Should Mountain Bikers Worry About Weight Gain from Strength Training?

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.

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.

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, not your “weight”. 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 glutes (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. In fact, riders adding weight following bodybuilding programs disguised as “mountain bike specific” workouts is one of the reasons weight gain from strength training has gotten a bad reputation – they muscle they added didn’t help them on the trail and so it was simply extra bulk to carry around.

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. HB says:

    I’ve done a bit of the Rippetoe program which is entirely barbell related (rather than machine) and is all low rep (3×5).

    Many would consider that a “bodybuilding” program. Your thoughts?

    Reply • February 27 at 6:12 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I don’t consider his program true bodybuilding programs as much as strength programs adapted for building muscle size. Since the focus in on lower reps and higher muscle tension then the muscle growth is more “functional” than a traditional bodybuilding program of 3X10-15 reps.

      Reply • March 3 at 9:21 am
  2. Yannis Vafeiadis says:

    Hi I’m Yannis from Greece.
    I’m now at the end of the “intro phase”, of one of your KB training programs. That’s almost a month, with four training sessions per week and two (3-4 hour long) trail rides at weekends.
    I have allready added some pounds (four) at my bodyweight, but never felt better on my bike! I ‘ve been able to clear technicall climbing sections, that I used to walk, almost with ease and I can pump more efficiently and for longer, adding momentum-speed, at the downhills.
    So yes, those extra pounds are more than welcomed for me and, as I am still in the very beginning of the program and allready seen huge improvement in my riding, I really can’t wait to add some more!

    Reply • February 28 at 8:58 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience so far, keep me posted on how things go with the rest of the program…

      Reply • March 3 at 9:19 am
  3. Wacek says:

    It is priceless to see a slim roadie on the gym, pushing the same weight on leg press, as some sixpacks with the thigh of double the size.

    Reply • February 28 at 9:14 am
  4. Joe says:

    James, can you elaborate on your low rep vs mid rep vs high rep thinking? I associate low reps with big weights and bulking up. High reps like 15 to 20 are more for endurance and lean muscle mass (what I would think of as functional strength for an mtb’r). 3×10 I think of as a balance of getting stronger and building muscle endurance. As the reps and sets go up, the load goes down.
    I know some of this has to do with rep’ing to failure, which you have us avoid so we keep good form and feel fresh when riding the next day. Obviously training mobility, movement patterns and muscle memory factor into this as well, particularly if we are training at home without access to big weights.

    Reply • February 25 at 9:09 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      It is a bit counter-intuitive but low reps and heavier weights are best for producing strength while minimizing the weight gain. This is because the time under tension isn’t long enough to stimulate muscle growth and your nervous system is targeted, forcing it to become stronger and more efficient. If you look at how athletes in sports with weight classes train and you’ll see a lot of low rep/ low volume training with an emphasis on heavier weights.

      High reps (15-20+) with low weights don’t do much besides build specific short term endurance in the rep range used and build tendon and ligament strength to some degree. While the time under tension is longer, the weight you have to use is so low that it doesn’t stimulate the nervous system to build strength nor does it stress the muscle tissue itself enough to build muscle mass. The idea that high reps and low weight build “lean muscle mass” was something popularized by fat loss people trying to sell their pink dumbbells to women but it has no basis in reality.

      The mid rep range (8-12 or your classic 3 X 10) is in the muscle/ mass building range because you can use some decent weight and the time under tension is long enough that you stimulate the metabolic and structural changes you want to see muscle gain. This is why you see bodybuilders favoring programs with lots of sets in the 8-12 reps range.

      So for us as mountain bikers we want to focus on the lower reps (1-6) while using the other rep ranges as well to round out the program. If you focus on high reps and low weight you won’t get strong and you won’t grow much muscle and if you focus on the mid rep range you will stimulate weight gain without as much strength gain. Neither of these is what you want from your program.

