concentric and eccentric muscle contractions differ in how the muscle changes during exercise, similar to the distinction between open and closed-chain exercises.

Open-Chain Exercise Characteristics

In open-chain kinetic exercises, the limbs or body parts move freely. For instance, during a knee extension—an open-chain lower-extremity exercise—the quadriceps contract, lifting the lower leg through space.

Open-chain kinetic exercises enable isolated activation of muscle groups, allowing focused strengthening to correct imbalances or heal injuries. This exercise is particularly beneficial for training and injury recovery, where free limb movement is essential.

Closed-Chain Exercise Characteristics

Closed-chain kinetic exercises keep the terminal joint fixed, restricting the free motion of the limb or body part. For example, during leg squats, your feet remain firmly on the ground while your body moves.

During squats, these exercises engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, such as the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, enhancing joint stability and functional movement patterns that mirror daily activities.

Closed-chain exercises are particularly beneficial for training and recovery in sports that require fixed foot positions. They distribute the load across multiple muscle groups and facilitate proper neural patterns, reducing stress on supporting structures.

Is the pedal stroke an open or closed chain?

The classification of the pedal stroke in cycling as either an open or closed kinetic chain exercise is subject to debate. Generally, cycling is an open-chain exercise because the pedal moves away as you press down, allowing free limb movement.

However, some argue it has closed-chain elements, particularly when the foot is fixed to the pedal. It creates a scenario where the limb’s endpoint is stationary, potentially engaging multiple muscle groups simultaneously and reflecting some closed-chain characteristics.

What does it mean for the cyclist?

It is essential to navigate a vast array of information when deciding how to optimize training efficiency and integrate strength exercises into our routine.

A British Journal of Sports Medicine study found that high-intensity eccentric exercises significantly increased total strength and muscle mass compared to concentric training because of the higher loads developed during eccentric contractions.

A Journal of Orthopedic Physical Therapy study compared the effects of closed versus open kinetic chain exercises on thigh muscle strength by using leg squats and vertical jump tests as benchmarks. The findings showed that both groups made gains in the barbell squat 3-repetition maximum test.

However, the closed kinetic chain group saw a significant improvement of 23 kg (31%), outperforming the 12 kg (13%) improvement in the open kinetic chain group. Additionally, the closed kinetic chain exercises led to a notable 5 cm (10%) increase in vertical jump height, whereas the open kinetic chain group did not experience any significant changes.

Knowledge is never a weakness

Strength training philosophies are varied and personal, and the research is often equivocal. However, careful consideration ensures we make informed choices that enhance our fitness strategy.

Understanding strength training terminology empowers you to make informed decisions about your training regimen. You can optimize your cycling performance and overall fitness by incorporating both concentric and eccentric exercises, along with a mix of open and closed-chain movements.

Embrace the journey of strength training and open up new possibilities to enhance your cycling performance. Integrating knowledge into your training strategy is never a weakness!


About the Author

After over twenty years as director of his private physical therapy practice, Chris stepped away to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. He founded, the leading source of independent cycling esports journalism, is a frequent contributor to Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, and, and co-hosts The Virtual Velo Podcast. He cycled 3,900 miles across the US in 2022 to support his virtual cycling non-profit, The DIRT Dad Fund

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