How Much Better Is It Really to Train With a Heavier Bike?
Some riders do this by using heavier wheels (or a heavier winter bike). Some carry weight, wearing a heavier pack or even a weighted vest when they ride (the latter makes breathing difficult and isn’t really recommended). Over the years, there have even been specially-weighted products (like iron filled water bottles) to add weight to your frame.
Rock Bar Storage & Training is one such product. These cylindrical cases are designed to be fastened to your frame. They’re actually quite handy for carrying odds and ends from repair tools to snacks and such. You could even slide a couple of Red Bulls in there, if you were so inclined. But that’s not really how these are designed to give you wings
These durable bags are specially designed to accommodate weighted training. The Rock Bar case is available with two weight pouches, like really hefty bean bags, of 8kg each, which slide into the case that is then fastened beneath the down tube and/or the top tube for training purposes. The metal-pellet filled pouches are sealed with Velcro, so you can fine-tune how much weight you want. (I’ll note that this system is far superior to the weighted water bottles, which sheared off bottle cages.)
For climbing, the company recommends establishing your cadence and preferred gearing on a long climb. Then insert one pouch into the Rock Bar and train on the climb for a few weeks, working up to being able to ride that same cadence and gearing with the weight. Once you hit that mark, add more weight. When you hit 15kg, try to increase your cadence to go faster.
For punchier training such as short climbs, intervals, and sprint training, the company recommends warming up for at least 15 minutes without the weight and then strap on a Rock Bar weighted with 12kg or more and train as usual.
For fixed gear bikes like track cycling, just increase the weight to make your work out sessions harder.
Full disclosure: I was not super keen to test the Rock Bar. I’m not a weight weenie, but I very much try to not carry unnecessary weight. So strapping 10-15kg on my frame to go for a ride sounded as fun as towing yard waste to the dump.
READ MORE: Why You Should Do Rides That Scare You
After spending some time watching my heart rate soar and my RPMs drop while cranking over my go-to climbs, I’ll say that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Adding one 8kg bag to the case was actually barely noticeable until I hit climbs over 6 percent. When I rolled with a full eight extra kilos, I pretty much felt it everywhere, and my heart rate was a good 12 bpm higher than usual just pedaling up a mile-long climb that averages about 8 to 9 percent. Though it’s not how I want to train right now, I could see some practical applications.
When I was training for big, early-season mountain bike stage races like ABSA Cape Epic, I spent a lot of time riding my mountain bike on the road to get conditioned for pushing a heavier bike up and over hills all day. If I had this type of bike weight system, I might have used it as an alternative to get that conditioning on a bike that’s more fun to ride on the road.
For winter training, I can see some benefit to going slower and working harder—you stay warmer. (Though you do not go slower down the hills, which I must say is quite fun.)
If you’re into methodical training, this could be your jam. It’s intriguing to try to master a task like systematically adding weight to your frame and building the strength to match your unweighted gearing and cadence on the same hill. That’s next-level nerding out that could be fun and engaging in a type II way.
What the Experts Say About Training With a Weighted Bike
First, there’s one thing everyone agrees on: A watt is a watt is a watt. Power is work over time. So, if you generally climb your local nemesis at an average power of 250 or 300 watts at a cadence of 80 rpm, if you strap 15kg on your frame, and climb at the same cadence and wattage, you’ll just take longer to get to the top. The work you’re producing—a.k.a. your power—is the same.
Now, if you follow the weighted training protocol as prescribed by the Rock Bar manufacturer and make it your goal to work up to maintaining the same exact gearing and cadence on that hill with increasingly heavier weight, you’ll certainly get stronger.
But you could also do that without the weights, says John Verheul, head coach at JBV Coaching. “By gradually adding more weight while keeping the same cadence, that’s essentially another way of saying ‘make more power,’” Verheul says.
In other words, you could accomplish the same work on your training ride by doing traditional hill repeats, including intervals on an unweighted bike. The idea is to eventually get up the hill in less time, which requires more power.
