Few things separate great riders from mearly good riders like the ability to carve through a corner. We’ve all had the experience of chasing that rider who we can keep in sight when things are going in a straight line but leave us in the dust once we hit a corner. Riders who can corner efficiently are able to ride faster and use less energy in the process, which gives them a decided advantage over riders who can’t.
This is what makes cornering such a sought after skill – besides looking really cool it is also one of the best ways to improve your speed and endurance. Unfortunately, though, cornering is also one of the hardest skills to master. Despite more skills camps, YouTube videos and other instructional material than ever before most riders still struggle to consistently apply this skill on the trail.
The problem isn’t from a lack of knowing what do to, it is from a lack of being able to physically do it in the first place. I can explain it and show you proper technique all day long but if you lack the mobility and body awareness to do it then it doesn’t matter. All you end up doing is trying to act out what you think proper technique looks like instead of learning what proper technique really feels like.
What is really holding you back from cornering faster
At the heart of it all is that most riders simply lack what I call the “lateral hip hinge” needed to get their body into the right position on the bike. This lateral hip hinge is needed to offset the lean of the bike when you corner. If you aren’t sure exactly what I’m talking about let me explain…
The key to carving through a corner is to lean your bike over instead of turning the handlebars. However, as you lean your bike over the bike’s center of gravity drops to the inside of the turn. As this happens you have to shift your center of gravity – a.k.a. the hips – to the outside of the turn in order to maintain balance. If you don’t shift your hips then you will end up with too much weight on the inside and you wash out, usually with a hard, unexpected slam to the ground for your troubles.
But if you do get your hips shifted then you will keep pressure on the tires and maintain traction. This means that if you can’t effectively shift your hips from side to side then you won’t be able to corner properly. Until you address the root cause of the problem – bad movement – you will always struggle with the “technique”.
Which means that if you want to corner with more speed and confidence you need to train your lateral hip hinge. And nothing is better for improving this important component of mountain biking bad-assery than the Stick Windmill and Kettlebell Windmill.
Stick Windmill – Improving your flexibility and mobility.
Think of the Stick Windmill as the mobility exercise for the lateral hip hinge and the place that everyone should start with this movement pattern. It is a great stretch that targets the root flexibility and mobility issues you have might have within this movement. Once you can easily get into and out of the bottom position of this exercise you will find it much easier to move your hips around to pilot your bike on the trail.
I first learned about the Stick Windmill from Dan John and I instantly saw the value of it for mountain bikers. I love it because it is the perfect way to help riders get the feeling for the movement, which is the first step to applying it to the trial. I’ll put it in their program as an “exercise” as well as having them do it on their own as part of their daily stretches.
Here is how to do the Stick Windmill…
– Start with a stick or piece of PVC pipe that you can rest across your shoulders like you are doing a back squat. With your feet set hip width apart, step one foot forward so that the heel is lined up with the big toe of the other foot.
– Now, shift your weight onto your trail leg. Keeping the weight on that leg and your big toes planted to the ground, start by diving your lead leg shoulder to the ground and shifting your hips back.
– While slightly bending the lead leg and keeping your trail leg knee locked out, keep twisting your shoulders and driving your hips back until you lose posture or you can get your elbow wedged inside of the lead leg knee.
– Hang out in the bottom position and take some deep diaphragmatic breathes.
– After you have had a few good breathes and felt yourself relax some then squeeze your glutes to drive your hips forward and un-twist your shoulders as you come back up. I like to do 3-5 reps before switching feet and doing it on the other side.
KB Windmill – Maintain form when the trail gets rough
Once you’ve spent some time mastering the Stick Windmill and have a good feel for the movement you are ready to add in the KB Windmill. This exercise “stress proofs” movement so that you can maintain better form on the trail through technical, challenging terrain.
Start by cleaning a single KB (or DB if that is all you have) and pressing it overhead. The set up from here is essentially the same – get your feet hip width apart and step forward with the foot opposite the side holding the weight until your heel is in line with the big toe of the trail leg. Shift your weight to the trail leg and drive your lead leg shoulder towards the ground to initiate the movement. You will have to focus on keeping the weight balanced overhead as you go through the movement but other than that they are the same exercise.
A couple of points to help you with the KB Windmill:
– One thing I like to emphasize with the KB Windmill is to really focus on driving the shoulder to the ground and getting the elbow wedged inside the lead leg knee instead of “reaching for the ground”. You may end up with you hand on the ground but I find that focusing on making that elbow-knee connection keeps things looking better than just focusing on touching the ground.
– Keep most of your weight on the trail leg and drive through it to come back up. Too much weight shifting to the lead leg indicates that you are leaning instead of driving the hips back.
– You don’t need to get stupid strong with them to see great results. Focus on form and how it “feels” instead of how much weight you are lifting and you’ll get much better transfer to the trail.
– Keep the reps and sets low. I like to do 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps in a workout. Even better, I’ll add a Windmill in at the top of the Turkish Get Up, making an already awesome exercise even awesomer.
Every client I have worked with has seen improvements in their cornering ability once they improved their lateral hip hinge with a healthy dose of Stick Windmills and KB Windmills. Together these exercises represent a unique way to train for the specific movement demands of mountain biking. By using them to plug a critical gap in your movement base you’ll find that cornering on your bike suddenly feels much easier and effortless.
And then you’ll be the one inspiring other riders to figure out how to keep up with you.
Until next time…