Cycling: Weight Gain vs. Power Output

Jan 26 / Warwick Cross

Cycling: Weight Gain vs. Power Output

Your obsession with the scale could be holding you back
Many cyclists fear the idea of standing on the scale and seeing the needle move up. This is understandable as the wrong type of body weight gain would be detrimental to their efforts on the bike. 

However, not all weight was created equal, and some weight gain from lean muscle growth would actually be advantageous for power output, which in turn may well move the needle down again further down the training line, increasing the power to weight ratio even more.

Let’s start at the beginning. Weight gain versus power output is an important topic for cyclists wanting to take their performance up a notch. 

“But will I put on weight?” is a common question any cyclists asks before starting an off-the-bike resistance training programme. The answer is yes. Yes you will gain some weight when starting a resistance training programme. It is a common response to the training and if done correctly it can be advantageous to your overall cycling performance.

However, weight gain is slightly more complex than the 1kg or 2kg that may show on the scale. Before becoming obsessed with these numbers it is prudent to understand what they mean and when it is good or when it is bad. 

Good weight versus bad weight

Bad weight gain would more than likely be diet-related, where you are consuming more calories on average than you are burning when training and in daily life. This could result in an increase in body fat percentage and related weight gain. There are also other situations that could lead to a negative gain in body weight and the specifics around these can be complex medical issues or hormonal imbalances that need to be addressed by a professional in that particular field. In other words, not all weight gain can be solved by simply eating less. 

However, when talking about power output versus weight gain we are not discussing dietary effects on your weight. Rather, we are considering the effect of resistance training on body weight and the effect that has on your overall power output. 

Riders undertake off-the-bike resistance training to increase their performance on the bike. In order to achieve this increase in performance, industry professionals such as strength and conditioning coaches will design a structured, specific training plan for the rider that will run alongside their training programme on the bike. This periodised training plan will usually involve different training phases. The body will respond to the different training phases in a unique way by increasing the amount of muscle tissue or its contractile properties, depending on the phase of training.

Simply put, in order to increase power, be it on the bike or in the gym, you have to get stronger. To get stronger off the bike you have to follow the principles of strength training. These principles state that there needs to be an adequate stimulus provided for the body to adapt to the changes. This stimulus comes in the form of volume and resistance. As you get stronger, the body will respond by increasing the amount of muscle tissue as well as increasing the contractile ability of the tissue in order to deal with the stimulus being provided. These increases will result in a gain in lean muscle mass. Lean muscle mass is what your muscles would weigh if you got rid of everything else. 

Once you have completed this strength phase and look at the scale, it will indicate that you have gained weight. However, this is good weight: you need strength first before you can produce power. 

Weight gain and power output

Once you have completed your strength phase and you move into your power phases approaching your racing block. If done correctly, you will increase your power output. (This is dependent on the type of race you are preparing for). You will also notice that your weight may drop by a small margin which will lead to an increase in your power-to-weight ratio.

In other words, you have increased your performance on the bike. 

The take home message is that if you are looking at body weight alone and are afraid of any type of increase, it could well be what is holding you back from increasing your performance on the bike. 

The physiology of the human body is too complex to narrow all weight gain down to decreased performance. As athletes, we need to consider lean muscle mass, fat mass and body fat percentage together with actual body weight. We can’t look at these elements independently of each other and hope to improve performance from trying to adjust one of them. Trust your qualified strength and conditioning coach - improving your performance is what they have trained to do.