Bone Health and Cycling: Part 2

This is part 2 of the blog on Bone Health and Cycling.

The following section is especially important for those who cycle as their main force of exercise to stay on top of their strength training.  However, ANYONE concerned about improving or maintaining bone strength will gain much from the following information.


Put Forces on your Bones to Make Them Stronger

The aspects that account for bone strength include bone mineral density, content, bone size, and thickness.  When muscles contract they pull on the bones to which they are connected. These forces provide the stimulus for bones to grow both thicker and denser. Maximal strength training and impact forces are the best way to provide this stimulus to your bones.  A bone needs to experience a tenth of the amount of force needed to break it in order to be stimulated to create increased bone density (1).  Remember this key factor in your strength work. 


Don’t be afraid to lift relatively heavy weights , and add some plyometrics and impact training into your program.   Some examples of these things might be jumping rope or any kind of jumping or, even punching a bag for fun to provide some impact for your upper body.  Adding these things to your program AFTER developing a foundation will ensure that you are ready for the higher forces that these often place on the body. Strength training results in your body’s ability to actually increase the amount of muscle fibers that are fired when asked to, as well as how fast they are able to fire.  Both of these things result in the muscle being capable of producing more force, which in turn, means more forces exerted upon the bones to which they are attached.

In addition to providing greater forces to stimulate bone growth, strength training also reduces risk factors that result in broken bones by increasing muscle mass and improving balance.  This is especially important in older populations at any activity level. If you have better balance, more strength and muscle, and stronger bones, all of those things come together to make you more physically resilient and stable. You will be better prepared to handle unexpected that unexpected gust of wind or pothole due to increase core and total body strength and stability.   If it happens that you are involved in a crash, your bones are less likely to crack under the impact.  Now, you have two ways of staying off the injury list.

How to Strength Train for Strong Bones.

Put random forces on your bones to stimulate growth. Some research has shown that the best results in the short term come out of subjecting bones to high forces in a more random fashion. Shorter term training programs of more random high intensity forces on your muscles and bones have actually been shown to be more effective than programs that progress over time.  Now, this is contradictory to a program you might put together for performance gains, but it is still something that should be considered if you are concerned about improving your bone strength.   Also, these are short time results.  It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t periodize your program, as longer periods may be needed to produce the benefits to bone density in that case (2).   If you are following a periodized program and want to make sure it addresses your bone health, my suggestion would be to continue to do so.  However , make sure to include one or two exercises that target bone health regardless of what the overall program goals are. The goal of these movements is to provide the forces on your bones to stimulate adaptation.
Select exercises that involve large muscle groups.  The movements involving the larger muscles or multiple muscle groups are all good choices, assuming an adequate amount of resistance is used. This is because the larger muscles can produce more force than the smaller ones.  Multiple muscles working together will also be able to generate more total forces on the bones as well as provide forces in multiple planes of motion. 

Allow for longer rest periods between sets to allow for greater force production. Circuit training is a type of training program where individuals are performing movements, one right after the other with little rest, and then repeating the circuit multiple times.  It has NOT been found to be as effective for bone and muscle growth This reason for this is due to the lower amounts of resistance used, because of the short rest periods, and the forces you can push are lower.  Circuit training may still help with bone health in the long term and is still great exercise.  However, if stronger bones are your goal, design a program that involves more strength, higher forces and longer rest intervals.  This will allow for more maximal forces to be produced during the sets.

If you are someone who likes to attend group circuit classes or are not as comfortable lifting heavy weights, or with high forces, research argues against that.  In addition, if you are a cyclist or long distance runner who doesn’t utilize strength training or doesn’t lift heavy weights for whatever reason, you are also at risk. This is especially true for lighter and leaner individuals. 

Choose movements to load key areas of the body.

The shutterstock_104557892_copyresults of studies support that bone density is site-specific.  This means that all of the bicep curls and chest presses in the world will not help you increase bone density in your hips and pelvis as much as doing lower body movements that put stress on the hips and pelvis. Lumbar spine stress is achieved by loading weight on the back, such as doing deadlifts or squats with weight (done with proper form), and by performing sit-up type movements and back extensions. Stress on the femur occurs when legs are put under heavy load or impact forces. So if you want strong bones in your hips, legs and spine, make sure you are including movements that target those areas. Or conversely, if you have a particular area you are concerned about, make sure and give that area some more love with some additional site-specific exercises.

Include Jumping, Sprinting and Plyometrics in your program.  Plyometrics are movements that enable a muscle to reach maximum strength in as short a timeframe as possible.  In addition, the movements make use of the elastic properties of the muscle to generate an even more forceful contraction. They train the neuromuscular system to fire off more fibers, which also creates more force. An example of a plyometric movement would be Jump Squats or Lateral Cone Jumps. The faster the muscle is stretched and lengthened as it controls your deceleration, the more energy is obtained from the elastic properties of your muscle fiber, and the stronger the following contraction will be (3).  Any of the plyometric or jumping exercises are good choices for stimulating bone growth because of the high forces of the muscle contractions, as well as impact forces they generate.

Impact sports in which loading is applied unevenly and at a high rate also provide more stimulus for bone growth.  So if you participate in sports such as tennis, basketball or other activities that involve jumping, accelerating or quick changes of direction, you have a definitive advantage when it comes to maintaining strong bones.  If this is you, strength training as also crucial to ensure your muscles and tendons can handle these high, and changing in directional forces .

In addition to suspension training movements, consider adding movements where the spine is placed under load, such as squats with a bag, bar or employ the use of a standing machine. Loading up a leg press might be beneficial for the hips, but will not put the necessary compression forces on the spine which are lacking the most in cycling and are the most important for cyclists to include. The “Farmer’s Walk” (an exercise where you are simply carrying heavy weights), heavy kettle bell or dumbbell, or barbell work, kicking, punching, or flipping heavy bags, jumping rope, high intensity running, shuffling or cutting, and jumping, are also all good additions that will stimulate bone growth.  These things can supplement your suspension training program as well, if you have access to additional equipment. An example of this would be performing a suspended squat jump, followed by a suspended pushup with high resistance, and a sprint to the end of the block. These would be three extremely beneficial exercises to stimulate bone growth.

Conclusion: If you are concerned about your bone health, it doesn’t mean you need to turn your program upside down.  Simply include one or two random exercises that stress your legs, hips and lumbar spine in a random manner with some impact and force. If you are just starting to strength train, or have knowledge that you already have low bone density or osteoporosis, the more explosive exercises should be phased in gradually as you improve your strength and fitness level. Always develop the foundation before adding higher intensity, or more specific work to your program.  Just keep in mind that being consistent and including bone building activity in your program during the long term will produce benefits. 


1.       Essentials of Strength and conditioning NSCA editor Thomas R Baechle

2.       Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research:  November 2008  Physiological Adaptations to Strength and Circuit Training in Postmenopausal Women With Bone Loss.  Brentano, Michel A; Cadore, Eduardo L; Da Silva, Eduardo M; Ambrosini, Anelise B; Coertjens, M; Petkowicz, Rosemary; Viero, Itamara; Kruel, Luiz ] .

3.       Jumping into Plyometrics : Donald A Chu, PhD