Yes, the title is a bit dramatic but it got your attention, didn’t it? 😉
I’ve mentioned several times before in my writings about my disdain for the use of machines in MTB strength training programs. However, one machine has developed an almost cult status in the MTB world and deserves special attention in my quest to rid bodybuilding influences from our sport. The leg press has to be one of the worst exercises you can pick as a mountain biker in your quest to build a high performance, injury resistant body, yet it is one of the most popular choices for MTB workout programs.
The first thing that you need to consider when looking at exercise selection is that every exercise falls into the “sucks-good enough-best” continuum. While the goals of a particular athlete definitely help determine where an exercise falls on that scale, with few exceptions machine exercises never fall into the “best” category for MTB riders. While better than leg extensions or leg curls (which usually fall into the “sucks” category), leg presses have several drawbacks in the development of an athlete that keep it from being a “best” exercise. As athletes with extremely limited strength training time we simply can not afford to pick an exercise that does not give us the best return on our time investment.
The biggest problem that the leg press presents is that it applies the “muscle isolation” practice that bodybuilders frequently use. Our bodies will naturally act as a “kinetic chain” where several body parts work in unison in order to create movement. When we do a free weight exercise the body part that is the weakest link in that chain will determine how much load we can use (you are only as strong as your weakest link) and that weakest link will receive most of the strength stimulus from the exercise.
In a quest to build bigger muscles, bodybuilders have developed several tactics that allow them to artificially strengthen the body’s natural weak link, which is usually the ability of our torso to brace hard enough to protect the spine and to create to platform needed in order to produce force. The most common tactic that they employ is the use of machines, which allow them to sit and/ or brace their back against a pad. This bracing of the back against a pad allows the torso to be artificially strengthened, creating a new weak link in the kinetic chain. In the case of the leg press, the new weak link is the leg muscles.
Remember that bodybuilders have no need for real strength; they just need to have big muscles. Using the leg press to train the leg muscles makes sense for them because they want to preferentially overload the leg muscles in order to build bigger leg muscles. They can not use that leg press strength in the real world since their torsos can not brace hard enough to allow them to display all of that force potential. That is why you can not squat or deadlift nearly as much weight as you can leg press – the free weight exercises put the torso back into its rightful spot as the weakest link, nullifying all of that leg press strength.
In addition, use of the leg press in an MTB strength training program shows little understanding of how the human body responds to exercise. Few coaches really appreciate the fact that the nervous system controls everything that we do and it is ultimately the nervous system that determines the results that we get from our training. When you understand this then your start to see training in a whole new light – we are not simply training muscles; we are really training those muscles to act together in order to create movement patterns.
Our brain lays down a “neural blueprint” each time we do an activity. The more times we practice that movement pattern the more defined that neural blueprint becomes. The more defined a neural blueprint is the less conscious our brain has to be in the execution of that movement. A perfect example of this concept is learning to ride a bike. We all fell over our first time we tried and it took a lot of practice to get to where we could simply ride in a straight line. Now we can throw a leg over a bike and go hit a trail, most of the time never having to consciously think about what we are doing – it just happens. This is because your brain has such a well defined neural blueprint that it can easily access all of it on a sub-conscious level.
Now, look at the leg press with this understanding of what we are really doing with every rep of this exercise. We are teaching our bodies how to sit down, brace our backs against something, place our feet on a platform and push a sled in 2 dimensions (the tracks on the leg press means that we do not have to stabilize the weight, another huge drawback). This is hardly a neural blueprint worth spending time developing as it has no carry over to MTB riding.
Let’s look at a deadlift now from a neural blueprint perspective. The deadlift is teaching our bodies to maximally contract the torso in order to protect the spine and create a platform for our legs to press against. Our upper back is contracting in order to hold the weight strong and close to the body. The legs are coordinating their efforts with the torso and upper back in order to stand up with the weight. Your torso is also acting as a bridge between the force produced by the lower body and the weight being held by the upper body. In a nutshell, you are training your body to brace the torso and protect the spine while coordinate the efforts of several major muscle groups.
I am not claiming that the deadlift is a mirror image of cycling as I know that it is not. However, compare the way your brain inputs those two exercises and it is extremely clear that the deadlift (and other compound free weight exercises) is vastly superior to the leg press in training for the rigors of MTB riding. In fact, one could argue that the leg press will interfere with maximizing a rider’s potential as it creates a competing neural blueprint for your brain to have to deal with and may, in fact, teach you bad movement patterns that can carryover to your riding. In light of all of this the leg press is hardly a worthy addition to our strength training regimen.
I also know that a lot of people who read this will think back to their experience and think that I am nuts. Many riders feel that the leg press has helped them and delivered some results. In fact, I will not argue with them as they probably did get positive results from using the leg press. However, remember the continuum that I use to grade exercises: sucks – good enough – best. Not doing anything “sucks” so adding the leg press now moves you into the “good enough” category, which will deliver some results, but they are not the “best” that we can do with our strength training time.
The great Australian strength coach Ian King once wrote that “the good enough is the enemy of the best”. Truer words have never been written and this mantra drives every aspect of my life to this day. As MTB riders we have settled for the “good enough” for too long, not knowing any better. The time has come, though, for us to wake up and realize that strength and conditioning for our sport has stagnated in the last decade and that we deserve better than bodybuilding inspired programs from 10-15 years ago.
Advances in our understanding of how the body responds to training from a neurological, hormonal and structural perspective requires that we revisit our training philosophies and practices. When we find something that does not make sense from our new, more enlightened perspective we must either admit that we were honestly mistaken in our efforts and redirect them to more productive areas or we must stop being honest with ourselves, continuing to follow the old dogma for no other reason than a resistance to change.
Note: I know that this will make some start to wonder about using exercises that try to perfectly mimic our riding. If the leg press sucks because it is so far removed from the kinetic chain demands of riding then the best exercise must be one that perfectly mimics it, right? Well, no. While the subject of another article, I will mention that trying to mimic our sport too closely in the gym is not a good idea as it is impossible to perfectly recreate the same kinetic chain pattern.
The idea is to work on the general movement pattern in the gym and use in saddle conditioning work to convert it to true MTB specific strength. For example, use deadlifts to build the raw strength in your legs and then use high gear bike strength work to convert it. One without the other will not deliver the same results that you will get from employing both.