Don’t use “soreness” to judge the effectiveness of a workout.

As more and more riders use my Ultimate MTB Workout Program I seem to get more questions regarding how “easy” Phase 1 seems to be. Most of the time these questions come from riders who were already training before finding my programs and as such they come into it already having an idea of what training is supposed to be like and Phase 1 ain’t it.

The problem lies in where their idea of what a workout is supposed to look like come from sources that have been heavily influenced by bodybuilding. Joe Weider and his fitness magazine empire have spread the bodybuilding mindset far and wide and today most people don’t even recognize it for what it is.

Bodybuilding is a sport and the training programs and mindset used by them is for one specific purpose – get big and shredded so they can shave their bodies, apply some fake tan, oil up and pose in front of a bunch of people. There’s nothing wrong with it if that is what you want to do but if you were to ask me if I wanted a program designed specifically for that goal I’d say no.

Even some well meaning “sports” training program still pull heavily from bodybuilding without even realizing it. So, in an effort to help educate riders about these influences I’m going to shed light on one of the biggest hurdles that stop riders from getting better at mountain biking.

Don’t judge the effectiveness of a workout by how trashed you are after the workout and how sore you are the next day.

Bodybuilders are trying to create as much micro-trauma (literally little tears) in the muscles fibers as possible with their workouts since this micro-trauma is a signal for muscle growth. They also want to burn as much muscle sugar (glycogen) as possible since this also leads to increased muscle size. This means that they want to do a lot of sets and reps and “exhaust” the muscles, which is exactly the opposite of what you need as a mountain biker.

The downside to this approach is that along with micro-trauma comes soreness, also know as Post Workout Muscle Soreness or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. The long, grueling workouts also produce a lot of fatigue and require a lot of recovery time. We need workouts that will make us stronger and fitter without causing so much soreness you can’t ride for a couple days.

If the gym is your “sport” then beating the holy hell out of yourself on a regular basis is fine but if you’re trying to build fitness to help you in a sport or activity outside of the gym you have to factor that in. When you look at how athletes in other sports that have to get fit while also practicing and playing a sport you find a much different approach. You see programs that don’t beat you up as much and few people who are happy when they are super sore from a workout.

Now, this isn’t to say that you should never be sore or that there isn’t a time and a place to go all out in a workout and leave nothing in the gym. The ideal amount of soreness is something that lets you know the muscles got worked but after a hot shower and some light stretching you’re good to go. Being super sore all the time is a sign that something is wrong and you are doing too much.

You want to judge the effectiveness of your workouts based on your progress with strength levels and better technique. You also want to judge them based on how they affect your riding – if you aren’t seeing a significant impact on the trail then it is probably the wrong approach. Be aware of the false goal of “soreness” that has been spread by people who have very different goals than you do. Seek better strength and movement, look to learn something from every training session and look to minimize soreness so you can get out and ride your bike.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Tony says:

    Coach Wilson…you are wise beyond your years. Early on in my life I engaged in bodybuilding and power lifting with some success. I lived those sports for many years and I can attest to the fact that they can provide health benefits and yes you look pretty good but, they also can lead to injuries that go on to affect you later in life. I lived by the mantra “no pain no gain”. There was some gain but mostly pain. It would be best for us who trail ride to heed your advise and training.

    Reply • February 13 at 6:53 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’ve been at this for over 20 years and made a lot of the same mistakes, some of which I still pay for now. Unfortunately it is a lesson most have to learn the hard way -if at all. Glad you’ve been able to see past the “no pain, no gain” mindset and get on a more productive path.

      Reply • February 13 at 11:08 am
  2. Wacek says:

    I must say, James program has made me much stronger, results are great, but… it feels so wrong to finish the workout and feel I could do three more of these 😀 I did it few times, like I took 4 sets of certain circuit instead of prescibed 2 and max in two weeks I was ending up with serious pain somewhere.

