Bench pressing for mountain biking: A waste of time?

The other day I was looking around one of the mountain biking forums and I came across a subject that I wanted to address. I was in the Fitness Forum and saw a thread that had gotten a lot of activity…there were more than 20 pages worth of people taking time out of their day to respond.

The subject was bench press strength. I forget the exact question but it basically prompted people to post their “bench press weights”. It seems that a lot of people know exactly how much they bench press and consider the ability to move a lot of weight in the lift important.

I don’t know why but I felt compelled to respond and basically say that if you are lying down on your back and pressing something off of you then you screwed up on the trail. There is no real functional reason for the strength you gain in the bench press exercise. I don’t prescribe it in my programs (I can honestly say that in the last several years I have not had a single rider bench press) and it doesn’t seem to slow my riders down.

The response was something along of the lines of “who cares if we want to talk bench press on a mountain bike fitness forum”? Well, for one I care and I’ll tell you why…

Like it or not, the information that new riders get from websites and forums plays a big role in their development as riders. If they are on a forum and see that everyone thinks that bench pressing is important then they will assume that it is. They will pursue the lift with the same devotion most American males do and waste a lot of time and effort in the process.

If you want to get good at bench pressing then you have to spend a lot of time on the lift. That is time that you can not spend on practicing more important exercises. If you tell me that you can bench press 250 pounds at a bodyweight of 175 pounds, I don’t think you’re strong, I know that you’ve wasted a bunch of time working on one exercise when you need to been working on mastering the basics in all movement patterns.

I’d be willing to bet money that most big benching bike riders would have trouble with a lot of the basic exercises I use for mountain bikers every day. Here is a list of exercises basic exercises that I think every rider should be familiar with and have a reasonable amount of strength on:

  1. Deadlift
  2. Front Squat
  3. Single Leg Deadlift
  4. Single Leg Squat
  5. Turkish Get Up
  6. Bulgarian Split Squat
  7. Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press on Stability Ball
  8. Split Stance Shoulder Press
  9. Push Ups – including more difficult variations like T Push Ups and Stability Ball Push Ups
  10. Chin Ups
  11. Inverted Rows
  12. Single Arm Inverted Rows

These exercises will have far more direct impact on the trail than lying down on a bench and pressing a barbell off of you. If you are spending more than a couple sets on the bench press each week you are wasting your time on a lift that is done more for tradition than true purpose. If you are going to spend time in the gym, why on earth would you not want you workout time to enhance your trail time?

Bench pressing also has very limited carryover to life or other sports. Outside of wrestling and combat sports I have a really tough time thinking of another time in life when you are pressing with the aid of a back brace. The core’s function in real life pressing has to be addressed in your training program.

So, it does matter if more guys know exactly how much they bench press than how much the can lift on a single leg squat. It shows a lack of training priorities and emphasis of lifts like that are one of the reasons that people have “tried” strength training but never felt it did much for their riding.

If done right, strength training will have a noticeable and dramatic impact each and every time. Just make sure that you are spending time on movements and exercises that will train the body to act like you want it to on the trail. While your bench press may suck, you’ll be riding faster…I’ll take that trade off every day.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Mike says:

    What forum was this? I’d like to browse that fitness section.

    / Mike

    Reply • January 27 at 10:51 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Mike – I don’t want to call any particular forum out as that thread could have taken place on any of the major mountain bike website forums. You could figure it out pretty easy if you looked around but my intention is not “call out” a certain forum.

      Reply • January 28 at 10:36 am
  2. Jason says:

    How do you feel about programs such as http://hundredpushups.com/? I think the goal is noble, but after 4 weeks of doing heavy volume of push-ups, I started to feel the stress in my shoulders.

    Reply • January 27 at 11:22 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Jason – two points. First, if it hurts then you shouldn’t do it. This is a simple but often overlooked point in the training process. No matter how “good” someone may tell you an exercise or program is, if it causes joint pain then it is not something you should just keep doing.

      Second, too much of anything is bad. You can have too much water – it is called drowning. Too many push ups will cause problems as there is no exercise that can not cause damage if it is done with too much volume and/ or load.

      Reply • January 28 at 10:38 am
  3. Steele says:

    I totally agree, you would be amazed how many people, (not mountain bikers) walk into the gym, sit at the bench press, strain themselves, stand on a a scale and call it good, but thats America 😉

    Reply • January 28 at 6:51 am
  4. When I was in high school I was CONVINCED that chicks would dig me if I could bench 300. I stalled out at 275 … no wonder I couldn’t get a date!

    Reply • January 28 at 8:26 am
  5. Manny says:

    I guess if your goal is to put on pounds of muscle like bodybuilders its okay. But I think it contradicts the goal of becoming a stronger rider. Besides the fact that having a huge muscle mass limits flexibility and mobility they also require massive amounts of oxygen to be diverted from where it’s needed most. It goes along with the same logic many use of riding countless mind numbing hours and miles on a road bike to prepare for a mountain bike race.

    Reply • January 28 at 10:25 am
  6. Rob says:

    I had always considered the single-leg squat and the bulgarian split squat to be minor variations on the same exercise. Maybe I would do single-leg squats one day, and bulgarian split squats the next time I trained. Is there a large difference between these that I am missing?

    Is there a bulgarian dead lift?

    Reply • January 28 at 10:50 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Rob – the Bulgarians still have the rear leg supporting in some way while a single leg squat has completely unsupported. That makes these two exercises essentially different in the demands on the lower body.

