Should mountain bikers worry about muscle gains from strength training?

Strength training has a lot of great side effects for us as mountain bikers, including…

– Improvements in pedaling power and efficiency

– Increased body control for more confident execution of skills

– More core strength for less low back fatigue and other common overuse injuries

…and this is a very partial list.

Strength-to-weight ratio is what you are after and, unlike road riding, some extra muscle will help you power over uniquely mountain biking situations – like steep, technical climbs and descents – and act as some extra armor for when you crash.

However, some side effects aren’t as desirable for some riders, namely weight gain from extra muscle mass. In a sport that preaches “lighter is better”, seeing the scale go up can be scary.

Because of this I will occasionally get a question about dealing with weight gain. In this case, it was a rider who was in his 8th week of the Time Crunched Trail Rider Program who had seen his weight go up by about 5 pounds but had also experienced significant strength gains as well.

I told him that here is the deal with muscle gain on any of my programs – it all depends on what you did before you started the program and not all weight gain is bad.

While I design the programs to be fairly low in volume to avoid excessive weight gain, if you have not done any sort of real strength training for a few years then odds are that you will add some muscle simply from your body reacting to the general stimulus of strength training. More advanced lifters don’t have as much weight gain and tend to see more strength gains while maintaining or even losing some weight (fat, not muscle).

Also, if you have never done exercises that work your hips and lats like swings, deadlifts and KB Goblet/ Front Squats do then those muscles will also respond with more growth than if you had been doing them before the program.

In general I design the workouts to maximize strength and cardio while minimizing muscle gain, which brings me to how not all weight gain is bad…

If your body responds to a program that targets the hips and lats (two muscles vital for performance on the trail) and is designed to get them strong and not big then I say that your body simply needed that muscle to perform at the levels you want it to. This means that your initial set point for your weight was artificially low because you achieved it while neglecting some vital components of a good MTB specific training program.

The increased strength and power plus the more efficient body position you will have on the trail will more than make up for the small increase in weight. Strength-to-weight ratio is what you are after and, unlike road riding, some extra muscle will help you power over uniquely mountain biking situations – like steep, technical climbs and descents – and act as some extra armor for when you crash.

Thanks to the idea of “riding weight” inspired by road riding a lot of riders are unduly afraid of any weight gain but I think that most mountain bikers could stand to add a couple extra pounds in some key areas. Strength is a key foundational element of all athletic qualities, including endurance.

I say that you should worry about achieving some basic strength goals, like a 1.5-2 X BW deadlift and being able to easily crank out 5 pull ups, and see where your body’s muscle set point is and then go from there. I’m not saying you can’t work on decreasing your weight at that point but until you have achieved those strength goals I don’t think you can fairly assess what your “normal” weight is.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Aaron says:

    I did the DB combos all winter long. Overall I gained 8 lbs of muscle and shaved an inch of my waist. Already at the beginning of the season I am posting faster times on both my climbs and descents. I feel good, like super good! The only thing that I had to worry about was making sure I had my suspension dialed in for the new weight, but otherwise it’s no biggy.

    Reply • April 19 at 9:14 am
  2. Jeff says:

    Good advice James,

    I’m just wondering if the deadlift and pull up bench marks should be modified any depending on one’s age. I’m 61 years young and know that I do not have anywhere near as much muscle mass as I once did. Given that, is the 1.5 – 2X BW still a reasonable target?

    Reply • April 19 at 4:55 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I would say that being able to pull 1.5 X your BW should be a goal that you hand on to as long as you can. I hope that I can still do it at 61 because, as you noted, you lose muscle mass as you age and strength training is the best way to keep it around.

      Reply • April 21 at 12:38 pm
  3. Debbie says:

    Hi James,

    I’ve tried your KB program and your Bodyweight program in the past. I stopped both when I had convinced myself I wanted to go in a less sport-specific direction with my workouts. The short time I used your programs I began to see improvement in my climbing and endurance on my bike. Since then, I have begun riding a lot more and have realized that mountain bike specific training is what I should be doing. I have built up my home gym to include equipment other than kettlebells and i would love to continue using it. Is it possible to incorporate a sandbag, gymnastics rings, a TRX and battle rope into one of your programs in addition to a kettlebell?

    Reply • April 23 at 10:44 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      While I obviously bill my workouts as “mountain bike specific” the truth is that they are more about developing the athlete riding the bike than being super specific to just mountain biking. In fact, I have a pile of emails from people telling me how the programs have helped them in a wide variety of other sports and activities because of the gains in overall athleticism seen from them.

      In other words, sorry that you were confused about the results produced from the program but they work for a wide variety of things and would have been a great way for you to continue to train no matter what your goals were.

      With that said, the Ultimate MTB Workout Program is my best program and incorporates a lot of different tools into the workouts and would be what I would recommend if you want a workout that will let you use all of that equipment.

      Reply • April 23 at 12:02 pm
      • Debbie says:

        Thanks James! It sounds like I should have just stuck with it back then and I’d have been on track. As it turns out, I’ve been doing alot of training to get stronger and improve endurance. I’m just ready to dial it in to what will be the most beneficial for me as far as mountain biking. I’ll definitely check out your Ultimate MTB program!

        Reply • April 23 at 1:03 pm

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