    James, if I may ask here – FM coach that was helping me with my back gave me a tip for checking the right technique on each exercise. Realize which muscles certain exercise should involve (like uni glute bridge) and hold it until it is hard to bare. In this way I should be able to recognize whether I use right technique. If not, with Glute bridge example, if I stick my belly button too far up (what was the reason I went ot her), I will feel
    more tension in quads than in glutes. It should also show how body cheats to protect the tired muscle by using other around. And I can stop anywhere in the process of doing the bridge for a check –

    Is this in your opinion applicable in all exercises?

    Reply • February 13 at 8:44 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, that is what I mean when I say to focus on how an exercise feels, not how it looks. If it feels right it will look right but it can look “right” and not really be driven from the most efficient areas. I regularly have new Distance Coaching clients slow way down on problem movements so they can really feel what is going on and fix it. Speed often covers up technique flaws and you often have to slow down in order to fix them.

      Reply • February 13 at 11:06 am
      • Wacek says:

        Thank you for the answer, I am seriosuly considering for signing up at least for 1 hour on Skype 😉 Energy leaks sound more horrible than bird flu!


        Reply • February 15 at 4:42 am
  3. cookie says:

    James, very good advice indeed! As I’m getting older I’m slowly learning that more is not always better.. enthusiasm can diminish results! its like this old joke;

    An old bull and a young bull crested the hill and saw a paddock full of cows. The young bull shouted all excited jumping up and down “Quick, let’s run down and do one”. The old bull, full of wisdom just said “Let’s walk down and do them all”

    I’m curious about your thoughts on HRV devices and how they tie into this topic?


    Reply • February 14 at 5:57 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I use HRV monitoring daily. Check out this article I wrote on how I use it.

      Reply • February 15 at 1:55 pm
      • David says:

        James, perhaps this is an over simplification, but cannot you do the same thing by just paying attention to your resting heart rate before you rise in the morning as an indicator of whether I am over training ? I realize the HRV system will provide more information to make an educated decision about training load for that day ?

        Reply • February 15 at 7:55 am
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          Yeah, you could do that. HRV monitoring is a great tool but it isn’t needed so morning HR is a good alternative.

          Reply • February 15 at 9:16 am
  4. David says:

    When I started working with MTB STS I had to unlearn what I thought was an effective workout.. I always felt like I wasn’t working hard enough.. I was wrong; as these programs are extremely effective and help the user find and make connections to movements we make on the bike and connect those to what we do in the gym. James’s programs also helped me to realize that building fitness over a movement dysfunction on the bike is muy malo.. I see that now as I have had to unlearn things here too. thanks coach James.

    Reply • February 15 at 7:51 am
  5. Rick Ringel says:

    Hey James, I’m about 3 weeks into the Phase 1 workout, and it has been a blessing. I especially am happy with the stretches you included, which were ad-hoc parts of my routine before. I’m in my 50s, so staying within my body’s limitations while still gaining strength is one of my primary objectives. Here is my question, though: resistance training has the side effect of generating testosterone (this is my second primary objective). I associate resistance training with bodybuilding, so I do have the urge to add weight anywhere I can. Do your program’s endurance and strength focus provide this same benefit?

    Reply • February 15 at 8:41 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, it will. If you notice there are a lot of lower reps used in the program, which allow you to use a decent load which is what stimulates the testosterone. You certainly want to add load and get stronger but you don’t want to overdo it, which is the real message in the article.

      Reply • February 15 at 9:17 am
      • Rick Ringel says:

        Awesome. Thanks!

        Reply • February 15 at 9:56 am
    • David says:

      Hi Rick, as a fellow over 50 rider, I cannot give enough props to James for his mobility prescriptions. At our age flexibility is the x factor that leads to optimal performance on the bike. Flexibility and Yoga have helped me immeasurably become, and have a better, stronger and more flexible body to deal with the rigors of mtn bike riding. I guess my message is: Don’t skimp on the flexibility work ! It has been on of the keys for this over 50 rider.. peace on dirt.

      Reply • February 15 at 10:05 am

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