Planned Progressions for Max Results

One of the most important factors in a successful mountain bike training program is to have a planned progression. At its most basic level this means having some sort of idea of what you want to accomplish from one program to the next – keeping an eye on where you’ve been and where you want to go when deciding what to do next. This means that no program will be perfect for everyone and that you have to switch your program up every 3-6 weeks. While everyone is different in exactly what and how often they should change there are some general rules that can definitely help you when designing your next training program.

First, how often you change your program will most likely depend on how long you have been training. If you are just starting out then you can probably see results from a program for about 6 weeks. After about a year of training you should probably drop that number down to 4 weeks. If you are an experienced trainee with 5+ years of consistent training under your belt then your body will probably adapt much quicker, meaning you should change up your routine every 3 weeks or so.

For riders with a couple years of strength training experience it is also important to add in a week off every now and then. I promise that you won’t lose your fitness in only a week and for more advanced trainees it can be vital for their continued progression. After a couple years of training you can really pound on your body with the intensity level of your workouts so taking a planned week off gives your body and mind the chance to fully recover and get ready for the next program. Some top strength coaches and trainers recommend taking a week off after every 3-4 week program to really maximize your recovery and allow your body the chance to adapt. If your training poundage hasn’t gone up since the Clinton administration then maybe you should give recovery weeks a try and see if they don’t help you bust through some plateaus.

Now that you have an idea of how often you should progress your program lets look at how you should vary your loading parameter, also known as sets and reps. Most of us get stuck doing the same sets and reps for years and even if you vary your exercises your body will get used to those loading parameters and the results will stop. There are 3 basic loading parameters (with endless variations on each) and all 3 must be used at different times to maximize results.

The first set of parameters is using a lighter weight and doing 1-3 sets of 10-15 reps. This type of program is most beneficial for building tendon and ligament strength, building some local muscle endurance along and helping the body recover from more intense training programs. It is also a great time for rehab and prehab. Prehab is a term used for recognizing potential weak links in your kinetic chain and taking time to strengthen them before an injury manifests itself and forces you to take time off to rehab it, which is usually a longer and more painful process. A prime example would be taking this time to strengthen the rotator cuff and other shoulder stabilizing muscles for those who have shoulder issues.

The next parameter range would be the classic 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps. This rep and set range is great for building muscular size, increasing strength endurance and building some muscle tone. Contrary to popular belief pumping light weight for a bunch of reps does not do much for increasing muscle tone or give you “long, lean muscles”. You have to move some weight to recruit enough muscle fibers to maximize this highly sought after benefit of strength training. While the science behind this recommendation is fascinating it gets out of the scope of this article.

The last rep and set range is one that a lot of people skip even though it can be one of the most beneficial set of loading parameters. Doing 4- 10 sets of 1-6 reps really works on max strength and builds “trail strength” betterthan any other rep and set scheme. If you are afraid of moving some weight for fear of hurting yourself or “bulking up” then let me put your mind at ease. Heavier weights for fewer repetitions can actually be safer and is less likely to build “bulk” than the 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps loading parameter for two reasons.

First, 1-6 reps means that you can give laser-like focus to each one. This means that you will generally do each one with better form. A lot of times our minds tend to wander when we are doing 10+ reps in a set, pumping out several of them simply because they stand between us and our target number of reps. When our focus wanders we tend to use less than perfect form and this is more likely to lead to injury than a few heavier, but perfect, reps.

Second, this loading parameter is actually less likely to build bulk than the previous two. This type of training is known in strength training circles as “neurological training”, meaning that the body adapts to it by making the nervous system stronger and more efficient. Remember, the brain controls the muscles so the better adapted your nervous system is the more control you have over your body. The previous two parameters are known as “metabolic training” meaning that your body adapts by increasing the size or improving the metabolism of the muscle fibers. This means that rider’s who want to increase strength and power without adding a lot of muscle size should spend a lot of their training time in this zone.

While these are far from a specific program they should give you an idea of how varied your programs can and should be. Switch up your exercises from one program to the next isn’t enough and now you have a better grasp of how often you should change your program and the different loading parameters that you should be cycling between. Spending too much time using one set of loading parameters will definitely keep you from getting the results that you deserve. It also shows you how you can bring on very specific adaptations from different loading parameters, allowing you to target what you need as a mountain biker instead of just building some general strength and fitness.

-James Wilson-


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  1. Phil says:

    I am assuming that the progressions in the db combos drills already contain the type of changes each few weeks that you are speaking of?

    Reply • August 12 at 2:54 pm
    • bikejames says:

      There is a saying – it is alright to break the rules once you know what the rules are. The types of progressions I outlined here are the most basic types of progressions and use of loading parameters. The DB Combos program uses a different type of progression scheme that focuses increasing the load and getting you stronger within the same loading parameter. You can manipulate load, volume and density (how much work you do within a given time frame) in a lot of different ways once you understand the basics.

      Reply • August 13 at 9:07 am
  2. Dave Reed says:

    I was wondering the same, though it would be interesting to run 4-6 weeks of each of the above to see how it differed

    Reply • August 13 at 2:02 am
  3. Jakub says:

    James, do these cycles of gym training refer in any way to our on-bike training? I mean, can I train my strength with 6 reps of heavy load while trying to do endurance rides on the trail, or train endurance (1st program) in the gym while doing more sprints or climbs on the bike? Will I not confuse my brain with mixing these trainings?

    Reply • August 16 at 9:12 am
    • bikejames says:

      Yeah, it would be best to think about your training goals when going on training rides and when lifting. You can still do a lower volume of another type of fitness to maintain it but the but of what you do should focus on your overall goals.

      Reply • August 16 at 11:37 am
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