Should mountain bikers worry about weight gain?

Shedding weight is one of the top priorities for most mountain bikers. Riders will pay top dollar to shave a few grams off their bikes in the belief that the lightest ride possible will help them on the trail. While I will not dispute that, all things being equal, a lighter bike will tend to go faster than a heavier counterpart I will argue that there is a time when adding weight may be beneficial.

 Of course I am talking about adding weight to the engine that drives your bike – you! Every so often I hear from a rider who is concerned that strength training will add weight or that they have gained weight on my program. In a sport that tells you “lighter is better” seeing the number on any scale go up can be a bit unnerving. However, much of this concern is completely unnecessary.

 The most important thing for you to worry about is your strength-to-bodyweight ratio. For example, if two riders can both deadlift 300 pounds but one weighs 200 pounds and the other weighs 175, the lighter rider has a higher strength-to-bodyweight ratio. The higher your strength-to-weight is the more functional strength and power you will have on the trail.

 To better illustrate what I am talking about, let’s say that you currently weigh 160 pounds and your max deadlift (one of the best indicators of MTB specific strength in my book) is 200 pounds. Not bad but certainly not where it can or should be.

 Now let’s say that you finish the Ultimate MTB Workout Program and your deadlift has gone up to 250 (which would be a pretty small increase) and your bodyweight has gone up to 170 pounds (which would be a pretty big increase). Your deadlift strength has gone up 25% while your bodyweight has only increased by 6%. This effectively bumps your strength-to-weight ratio up which is what you want from your program.

 I guarantee that on the trail you won’t notice the extra bodyweight since it has been more than offset by the strength gains. Every time you need to lay down some extra strength and power to the pedals you’ll be able to do it far better than when you were smaller and weaker. As you can see, there is far more to the performance equation than how much you weigh.

 One of the reasons that a lot of riders find themselves putting on weight with my programs is that the workouts target areas that usually do not get emphasized in regular workouts. Exercises like the deadlift and its variations target the hips which are comprised of the big gluteus (butt) and hamstring muscles. These muscles do not get worked as effectively with squats and leg presses, two more common “mountain bike specific” exercises.

 When you stress muscles that are not used to getting worked they will initially respond by growing. However, I will point out that not all muscle gain is the same. If you are using compound lifts like the deadlift and you are keeping your total volume low then whatever muscle you put on will be functional in nature. This type of muscle gain will actually add to your body’s ability to create strong, powerful movement on your bike.

 But if you are following a bodybuilder type program (using machines, doing 3 sets of 8-12 reps and/ or training separate body parts on separate days) then the muscle you put on will not be as functional. This type of training tends to “pump up” a muscle more than make it stronger, meaning that it is not necessarily able to better help you on the trail.

 Obviously there is a point of diminishing returns as you don’t want to add too much weight and any weight gain you get needs to be from muscle and not fat (fat is always “non-functional”). However, adding 5-15 pounds of muscle from a good strength training program is not unusual or anything to be alarmed about as long as your strength gains outpaces your weight gains.

 One last thing to keep in mind is that muscle is the best “armor” you can have on the trail. If your arms and legs look like they would snap in two from the slightest fall you are far more likely to get hurt when you crash. Mountain biking is far more physical than road cycling (the single biggest outside influence on mountain bike training) and therefore requires a more physical rider. Adding some functional muscle will make you faster, more powerful and decrease your injury potential. When you look at it that way, seeing the number on the scale go up isn’t so bad after all.

 -James Wilson-


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  1. Geoffrey says:

    I fully concur! I am a weight weenie, now reformed. I now have a Gravity Dropper seatpost, and 2.35″ tires, on a bike I race XC on.

    I also went through the UMWP. I put on 10 lbs, 6 of which were muscle (according to my body fat test). My “easy” gear is now several gears harder than it used to be. I’ve been injury free for a while, both internal and external (except those wild artichokes that poke me as I ride past).

    Another fun side effect: I’m actually measuring an inch taller since I started using these workouts, which I assume is from better posture.

    I am a strong believer in the BetterRide/BikeJames double. Learn how to position your body, and gain the physical ability to do so well. It had a FAR better ROI than a new bike would. I now ride faster, crash fewer times, and can descend things I never was willing to ride down before.

    Reply • June 7 at 10:55 am
  2. Jakub says:

    That’s a good article… but wasn’t it postet before?

    Reply • June 7 at 12:55 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Yeah, about 2 years ago. I realized that there is a ton of great info archived on this blog from the last 3+ years of writing and I get a lot of new people who find it every day that haven’t seen it before. I’m starting to re-print some of the “best of” articles so that new readers can benefit from them. Plus, its good to remind old readers of some of this stuff as well.

      Reply • June 7 at 2:43 pm
  3. Andrew Brautigam says:

    Strength is good, but isn’t power to the pedals over specific time durations more important for mountain bikers? I know that in some ways power endurance is a product of strength, but at what point do gains in strength stop influencing power production at longer time durations?

    Reply • June 8 at 10:41 am
    • bikejames says:

      Power is just strength applied quickly. If you lack the foundation of strength you will struggle to increase power and then be able to sustain it over the course of a long ride. Remember too that as mountain bikers we need far more than just pedaling power (the best riders tend to be the ones that actually pedal the least) and that strength will help you grind through a tough gear, help you absorb trail impacts, maintain proper body position through rough trail sections and also help you “bounce” better when you crash. That leads to the ultimate question – how strong is strong enough? In my opinion, a mountain biker should be able to comfortably deadlift at least 1 – 1.5 times their body weight.

      Reply • June 8 at 10:58 am
  4. Dave says:

    James, you say you should be able to comfortably deadliest at least 1-1.5 times their body weight, which is fair enough. But when following your programs, the majority of the time the exercises are single leg dead lifts rather than the ‘normal’ deadliest – what would you say you should be able to comfortably SLDL for an equivalent?

    Reply • June 11 at 8:19 am
    • bikejames says:

      I don’t like heavy SLDL’s because they can put a lot of shearing force on the SI joint so I’m not real sure. Doing them in the 4-8 rep range is fine, as are the single leg version but heavy singles can get scary. Just my opinion…

      Reply • June 16 at 5:37 am
  5. Dave says:

    that should of course read dead lift not deadliest :o)

    Reply • June 12 at 10:18 pm

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