      As far as training at home without heavy weights, you don’t need heavy weights to challenge the body in 1-6 rep range. Using single limb exercises like single leg deadlifts or single leg squats can quickly turn even the lightest load “heavy”. Pavel Tsatsouline has a book called the Naked Warrior where you focus on two exercises – single arm push ups and single leg squats. Not a weight in site and lots of low rep strength work.

      I hope this helps. I’ll be working on an article to explain some of this further, sometimes I forget that there is a lot of misinformation about strength training that trickles over into how we train for mountain biking.

      Reply • February 26 at 10:41 am
      • Joe says:

        Thanks, Coach!

        This is really interesting and helpful information (and a departure from both my high school and college weight training classes). Now it’s got my mind spinning with applying this knowledge. I’m sure you’ll go into this in your forthcoming article.

        Some immediate thoughts:

        I can use high rep body-weight squats and lunges to strengthen the weak tendons around my knees with less risk of injury.

        Does the low volume model still stimulate the metabolism enough to burn more calories at rest throughout the day after a workout like a muscle growth training programs do?

        I need to buy some bigger dumb-bells and kettle-bells and get my workouts done quicker!

        You had already convinced me to progress my chin-up/pull-ups into a useful rep range, which I’ve almost succeeded at (2/3/4 rep ladder currently). Next up: the pistol squat!

        I look forward to your next article on this subject.

        Reply • February 26 at 12:41 pm
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          Glad this helped. As far as low volume programs and burning calories, there is a difference but you would use those two approaches for two different reasons. You can also use a higher volume approach with lower reps by doing more sets, like 10 sets of 3 reps instead of 3 sets of 10. You do the same 30 reps but you end up using more weight which can stimulate muscle growth more than the 3 sets of 10 reps. What results you get from a program are a result of the number of reps used in each set and the total number of reps in the workout.

          Reply • February 26 at 3:43 pm
  5. David says:

    I have found with any weight training program, You are going to gain weight, but lose inches.. I found this to be true with Your programs too.. however, I am seeing more muscle definition, and Mountain bike functional strength than any conventional type program… keep the good stuff flowing coach ! cheers

    Reply • June 7 at 12:32 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      That’s great to hear, glad the programs and your hard work are paying off for you.

      Reply • June 8 at 9:30 am
  6. David Easdown says:

    Ten Kgs over weight ,I’m not running a dropper post to much weight o_O

    Reply • June 7 at 4:12 pm
  7. Michał says:

    Do what do you recomend to burn fat?Ride harder? Intervals?

    Reply • June 7 at 11:22 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The best thing is to get your nutrition in order. You can’t out-train a bad diet and most endurance athletes mistakenly rely too much on carbs to fuel their efforts, which leads to fat gain and trouble dropping weight. I’d suggest the book The Primal Endurance Blueprint for some insights into using training and your diet to become a “fat optimized athlete”, which is the best way to burn fat.

      As far as training goes, things like combo drills and intervals can help – basically stuff that jacks your lactic acid levels through the roof which triggers a growth hormone response which helps burn fat. But remember that more is not better and you need to limit that type of high intensity training to 2-4 sessions a week at the most so you don’t get hurt. Nothing hurts your fat loss efforts like having to sit on the couch because of an injury.

      Reply • June 8 at 9:38 am
  8. PK says:

    What is your opinion on using a trap bar vs straight bar for deadlifts to focus on mtb-specific strength?

    Reply • June 7 at 11:33 am
    • James Wilson says:

      If you have time, check out the Angles 90 deadlift video that I did recently. The trap bar isn’t better or not better. It does allow you to squat the weight more, which can be “safer” if you have someone that has a bad hip hinge (which is essential for MTB), so that they can do the deadlift more safely. With the trap bar, your hands are in a better position and you are more “inside” the weight with a better shoulder position and less low back strain. Using a straight bar with the Angles 90 allows for you to have your hip hinge at the bottom and the top position is better as well.

      Hope this helps. Let me know if you have any follow up questions.

      Reply • June 11 at 6:12 am

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