Off Season Mountain Bike Training Workout

This is a re-post from of my recent article –

A couple of things transpired to give us this months training post. First, my wireless mic was used to announce some slalom racing at The Ranch – I got smoked by Geoff Gulevich, the eventual winner – and I couldn’t get it back in time to shoot a video like I usually do. This left me trying to find something that I could do that did not need a video.

Second, I had Mikey Sylvestri come to town so that I could help him develop an off season training program to help him take it up a notch next season. This reminded me that a lot of riders are probably looking for something to do this off season and so I decided to put together an example of what I would do with a rider at this point in the off season.

The first thing that we need to be worrying about this time of year is gaining overall core strength. We’re going to start the workout off with the Turkish Get Up, which is one of the best exercises around for building the type of core strength you need on the trail. You’re going to do 3 reps on each side but do all 3 reps on one side and then 3 on the other – make sure that you switch sides after each rep.

After some TGUs to get the body linked up and ready to go we’re going to move to the Focus Circuit. This is where we are going to put the exercises that we want to make sure get the most energy and attention, which will lead to them getting the best results. Bodyweight exercises have been effectively used for centuries to build strong, capable bodies and I like to emphasize them in an early off season program. Bodyweight exercises are great for building the body awareness, tendon and ligament strength you need to safely handle heavy weights in later workouts.

The four bodyweight exercises that we are going to focus on are the squat, push up, lying leg raise and chin up. Since they are in a circuit you will do a set of the first exercise, rest 30-60 second and then move to the next exercise in the series. Once you have finished a set of all the exercises then start over, going through the series again until you have done all the sets for each exercise.

After our Focus Circuit we’ll move to the Secondary Circuit, which is where we place the exercise we want to work on but know they won’t see the best results since we get to them when we are tired. For this workout, even though we want to emphasize bodyweight exercises we still need to use some more traditional strength training exercises where we are moving an external implement, like a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell or other tool.

The ability to control your bodyweight is one aspect of performance, your ability to apply force into an external object is the other. While bodyweight mastery is vital, nothing can replace good old fashioned strength. I love the deadlift and cheat-curl-to-press for building strength in the areas we need on the trail – the hips, lats and shoulders.

Lastly, we want to work on building come cardio capacity, specifically the energy systems that are critical to trail riding. While the aerobic energy system is important, on the trail it comes down to how well it can support the anaerobic energy system that really counts. The ability to push hard repeatedly with incomplete rest is the hallmark of a great rider and to do that you need to work on the Aerobic and Lactic Energy Systems in that way.

I like to use Cardiac Power Intervals to work on cardio endurance at this time of the year. This protocol has you power hard for a relatively long time, digging into your anaerobic Lactic Energy System before backing off and letting your heart rate drop back down to 120 beats per minute (bpm) before repeating. I recommend using an AirDyne Bike (the one with the fan for resistance) or your mountain bike on a trainer. You can do these outside but the more factors you can control the easier it is to progressively improve.

So, in a nutshell we want to emphasize core strength and bodyweight mastery, work on some basic strength and build some general Aerobic and Lactic Energy System endurance. This approach will help transition the body from the rigors of the riding season to demands of grueling off season workouts.

So, here is a routine that puts this all together for you. Click on the links to see video demos of the exercises.


Start with a warm up drill like this one – Dynamic Mobility Warm Up

Core Training
TGU X 3 reps(switch sides each rep until you have done 3 on each side)
* If you struggle with the full TGU then just work up to the point that gives you trouble. Getting strong in the earlier parts of this exercise will make the later moves much easier.

Focus Circuit
BW Squat 2 sets X 10-30 reps
Push Ups 2 sets X 5 – 20 reps
Lying Leg Raise 2 sets X 5 – 20 reps
Chin Up 2 sets X 1 – 10 reps
* Make sure that you come down to a count of 2, pause for a count of 1 and come back up to a count of 2 on all reps in this circuit. Stop with 1 or 2 reps left and don’t train to failure – form breaks down so bad when you do that you get nothing out of those crappy reps.

Secondary Circuit
Deadlift 3 sets X 8 reps
Cheat Curl to Press 3 sets X 8 reps
* Start out with a relatively light weight for the first set and try to add a little weight each set, working up to a strong effort on the 3rd set. However, don’t train to failure – it is even more important with weighted exercises that you don’t let your form break down to get a few more reps.

Cardiac Power Intervals
Work: 60 seconds – Your goal is to get your HR as high as possible on each round
Rest: HR returns to 120-130 bpm – don’t stop, keep pedaling slowly.
Start with 8 rounds and add 1 round each week.


Do this routine 2-3 times a week. Know that you won’t be able to improve every time you train but as long as the weekly trend is for you to be doing a few more reps or adding a few more pounds then you’re heading in the right direction. In fact, I’d encourage you to make every 3rd workout a “back off” workout where you purposefully do a few less reps and pounds than you know you can. Progress is never a linear path and so don’t fight this fact of life by trying to push too hard and too often.