One potential training benefit of the weighted training scenario is that you’ll spend more time in those harder training zones over the course of a ride, says Chris Myers, Ph.D., master coach at Peaks Coaching Group.
“For example, it may take you five minutes to ride up a hill on the lighter bike versus seven minutes with the heavier bike. If doing hill repeats, the intervals are longer requiring more work in the aggregate,” Myers says.
“Subjectively, proponents of riding heavier bikes state they see increases in muscle strength and endurance,” Myers says. “This makes sense based on that concept. If you are doing more work, you are getting more training stress, which should cause gains in neuromuscular performance.”
If you ride with your weighted bike on all your training rides, it’s possible you’ll increase your functional threshold power (FTP) faster than without the extra weight, says Hunter Allen, founder Peaks Coaching Group and co-author of Training and Racing with a Power Meter.
“If your bike weighs 45 pounds, and you have to ride at your FTP and above on every hill during your training just to get up the hill, then you will most likely just accumulate more time in those training zones than you would if you are just out doing your normal tempo ride. On the flip side, I argue that you could get the same training stress if you just attacked all those hills to reach those training zones,” he says.
That said, if you don’t have a power meter to keep you honest in your interval training, riding a steady cadence with specific gearing is a low-cost way to maintain those efforts.
Allen sees some clear benefits for pure sprinters. “I used to train with a heavier bike when I raced BMX,” he says. “BMX is a sprint sport, and training with heavier wheels and bike during the week in sprint-type exercises seemed to help improve my sprint ability when racing on the weekends with a super light bike. Certainly, psychologically, I felt much, much faster on that lighter bike, and my start and straight away speed were quicker when measured with a stopwatch. For sprinters, where strength is more of a component of success, training with a heavier bike could be of benefit.”
From an off-road standpoint, riding a heavier bike can require improving one’s bike handling skills, Myers says. “A heavier bike tends to be less forgiving on technical terrain. The cyclist needs to have good handling skills to maneuver the bike properly. This could translate overall better bike handling with the lighter bike.”
Personally, I suspect happiness watts could also be a pretty big factor, in that you feel so darn happy when those heavy bags are finally off your frame that you fly like a bird from an open cage to feel the sheer joy of the speed.
I’ve had similar feelings the first time out on my road bike after a long winter of mostly mountain and fat bike riding. I may have improved my muscular strength and endurance, but I suspect the biggest leaps and bounds are psychological, which is not for nothing.
My biggest reservations, which were shared by the experts I spoke with, is the importance of specificity in training: If you want to get better at something, train to get better at that specific thing. So yes, if I want to get better at pedaling a heavier bike uphill, like in the case of mountain bike stage racing, it makes sense. If I want to get better at pedaling my gravel bike up a hill, I’m less certain.
I personally would generally prefer to build strength with squats and deadlifts in the weight room and convert that gym strength to cycling power through hill work and intervals. I can add big-gear intervals if I want to improve my muscular endurance.
Speaking of specificity, with the rising popularity of self-supported gravel races and bikepacking, weighted training makes good sense, Allen says.
“If you are preparing for a four-day bikepacking trip where you will carry 20 pounds. of camping gear, then you should train with that extra 20 pounds to make sure you are trained to the demands of that event,” he says.
The Bottom Line
Weighted bike training has been around as long as there have been rocks and bike riders. Adding weights to your bike while training to maintain the same gearing and cadence can force you to work harder and build strength and muscular endurance.
Performing your usual training rides with weight will also keep you in higher training zones longer overall, which may help raise your functional power threshold (FTP) faster than riding without weight. You can achieve the same ends by doing power-based intervals without the weight, however, which some experts believe is more beneficial because it’s more training-specific.
Weighted training may be especially useful for preparing yourself for the rigors of bikepacking and self-supported gravel racing, where you will have to log many miles with a heavy, loaded down bike, or for using your road miles to prepare for ultra-endurance mountain bike events, where you’ll be pushing more weight over a long period of time.