Strength training for the MTB world has been slow to catch up to the unique and highly physical demands of our sport. Today’s average rider rips up trails that just 5-6 years ago would have been considered extreme and today’s extreme rider…well, let’s just say that they continue to defy all logic in their quest to progress our sport. Considering how fast our sport has evolved in such a short period of time it really comes as no surprise that most MTB specific strength and conditioning programs are stuck in the time when cantilever brakes were still viable options and anodized purple was a highly sought after fashion statement (not that there is anything wrong with that).
Today’s MTB world is not simply road riding on a dirt road. Muscling a 30-35 pound bike around on a technical trail requires a far different skill set and physical attributes than MTB riders needed at the turn of the century. As such, routines and exercise selection needs to reflect this fact. With this in mind, let’s review what I consider to be the top 3 exercises for the XC/ trail rider to include in their program (besides the deadlift, of course, which is a must for every rider).
1) Bulgarian Split Squat – You may have noticed that this one also made my top 3 list for explosive gate starts. One of the best things about this exercise is that, when done correctly, it serves as both a great uni-lateral leg exercise and a great hip flexor stretch. Prop your trail leg up on a bench, make sure that you start with your torso completely upright with your shoulders and hips square. Lower yourself under control (don’t just turn the muscles off and drop) and make sure that you keep your torso upright and everything square on the way down.
You may notice a tendency to lean over as you lower yourself, indicating weak or inhibited glutes. Leaning over lets you use your low back to help you get back up and should be avoided in order to establish the movement pattern we are looking for. You may also notice that you want to let your hips open up as you come down as well. This indicates tight hip flexors and every effort should be made to keep the hips square in order to maximize the stretch on this area during the exercise. Just like everything else with your strength training, it’s not just about going through the motions, it’s about doing the movement pattern correctly in order to get everything we can out of our time investment.
2) Pull Ups/ Chin Ups & Variations – Most XC/ Trail riders are very weak in the upper body. This really takes its toll as the trail gets rougher and the ride gets longer. Having good upper body strength and strength endurance is vital to controlling your bike and maneuvering down the trail. In fact, if more riders worried about getting stronger rather than how to shave a few pounds off their bikes they would be far better served.
Pull Ups, Chin Ups and their variations are a great way to strengthen the upper back and gain good body control. Let me clear up a few things – 1) it is not a chin/ pull up if you do not straighten your arms all the way at the bottom and allow your shoulders to come up by your ears as well. Most people who think that they can do an adequate pull/ chin up are really fooling themselves by not coming all the way down at the bottom. 2) Pull ups indicate that your palms are facing away from you and chin ups indicate that your palms are facing towards you. Both have their place in a program but I almost always start people out with chin ups as they are easier learn how to initiate the movement by pulling the shoulder blades down. 3) If you can do more than 8 reps in a set then strap some weight to yourself.
Adding more reps will only start to work on short term strength endurance and we want to get stronger through strength training (imagine that). Strength endurance should be addressed in the overall program but not when we are looking to add real strength. I can personally do a chin up with more weight than I can bench (bodyweight of 180 lbs. plus 95 lbs. strapped to me) and I feel that every MTB rider should be able to do the same.
3) Kettlebell Shoulder Press – As I have already commented on, most MTB riders need some more upper body strength and the standing shoulder press is one of the best exercises available for strengthening the pressing muscles. Over the last few decades there has been a real decline in the use of the standing press in strength training programs. Most have shied away from it for injury concerns reasons (I think ego is more of a factor since you can bench far more than you can press over your head). This is extremely unfortunate since, when done correctly, the standing military press will not only add upper body strength, it will actually help injury proof the torso and shoulders as well.
If you make sure that you keep the torso strong with no backward lean when pressing over your head then you not only protect the lower back, you help strengthen the torso like few other exercises can. Pressing over your head also forces all of the muscles around your shoulder to fire in order to stabilize the entire shoulder during the lift, helping to injury proof this area as well. Both of these areas are trouble spots for bikers during long, pounding rides with a heavy hydration pack strapped to them. The kettlebell shoulder press builds true functional upper body strength in a very efficient package.
There you have it, the Top 3 Exercises for your average XC/ Trail riders. You guys make up the bulk of the riding world and can gain a lot from a good strength and conditioning program. For a long time now the bike industry has mislead you by making you think that a new bike or a new part will make the biggest difference on the trail when it is the engine that drive the bike that makes the real impact. Getting stronger will allow you to ride harder, faster and longer, adding up to more fun on the trail. Isn’t that what it’s all about anyways?