Blueprint for a mountain bike strenth & conditioning program

If you think about how far bikes have come in the last 10-15 years it is pretty amazing. Advances in how we engineer bikes and parts let us ride faster, push the boundaries of our sport and have more fun on the trail. And just like bikes, how we “engineer” workouts has advanced a lot in the last 10-15 years as well.

The old school workouts from the 80’s and 90’s are just like the old mountain bikes from that era – they did the job at the time but we now realize how much they were holding us back. Our understanding of how the human body responds to training has progressed immensely yet most riders are following strength and conditioning programs that are the equivalent of a fully rigid bike with drop bars and cantilever brakes.

It is time we learned how to apply 21st century training tactics to our sport. Your training program should consist of 7 elements that are put together in a way that enhances your ability to ride harder, faster and stronger.

Here is a rundown of these 7 elements and how they apply to us as mountain bikers –

1) Mobility – This refers to your ability to move freely. You must be able to easily get into the positions you need on your bike. For example, if you lack hip mobility you won’t be able to get into your attack position on the bike where you have your hips back, your chest low and back straight. All of your other training will not be as effective as it should if your mobility levels are lacking.

You should be starting off each workout with some foam rolling of the legs, some static stretching of the quads and hip flexors and some dynamic mobility moves that target the shoulders and hips. This will help you get warmed up, increase your general mobility and help you get prepared for the exercises you are about to do. The tighter and less mobile you are the more time you need to spend in this area, however 10 minutes is usually enough.

2) Corrective Exercises/ Movement Prep – This is strength coach geek speak for exercises that “turn on” muscles that we need for better function. For example, most riders have muscles on the sides of their hips that don’t fire as strong as they should. This is why a lot of mountain bikers have their knees caving in during the pedal stroke. This leads to knee and IT band problems and is also a source of lost power.

By doing a simple exercise like taking a piece of light rubber tubing, tying it into a 12 inch diameter circle, placing it around the legs just under the knees and then side stepping 10 times in each direction you can “wake up” that area. This will lead to better usage of it during your workout and eventually to it being more of a player during your riding. One set of an exercise that targets the hips and the upper back is usually sufficient.

3) Core Training – This is obviously a very important one for us which is why you want it early in the workout. The old school way was to wait until the end of the workout and then pump out a few sets of crunches and back extensions. We now know that you want to train the core to resist movement and that doing it early in the workout won’t have a negative effect on the rest of the workout.

Using exercises like planks, side planks, kettle bell arm bars, ab rollouts and countless other exercises will help us develop the strong, stable platform we need on the bike. The more stable our core is the more pedaling power we can display and the less low back fatigue we will experience. Picking 2 exercises that target this area and doing 2-3 sets of each will usually be enough to get what we want out of this part of the workout.

4) Power Training – This refers to our ability to display strength quickly. It is a function of our nervous systems ability to rapidly recruit as many muscle fibers as possible and is best trained using quick, explosive movements. Things like kettle bell swings, single arm dumbbell snatches and plyometric box jumps are examples of exercises that you would use here.

Power training is different than strength training and requires a different mindset. The speed and quality of the movement should be your primary concern, not “feeling the burn”. I strongly recommend that you stop when you notice your speed has decreased, even if you have not achieved your desired number of reps. Generally speaking, 2-3 sets of 3-6 reps are all you need for this part of the workout.

5) Strength Training – This is what most people think of when they think of working out. This is the part of the workout where you will try to increase your strength levels while maintaining proper form. That last part is very important – as mountain bikers, just lifting more weight won’t make us better riders.

For example, on your bike you want to maintain a stable core and drive with your hips so that is what you have to practice in the weight room with exercises like the deadlift. You don’t want to put more weight on the bar for your deadlift if it causes you to break form and start using your low back and quads. While you want to get stronger, using less weight and better form will lead to faster results on the trail.

I also recommend using a total body training program where you do a lower body, an upper body pushing and an upper body pulling exercise. This way you do not overdue any one area like you would with a traditional approach of spending a whole workout on one body part. This leads to less soreness while also letting you “practice” quality movement more often.

6) Energy Systems Development (Cardio) – This is where you work on your cardio and endurance. This can be a standalone workout or be included at the end of a strength training session. While I could write an entire article on this one subject, most riders are better off doing some intervals than doing an easy spin for 30-60 minutes. Intervals will build your VO2Max just as effectively while also building anaerobic strength endurance, something that will serve you well on the trail.

7) Regeneration/ Recovery – Training breaks us down, recovery builds us back up. This starts with getting a good carb and protein drink in as soon as you are done training and also includes getting enough quality food and rest on a daily basis. Foam rolling and stretching on your off days are also important. Don’t discount this element of training – it is usually one of the things holding you back from the results you want.

Using 21st century training tactics will help you get more out of your 21st century mountain bike. As you get into your off season training program you need to ask yourself if all of these elements are being covered in your workouts. If not you need to get them addressed, or at least hope your riding buddies and competitors aren’t following this blueprint either!

-James Wilson-

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  1. Greg W says:

    Hey James great article. I’m wondering if you have any articles on putting everything together, or perhaps on how to utilize/schedule “ALL” of the information that you provide, into my week. Personally I am at a bit of a loss as to how best to schedule my rides (the posse seems to have settled on Sun, Tues and Thurs or Fri year round) with either DB Combo or UMWP and Inner circle workouts, M – TRTU, WOM, FMS… into my week/month while going to work, maintaining all my stuff and making time for my family, friends and other interests. I tend to revert to the DB Combo Program as it is pretty well self contained, but I tend to wonder about what I’m missing out on by not utilizing the other info/workouts.

    Reply • August 16 at 8:44 am
    • bikejames says:

      Two things – first, you can’t integrate everything at once. Each program is a different recipe and if you mix together a bunch of different recipes the end result is rarely as good as simply following one before moving on to another. I have decided to create an UMWP Workout of the Month and DB Combos Program Workout of the Month for the Inner Circle site so you can just pick the workout that best suites your available time. Whatever you choose, though, choose it and stick with it for a bit and don’t try integrate several workout together.

      Second, if you are really short on time you could get away with one bigger workout each week and doing the 15 M-TRTUs another 4-5 days each week. You won’t see gains but you’ll be able to maintain until you get more time to devote to training. Sometimes you have to be realistic about what you can do with the time you have. Hope this helps…

      Reply • August 16 at 11:10 am
  2. Jakub says:

    Good article!

    Could you, however, give more examples of exercises redarding to the 2nd point? Or maybe I overlooked one of your articles about that? This seems to be pretty interesting issue which I have never paid attention to.

    According to the mobility training, can I stretch my muscles before the training (while being not warmed up), will I not strain them?

    Reply • August 16 at 8:59 am

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