Does science support strength training for mountain biking?

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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  1. Simon says:

    The thing that has really amazed me since I started doing your work outs is the increase in reaction times. I notice it often just around the house – I knock something off a shelf and I catch it before it hits the floor. I’ve really noticed a difference here.

    Reply • November 18 at 10:40 am
  2. Rodney says:

    Mmm, I don’t know if theses exercises help improve reaction time, in my experience things like juggling really help with catching things quickly. Like yesterday when my 1,5 son climbed out of his eating chair and took a dive head-first to the floor. I was standing nearby and was able to grab him by one leg, preventing him hitting from the ground.
    Maybe strength training improves coordination and allows you to fire a muscle more promptly. And also, maybe because the muscles are more balanced and in tune your starting position allows you to move quicker.

    Reply • November 18 at 1:44 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ Rodney – I am not saying that these exercises improve reaction time directly, I am saying that they will help you move better and moving better will help your reaction times, or at least that is Gray’s take on it. I do like juggling for improving hand-eye coordination but I don’t know that it necessarily improves reaction time either.

      Reply • November 19 at 8:19 am
  3. BoT says:

    The University of Copenhagen in Denmark held a conference “Performance in Sports involving intense exercise” this September. Most of your ideas (esp importance of strength training w/o muscle growth) were supported in the joint recommendations, even though the conference was mainly focused on top athletes in short duration sports. So science is starting be more conclusive on the importance of strength training.

    Reply • November 18 at 1:58 pm
  4. Stefan says:

    Here’s an interesting read by a cycling coach:

    Hey, apparently even Lance Armstrong throws some weights around:

    So James Wilson certainly isn’t the *only* guy out there pushing the advantages of strength training (and functional strength and movement in particular) for cyclists. Having lots of power for out-of-saddle sprinting or dominating short climbs is very very useful in mountain biking. Sprinters do lots of strength training, so it seems to me that mountain bikers should benefit greatly too.

    But I’m certainly no expert. Just my two cents worth.

    Reply • November 18 at 7:41 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ Stefan – thanks for the links. I certainly am not the only one saying it and I think that as more coaches and riders see real world results the lab guys will catch up. Sports science is more like sports training history as the lab coats tend to study what works and try to tell us why it worked.

      Reply • November 19 at 8:17 am
  5. Ryan says:

    Well think about it. What are we training to do? Solid, strong, powerful in balance movements. We are training ourselves to work as a functioning system. Reaction times are based mostly on muscle memory. We react faster when we don’t have to think about what we want to do. Same with the MTB. When something happens we don’t think, “I need to set my core, I need to preload, I need to stay strong for the up and down, the bike needs to be…” We react and during the process if we have to “remember” or think about any of these steps is slows us a bit which slows the reaction time which slows the speed at which we can fly down the trail. When the system is in balance and the “linking of the chain” has been done in a focused and controlled manner we make a “memory” of what we did (good or bad movement) and it is always faster to “remember” what was done before than to “makeup” the motion on the fly.

    Reply • November 19 at 10:01 am
  6. Chris says:

    I must confess that I merely dabble with the DB combo. I try to do this regularly but often I find myself (like now) having got to Thursday and not having done a proper workout. That said , the effect on general riding and stamina has been profound. Mixed in with regular rides I find my times for loops plummet when engaged in the DB combo program ( I have the full one too but the time involved and equipment required in the more advanced phases rules it out). The DB combo program is surprisingly hard considering it only takes about 20min once warmed up. The day after if I ride my legs are dead. But after a couple of days it feels like I’ve been doping. I put the improvements down to movement efficiency and core stability. Good stuff

    Reply • November 19 at 10:19 am
  7. bigstu says:

    its alright yh

    Reply • August 21 at 7:28 am

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