Alright, time to get something else off my chest. I hate going to the forums, especially the training forums, because they make my head hurt with all the half baked advice floating around them but something that keeps coming up needs to be addressed. Namely, does strength training help improve mountain bike performance?

I still see and hear people say that the “science is inconclusive” when it comes to this subject. There are a few studies that have looked at the impact of strength training on high level cyclists, mostly roadies, and some of them have found no “performance increase” as a result of it. So, this leads some to conclude that maybe it is not important for an endurance athlete like mountain bikers to engage in.

However, these studies only tell part of the story. Most rationale coaches will admit that even if strength training doesn’t directly impact performance it will help build a more balanced, resilient athlete. Herein lies one of the flaws of the “science is inconclusive” crowd.

What the studies looked at was the relative short term impact of strength training on performance. Most of these studies look at 4-6 weeks of training – what would the impact be over a 1,2 or even 10 year period? If strength training helped you avoid 1 or 2 major injuries and several minor injuries how much better would you be without all that missed training time? One of my favorite quotes is “if you’re hurt it don’t matter how fit you are” and strength training will at least keep you more injury resistant.

Another flaw to this argument is to look at the types of programs these riders were put on. For the most part they are not the type of long term, progressive programs that strength coaches like Gray Cook, Mike Boyle or Ian King would put them on. Having a rider do 6 weeks of strength training using the leg press, leg extension and leg curl machine probably won’t have much impact on performance. It is not that strength training doesn’t work; it is just that the programs used are sub-par.

Another problem is that the studies were not done on mountain bikers. There is a much higher muscular strength component to mountain biking which means that strength training would have a higher direct impact on performance. Road cycling has a higher cardio component and lower muscular strength component – just because they are both done on bikes does not make them the same sport nor mean that they will benefit from the exact same approach.

Something else to consider is that the measured parameters were in a lab, not in real life riding and racing situations. Most coaches will tell you that there is a big difference between lab performance and real life performance. While lab parameters can give us an idea of physiological adaptations, they can not measure how an athlete can apply those adaptations to their sport.

Lastly, there is no way to do a double blind study on the subject. The participants and the researchers know who is doing strength training and who is not. You can not rule out bias on the part of the researchers or participants when this is the case.

If you are a rider who doesn’t thing that strength training will help you then odds are good that it will not. Same with the researchers – if they go into the study with the idea that strength training will not work (and you would be surprised at how many studies start out as a way for someone to “prove” their own bias) then you will not be compelled to design the best training program and protocol to prove otherwise.

I personally think that strength training is a must for those looking to maximize performance. I just don’t see how you can look at our better understanding of functional anatomy and how we can use strength training to improve and strengthen basic movement skills while preventing overuse injuries and not conclude that it can help. Moving better results in more efficient use of energy and power and in less wear and tear on the joints, plain and simple.

I also want to point out that in his study of the Functional Movement Screen, Gray Cook has noted a direct correlation between a higher score on the screen and improved reaction times. Reaction times are not something typically measured in the lab for cyclists but I think plays an important role in mountain biking. The faster you can react to the terrain the faster you can ride and not crash which typically means a faster, safer ride.

In a recent book I read called The Tipping Point the author looked at the spread of trends. He pointed out that they are introduced by the Innovators and then picked up by the Early Adopters. After a while the Early Majority catch on and then finally the Late Majority finally get on board. We are still in the Early Adopter phase of strength training for our sport and as such you guys stand to gain the biggest advantages over everyone else.

So, when someone tells you that “the science is inconclusive” odds are what they really mean is that they don’t want to strength train and they want to use science to make them feel better about their decision. That is fine, they will simply come along with the Late Majority. Some people are not cut out to be pioneers, just don’t let them keep you from taking advantage of every tool possible to enjoy riding more.

-James Wilson-

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