Project 4 W/kg: Strength Phase Complete

This year’s fitness goal is to reach a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) of 4 watts per kg. To be a fast cyclist, you need to be strong and my approach is taken from an interview with six times gold medal track sprint cyclist Jason Kenny; get strong, convert that strength into power, and then build the stamina to hold this power for longer. I have a decent level of cardiovascular fitness from my 2000 mile challenge last year and I want to try and reach the goal as quickly and as smartly as possible so getting strong first is the goal.

Phase 1: get strong 

Jason Kenny has a one-rep max back squat of 180kg, between 2 and 2.5 times his bodyweight. Chris Hoy had a back squat max of around two times his bodyweight and a deadlift two and a half times his bodyweight. These numbers are for the best sprint track cyclists to have ever lived, focusing on events lasting up to 60 seconds. A two-times bodyweight squat and a two and a half times bodyweight deadlift represent the absolute maximum leg strength level needed to where strength is no longer an issue.  

I am interested in my FTP or the power on a bike that I can hold for an hour. A two times bodyweight squat would be nice but is a serious level of strength that takes a long time to build; getting there would probably not represent the best use of my time. Any cycling event over 4 km (the record is just over four minutes) is classified as an endurance event and should require a lower level of absolute strength that the shorter events of the sprinters. I am also aiming for a decent amateur level rather than a world-class one, so what level of absolute strength represents a reasonable target?  

Trainer road has strength standards for advanced cyclists they say represent the point at which the effort and extra muscle mass required to get stronger is not worth the benefit delivered:

Deadlift: 5 Reps 150% BW

Back Squat: 5 Reps 125% BW

Bench Press: 5 Reps 90% BW

Barbell Row: 5 Reps 90% BW

Pull/Chin-Ups: 15 Reps

Military Press: 5 Reps 55% BW

Trainer Road

Converting these numbers into a one-rep max for each exercise at my current weight of between 82 and 83 Kilograms, phase one requires a 142.5 kg deadlift and a 120kg back squat.  

How I got strong

Before you read how I hit these two numbers I want to warn you that this is not the way I suggest anyone go about it. Heavy, low rep deadlifts and back squats can get you in trouble if you don’t know how to do them and you need to build up to it slowly with significant effort paid to mobility. The risk of injury is higher if you are also pushing your bike or running training. Learn to squat properly, work through the necessary progressions like goblet squats, and reduce your endurance training to avoid injury.

With that out of the way, I took a unique approach for three reasons: 

  1. I already have decent form and came to this project with reasonable strength levels from training under Jon Albon’s Coaching
  2. I have had strength levels higher than the target lifts in previous years (at a higher body weight) when I spent some time focusing on Olympic lifting.
  3. I was using strength programs that I had carried out before and knew I could handle- I also know the difference between pain and injury.

If you want to get better at something you should do it every day. I already had a 142.5 kg deadlift from my half-marathon training so I just had to maintain this and get my squat max up. So I squatted heavy every day, taking advantage of working from home and sitting down all day. On the first day, I reached a max of 90kg before my legs started to shake in shock and defiance, giving me a baseline. I will talk about this programme in detail in another post but the basic layout is as follows:

  • I squatted every afternoon at some point between 16:00 and 18:00 working up to a heavy single rep.
  • I trained on the bike in the mornings five days per week with Monday and Friday off.
  • My bike programme included weights on Tuesday and Friday so I used these two sessions as my ‘heavy’ days with back squats, deadlifts, and heavy kettlebell swings.
  • On the other days, I worked up to a heavy single on my front squat as these are slightly lighter due to being limited by upper back strength.
  • Monday was a rest day so I did lighter sets of front squats.

I started this programme on the 29th of December and hit my 120kg max on the 18th of February. The last two weeks of this programme included working up to a 115kg back squat on Tuesdays and Friday and a 100kg Front squat on the other days.

Building consistency and volume on the bike

I needed a bike programme that would focus on power rather than longer efforts in keeping with my strength, power, then endurance strategy. I found a five-month Individual Pursuit (the 4km track event mentioned above) programme on Training Peaks by Phil Kilpatrick, the head coach of my local track in Derby. The first seven weeks of the programme focused on zone three ‘tempo’ rides with lots of 30-second spikes of power. After seven weeks in transitioned to weekly Tuesday night racing, giving me a nice amount of time to hit my strength target.

In hindsight, choosing an advanced programme as an intermediate rider (detraining intermediate rider) might not have been the fastest route to progress but it did not have a power test after the first day so I decided that if I waited till my first race to get a second power test then I could handle it. I only missed three sessions in the seven weeks so I think it was not the worst decision but there were a few Wednesday morning 7 am starts that I felt nervous about getting on the bike after looking at the training session planned and feeling my legs from the heavy squats and interval bike session the day before.

I committed to the five sessions lasting between 6-8 hour per week and built up my consistency and volume after my absence from the bike for the last 6 months. All the sessions were completed on my WattBike Atom using Zwift linked to Training peaks to automatically load that day’s workout. I aimed to wake up at 6 am each day and be on the bike for 7 am ready for the one and a half hour rides but some days these were moved to lunchtime if I slept in or if my legs were a little sore and I needed a few hours to wake them up.

On the whole, the mix of heavy squats and tempo rides worked well. There is something about training twice per day that makes your legs less sore and the squats and peddling seemed to help the other recover. The last time I did the squat everyday programme I remember hating stairs but I was saved this time around. Phase 1 complete, I now have the strength for a 4 W/kg FTP.  

Phase 2: Convert this strength to power

Phase two is all about the bike. Tuesday evenings are now for Zwift racing and squatting is limited to twice per week, Tuesdays and Fridays. As I am aiming for power, and with the velodrome closed, I guess the next best thing is Crit racing. Check back on Tuesday evening for an update. For squats, I am going to use Chris Hoys suggested workout of using a weight you can lift ten times (90kg) and doing eight reps, adding 5% (95kg) to the bar and doing six rep, then adding another 5% (100kg) and doing 4 reps. I will stick to two sets of five reps with the deadlift and I have just got a 40kg kettlebell to continue with Andy Bolton’s swing ladder.   

Let me know on Twitter if you are working towards increasing your FTP and what you find works.

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