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Ways to get the most out of lifting weights

Published January 17. 2015 09:00AM

If you don't know what I'm doing, you would assume I don't I know what I'm doing.

Put me in a crowded health club for two months while I do my winter leg workouts. Watch me without asking me to explain myself. Compare me to the other guys, and you'd probably say that I was the one who didn't have a clue.

What else could you think after watching me do subtle variations of essentially the same workout 60 minutes of nearly nonstop lifting, moving from a quadriceps exercise, to a hamstrings exercise, to a calves exercise, to a stretch, stopping only to jot down the weight used and reps performed and then doing it again and again without using much weight and always doing between 15 and 50 reps?

What else could you think after seeing the other guys working at a slower pace, using heavier weights, doing fewer reps, and getting far more muscular as a result?

In fact, you'd be absolutely right to say what I do is absolutely wrong until you know my purpose. For unlike typical health club members, I am not lifting to gain muscle or get stronger or gain definition or even just tone up my legs.

I am lifting to make my legs better at turning the pedals of a bicycle, a goal that definitely requires a specific sort of a workout. Once you know that, then you'd assume that I don't know what I'm doing if my workouts look like everyone elses' workouts.

Explaining my leg-lifting workouts makes two important points about lifting weights in general. First, you can't ever and I really mean ever judge the exercises you do or the amount of weight you use against anybody else. Second, you have to have a clear-cut goal in mind to achieve optimal results.

Many years ago, I lifted weights in the winter in a manner similar to a bodybuilder, and I would gain muscle size and body weight as a result. One old workout log shows that I ended one bicycling season at 168 pounds and then gained 13 pounds in the next eight weeks.

And I'd be willing to bet based on the increase in the weights used in tell-tale exercises like the squat, the dead lift, and the military press that almost all of the weight gained was muscle mass.

Aesthetically, my body looked better at 181 than 168 but functionally it was inferior if the goal was to ascend hills on a bicycle faster. While the extra muscle allowed me to sprint faster, I found that to be an unequal trade off.

Back then, I was never anything more than an average bicycle sprinter, so improving my sprint might mean I was going to finish eighth instead of tenth in a fairly flat road race. But losing a bit of my ability to climb could keep me from finishing on the podium at the hilliest races.

So every spring I would cut back on calories and cut out the leg lifting and get back to my best hill-climbing weight by April or May. Then I realized there had to be a better way. There had to be a way to have the lifting done in the offseason augment my hill-climbing ability.

So I thought a great deal about how the legs applied power to the pedals from both the seated and standing positions, which weightlifting exercises approximated those positions, and the degree of fatigue the leg muscles were feeling when they were needed to make the most important climbs.

From all of that I determined that most of the leg-lifting exercises I should do should be single-leg exercises. After all, you can only pedal one leg at a time. (The leg performing the back stroke from 6 to 12 on the face of a clock really isn't in a position to provide much force.)

Another quality that I knew I needed to engender is what I now call compromised strength. Getting up the first hill fastest in a 50-mile race isn't nearly as valuable as getting up the last hill fastest.

Therefore, I wanted my weightlifting workouts to build the same sort of fatigue in my muscles as they feel in a race.

And since there are so many different subtle variations to the peddling stroke that allow you to keep going hard even after one muscle group feels burned out (that's why many riders alternate between sitting and standing as they climb), I wanted to work in giant sets three, four, or five different exercises performed without rest in between to simulate that.

While it serves little purpose to share further details of my leg-lifting workouts unless you're a hardcore cyclist I hope you can apply the general concept to the time you spend lifting weights.

If you play slow-pitch softball or golf or run competitively or you'd just like to get better at one of these, think about the most important muscles in the most important movements, recognize what weightlifting exercises mimic those, and then feature those exercises when you lift weights.

If you do this, you'll probably be more motivated to work out in the gym now and pleasantly surprised when you play your sport of choice a few months later.

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