One of the biggest mistakes I made early on with my core training for mountain biking was avoiding exercises that directly worked the hip flexors. These muscles are located in the front of the hip and act to pull the knee up towards the chest and they tend to be short and tight for most people, a result of years of sitting down too much.
The reasoning for this makes sense – if they are short and tight then you want to avoid adding stress to them and work on stretching them to get them to relax. Short, tight hip flexors can pull the pelvis out of alignment and result in low back pain and trouble with recruiting the glutes and hips so you wanted to avoid doing anything that made the situation worse.
But what I realized over the years is that there is a big difference between having hip flexors that are too tight and hip flexors that are strong throughout a full range of motion. Often what you find is that tight hip flexors also have restrictions in their range of motion, which affects larger movements both on and off the bike.
For example, off the bike if you have weak hip flexors you will struggle to pull yourself down deep into your squats and hinging patterns (deadlifts). You will hit a range of motion and have to rely on the weight pulling you down, which usually results in some form breakdown as well.
On the bike you will struggle to apply these movements as well, especially when trying to pull yourself down into your Attack Position. When you can use your hip flexors to pull yourself down into a strong, position you can stay there with less effort. In fact, one of the main reasons riders struggle with things like cornering and manualing is that they can’t get and stay low in a balanced position and tend to pop up or round the back when executing these skills.
And while you don’t need to be pulling up trying to add power to your pedal stroke, you do need to be able to use the hip flexors to pull the trail leg up to get ready for the next strong downstroke. Riders with weak hip flexors tend to rely more on the momentum of the pedal stroke to get the foot up, which can take away from the power of the lead leg.
As you can see, having strong hip flexors that can control a large range of motion comes in handy. And luckily they are also easy to train and get stronger.
The first place to start is with Lying Leg Raises. You can watch this video to see some progressions to help you safely start using this exercise and some ways to progress into it if you struggle with it at first.
Once you have the Lying Leg Raises down you can move on to Hanging Leg Raises, which also work on your grip strength and lat strength as well. Here is a video showing you the best ways to progress into this exercise, as well as some ways to make it harder as you get stronger.
I suggest doing 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps for these types of exercises. And remember to focus on expanding your 80% effort level rather than pushing 100% with them as well – one of the reasons Leg Raises get a bad reputation is that people push them too hard and end up straining something, which won’t happen if you don’t push your limits.
I hope you enjoy the Leg Raise as much as I do. While you should still focus on stretching them out and keeping them from getting tight, adding some Leg Raises to your routine will help you develop a stronger, more functional core.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems