Rider Q&A: Getting strong after a back injury & Advice on getting started with Barefoot Pedaling

Got your full program and love it.  It’s cool to see that you worked with Mike Boyle and apply those principles to your programs.  I’m from the Boston area and was trained by several coaches who learned from him as well. Here’s my situation and some questions –

I’m 38, recently started riding after a 10 yr hiatus. I hurt my back twice – bulging disc L4/L5 in January and again in early March.  First time I tilted doing a way too heavy shrug. Second time I tilted in a squat in the end of my third set, this one didn’t heal and an MRI showed the bulging disc.
After the second incident I went to a great sports PT and worked on it for 8 weeks.  I really got into the foam roller and made lots of progress really fast in there doing Is Ys Ts, band work, ball work and starting over with super light weights, and no weights in many exercises.   My back made a full recovery and I enjoyed it.  I have had many other sports injuries dating back to my teens and always sorta liked working through injuries and getting better because it’s an amazing process.

This time I had made a goal to start mtbing again and my PT who is a triathlete assured me it would be no problem.  I had a great riding season and rode over 800 trail miles so far.  I have taken some hard slams, but have bounced back no problem at all.  It’s been a good test for my back and it feels mobile and durable which is great.  Now I just want to keep the muscle I melt in all these trail rides, so I have to get back to more lifting.

Now here’s the thing – I have grown a fear of heavy dead lifts and squats!   To be able to d/l and squat with great form 5 sets of 355 – 405 during work outs used to be a breeze, they were some of my strongest lifts.  I used to love dead lifts, squats, front squats, hack squats, stiff legs, good mornings… also power cleans, hang cleans, etc.  Just last December my cleans were insane and I weighed 30lbs more, most of it muscle.

The most difficult thing to repair after the disc PT has been stability and confidence in the lower back.  I just don’t trust my arch and my hips and hams feel like tight as rope.  Also in the hole of a squat I feel a lot of almost grinding pain on the top of the hip – ball socket area.  It messes with my squat as I get to parallel or below.  That pain combined with the hard to arch lower back makes for very scary dead lifting.  I am still only doing body weight squats, one legged squats and body weight dead lifts.
I need to move to more weight with the legs.  Question –  What about using a hex bar or doing behind leg hack squats?  In both of those positions I am better able to keep good arch in the lower back and drive up with the hips.  I have really long legs and sort of a short torso, so I have to really drag the bar up my shins for d/ls.  It’s at the same point (getting past the knee) that my back tends to want to round.  The hex bar gets rid of that issue for me.  I did sumo in the past as well, but that seems weird now. Any thoughts?

A: Thanks for the email, I spent 4 days at Mike’s place and learned a lot there. About the squats and deadlifts, I have a couple things for you. First, I do front squats instead of back squats and using a trap bar for deadlifts is fine. Also, you don’t need to be powerlifter strong to be a strong, functional human being and great mountain biker. The human body can only endure so much stress and constant super heavy loading of the spine has consequences.

It also sounds like you need some serious mobility work. You need to be doing the warm up routine from the program every day, maybe twice a day. Your real limiting factor is mobility, not strength, and you need to treat it with the same focus you do your strength training.

Once you free up your hips then achieving a 2X BW deadlift and getting strong on the front squat won’t hurt your back and once you’ve achieved that you should use single leg exercises to hammer the strength side as they are inherently more “spine friendly”. Training hard can come in many forms and changing your paradigm to one of single leg strength will help immensely.

Hope this helps…


Hi James,

I just finished listening to your podcast on barefoot pedaling and I have to say I think I am starting to see the light.  I have been mtn biking for 3 years and clipped in for 2 1/2 of those 3 years.  I also have been starting to experience knee pain in the past 1-2 years during my bike rides.  I have been wanting to incorporate some exercises to help me build up the stamina I need to stand and pedal for more than a few pedal strokes here and there. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated as I have become somewhat of an expert at sitting and pedaling (the trails I ride in my area have some long climbs!).

The other question I have in regard to going back to flats is that I had issues with my pedals flying out from under my feet and slamming into my calves leaving me with lots of pretty bruises… Does this problem go away as you learn to stand more or is there a trick I don’t know about?  This problem was the deciding factor for me to go to clipless pedals in the first place.  And would you recommend one brand over the other when it comes to flat pedals?

Thanks in advance for any tips you may have for me.  I really want to improve in this sport and I come from a small town where my local bike shop is dead set on clipless pedals.  I just don’t feel like I am improving my strength or riding with my current habits

A: The main advice I can give you is to get stronger. You’ll be shocked at how much getting stronger in exercises like the deadlift, Bulgarian split squat and single leg squat will do your pedaling power and ability to stand and hammer at will. Your feet will fly off the pedals when you your sitting down so as you get better at standing you won’t have that problem as much.

As far as pedals go, nothing specific but look for a wide platform and good plenty of pins. Get some 5-10 sticky rubber shoes, they will make a world of difference. Get some light weight shin pads (I used to call mine my XC Shinnies) so you won’t kill your lower legs in the process of learning, eventually you’ll get good enough to not need them.

-James Wilson-

Social Comments:

WordPress Comments:

  1. Rick Beauchamp says:

    Ditto on the 5-10’s I bought mine a month ago and after wearing them on my local trail to get used to them I went on an epic ride that included fire roads, single track and horse trails. You will wonder why you waited so long to get them and actually have had several people ask about them and they are going to get out of clipless and go to flats. I bought a pair of Wha Wha’s from Kona only because I ride a Kona and wanted to get the Kona logo on my flats. Make sure what ever flats you get, they are rebuildable. I had a cheap pair with loose bearings and cheap seals and they were worthless in less than a year. Thanks to James and his program I am a more confident rider and getting better. Not plugging anyone but I got my 5-10’s from Zappo’s free shipping and free return.

    Reply • October 18 at 1:00 pm
  2. WAKi says:

    I just got some input on pedalling in MTB from my dear friend who is a pretty good road racer, good enough to be a trainee at Liquid Gas team, so I guess a good reference. He did some after road-season MTB races for his sponsors. One of his first comments after I asked him how was it: “I hate pedalling in MTB, it is so much more square than on road, it is impossible to make proper circles, feels just like only pushing down, can’t get into rhythm”.

    After reading your stuff James on clipless and this guys input I think I’m sold on flatties….

    Reply • October 21 at 2:19 pm

Add a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *


Follow MTB Strength Training Systems:
James Wilson
Author and Professional
Mountain Bike Coach
James Wilson