A couple of closing thoughts. First, this is not intended to be the “best” mountain bike workout for all riders and all situations. Exercise is like a drug and you need to take the right kinds in the right dosages to see the results you need. For example, if you are World Cup Pro then this workout may not be enough for you – but then again, a rider shouldn’t be looking for free advice on the internet if their paycheck depends on their performance.

Also, I did not include several things that I would in a more comprehensive program, such as corrective exercises and single leg exercises. This workout encompasses all the major factors that should be addressed this time of year but does not represent a complete use of every tool in my toolbox.

However, the 80-20 Rule tells us that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts and I believe that a routine like this represents a good chunk of the strength and conditioning 20%. When applied with 100% focus and intensity a simple program like this can deliver some pretty amazing result for the vast majority of riders.

So there you have it, something to get the off season training ball rolling. Races are won and epic rides are prepared for now and the longer you wait or the less organized your efforts the less progress you’ll make next year.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Tyler says:

    Thanks for another good post.

    Just wanted to clarify a small detail….for TGU’s you say to do ‘..3 reps on each side but do 3 reps on one side and then 3 on the other – make sure you switch sides after each rep.’ This sounds contradictory, could you clarify? Cheers!

    Reply • November 28 at 1:45 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Do one on one side, then switch sides, going back and forth until you have done three total on each side.

      Reply • November 29 at 8:48 pm
  2. shane says:

    Nice post James. Question about the cheat curl to press. Is there a kettle bell option to this? Clean and press?

    Reply • November 29 at 1:18 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Exactly, clean and press would be the equivilant.

      Reply • November 29 at 8:47 pm
  3. Rick says:

    Very helpful, James. One question about the cardio intervals. You say that after the sprint phase, let your heart rate return to 120-130 before the next sprint.It seems like that resting heart rate number is variable and dependent on your max heart rate, no? I assume you’re thinking of a 25-30 year old with a max heart rate of around 190-200. I’m 58 with a max heart rate of 166. Would you suggest waiting until my hr returns to 100-110 before the next sprint?
    I enjoy your blog.
    Happy New year.

    Reply • January 5 at 10:14 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The 220 – your age is not an accurate way to determine max heart rate so don’t get too stuck on it. Also, the point of keeping your heart rate above 120 is to maximize the overall cardio benefits. Hope this helps…

      Reply • January 5 at 10:20 am
  4. Sander says:

    Hi, do you have an alternative exercise for the CHIN UP which doesn’t need any equipment?

    Reply • January 17 at 6:10 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Not really, tough to do a pulling exercise without some sort of “equipment”, even if it is just a tree branch or wooden beam somewhere. Plus, you can get a Door Gym or something like it for pretty cheap and it doesn’t require any permanent mounting. I’d suggest investing in something like that, chin ups and pull ups are pretty powerful exercises for us on the trail.

      Reply • January 17 at 11:41 am
  5. Mike Mitchell says:

    Hey James, always a pleasure to get your notes. Santa cruz gets no rain anymore , it will cost us eventually but dust is our only problem besides popularity! Also the surf is epic, both for sup, at appropriate spots, and wonderful point and reef breaks all around the area for regular surfing. Always something to make each day special in this sports paradise, Sincerely Mike

    Reply • January 17 at 12:13 pm
  6. sb66er says:


    I’m no expert but I do work with a exercise physiologist for my training; James is correct that keeping the heart rate in an aerobic growth range is key. I am in my 50s also, but with a 188 max heart rate. You and I both have diminished maximal capacity like everyone else as we age, but the lower band of aerobic benefit doesn’t change in the same way the maximal capacity does. How the body treats the carbon dioxide and lactic acid build up during James’ decreased effort phases is a key element in this type of training. I will steal a quote from someone I heard once, “most people train too hard too often and not hard enough when they train hard…” or something like that.

    Reply • January 17 at 3:40 pm
  7. Ryan says:

    Your deadlift link seems to be broken. Also, without access to heavier weights and olympic bars for dead lift, could you sub in a kettlebell swing?

    Reply • January 19 at 9:49 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Whoops, just fixed that broken link, thanks for pointing it out. And yes, you could do some swings in place of the deadlift although there is something you get from heavy deadlifts that swings just can’t deliver so I like to use them both.

      Reply • January 20 at 11:18 am
      • Ryan says:

        If working in swings what sort of time duration or reps would you recommend?

        One other question on the intervals, do you see this as a low cadence, high tension effort like a climb? or faster lighter like a sprint? Or does it matter as long as my heart rate gets pinned?

        Thanks Again

        Reply • January 20 at 12:41 pm
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          It is tough to use swings as a straight substitute for deadlifts, I would recommend doing singe leg deadlifts if weight was the issue. That would make it easier to stick with the basics of this workouts.

          As far as the intervals go, I’d recommend thinking about the type of pedaling efforts you need to improve on and work on them.

          Reply • January 21 at 12:19 pm

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