      I have seen a Bulgarian deadlift with dumbbells and think that it is probably a good exercise for mountain biking.

      Reply • January 28 at 11:43 am
  7. Rodney says:

    I don’t think bench pressing and the like do anything for your riding itself, but I do think a bit of strength in your triceps and deltoids (?) sometimes helps to prevent you from going over the bars if you accidentally run into objects. At speed you would endo back and all anyway but at lower speeds you sometimes may stall after hitting something and then I think it helps you to stay on the bike. Pushups/push up variations may be sufficient for this?

    Reply • January 29 at 9:38 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Rodney – shoulder presses and push ups will build plenty of strength to resist endoing. I do like to do floor presses and db stability ball presses and, if the chest really is the limiting factor, I will use bench press but pure pressing is rarely the weak link. Core stability and coordination between muscle groups is the bigger problem.

      Reply • January 31 at 3:29 pm
  8. lewis says:

    i can see your reasoning behind this article but it sounds to me that we are only meant to be doing exersizes that largly rely on core strenth as a primary and the strenth of the worked muscel (shoulders, chest, legs) as a secondary. if this is the case then surely these other muscel groups strenth will be completly relient on the core to generate a platform before they can be worked, limiting the strength that can be achived. please could you explain this to me.


    Reply • January 29 at 10:16 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Lewis – The core is the platform for the limbs. If the core can not brace and create the platform then the limbs are limited, no matter how “strong” they are. Standing, compound movements are what we do in real life and what we should do in training.

      Reply • January 31 at 3:27 pm
  9. Ned says:

    From someone that’s been on and off of James’ program since 2007 I can honestly say I haven’t seriously benched in that entire time. I took the 2007 MSC gravity series championship in the sport class, now Cat2. Yes just it was just the sport class but for the first time I actually felt stronger at the end of the year than the start. I’ve continued on his program and have gotten noticeably stronger EVERY year. This guy knows what he’s talking about.

    Reply • February 1 at 10:23 pm
  10. lee says:

    I’m currently undergoing a training program through uni, general conditioning to begin with, bench is in involved in it, along with other key lifts, deadlifts, shoulder press, squat, front squat, bent over row etc..

    Anyway, I brought this argument up, why do mtbers need to bench?

    The answer I was given stated that while I dont really need to push weights away form my chest while i’m riding but, having a strong muscle mass on my chest, allong with good core strength, it can act as a good stabaliser. For example massive legs massive chest, your probably going to struggle with your core in a race/ride, so while your not needing to lift massive weights with your chest, your leaving out what could potentially be a good stabiliser.

    Just playing devils advocate, take it or leave it. 🙂

    Reply • February 2 at 12:21 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ Lee – When you lay on your back the bench artificially braces your core so you are not really training your core with a bench press, you are bypassing it to allow more load on the chest. You can not press nearly as much weight from a standing position because the core is providing the platform, not the bench. Bench isn’t bad, is just isn’t extremely imprtant and does not deserve the time and energy most gym goers devote to it.

      Reply • February 3 at 4:55 am
  11. lee says:

    Thanks for your reply James, what i was trying to get at, but maybe didnt make myself clear, while you dont use your chest muscles so much directly while your riding, you do use your arms, so having good pectoral muscles, not as much as the usual gym mokeys, is still useful, not as theyre used directly, but to be used as a fixator for other muscles? If you see what i mean?

    And instead of using a bench, what about a swiss ball? or justpush ups?

    thanks again


    Reply • February 5 at 5:50 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ Lee – yes, you do need a good amount of horizontal pressing strength but you are better off getting that through push ups and more “functional” methods. I actually asked Mike Boyle this at my mentorship with him and he said that being able to do 15 perfect push ups should be a prerequisite for bench pressing. He also said that he would rather see an athlete be able to do push up with their feet on a stability ball and a 20-40 pound weight vest than have a big bench.

      However, he still uses the bench press in his programs and like I’ve said a few times, it is not a worthless exercise, it is just not high on the priority list for me when writing programs.

      Reply • February 7 at 11:39 am
  12. lee says:

    thanks James, good answer,

    I’ve been training with a mate of mine who plays a lot of rugby, while my program is nothing like his, he was doing something the other day that interested me,

    press up position with feet on a stability ball while pushing off another stability ball, its pretty difficult to begin with and a good progression from just having your feet on one.

    Thanks again

    Reply • February 7 at 2:31 pm
  13. thePhoenix says:

    “having a huge muscle mass limits flexibility”
    I know gymnasts with 19″ biceps (and the muscle mass that accompanies those arms) that are more flexible than any cyclist I know.

    “they also require massive amounts of oxygen”
    Agree 100%. I have freakishly large legs compared to my body size (not that I`m a little guy by any means) and any time I get my legs making any power it drives my HR up VERY quickly, yet I can work upper body at max efforts and not get the HR anywhere near the same levels.

    I don`t thing bench pressing is entirely a waste of time. Benching for the sake of building a huge press is, in regard to improving your riding, but bench pressing can give you a solid, thick upper body making you less prone to injury.

    Besides, you gotta look sexy when you`re posing down for the ladies….err,umm…I mean changing out of your sweaty riding jersey in the parking lot LOL.

    Reply • May 23 at 7:50 am
  14. Cherise Addy says:

    Thanks for good info 🙂

    Reply • May 16 at 2:10 pm

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