Top 3 Strength Training Exercises for Mountain Biking

Strength training for the MTB world has been slow to catch up to the unique and highly physical demands of our sport. Today’s average rider rips up trails that just 5-6 years ago would have been considered extreme and today’s extreme rider…well, let’s just say that they continue to defy all logic in their quest to progress our sport. Considering how fast our sport has evolved in such a short period of time it really comes as no surprise that most MTB specific strength and conditioning programs are stuck in the time when cantilever brakes were still viable options and anodized purple was a highly sought after fashion statement (not that there is anything wrong with that).

Today’s MTB world is not simply road riding on a dirt road. Muscling a 30-35 pound bike around on a technical trail requires a far different skill set and physical attributes than MTB riders needed at the turn of the century. As such, routines and exercise selection needs to reflect this fact. With this in mind, let’s review what I consider to be the top 3 exercises for the XC/ trail rider to include in their program (besides the deadlift, of course, which is a must for every rider).

1) Bulgarian Split Squat – You may have noticed that this one also made my top 3 list for explosive gate starts. One of the best things about this exercise is that, when done correctly, it serves as both a great uni-lateral leg exercise and a great hip flexor stretch. Prop your trail leg up on a bench, make sure that you start with your torso completely upright with your shoulders and hips square. Lower yourself under control (don’t just turn the muscles off and drop) and make sure that you keep your torso upright and everything square on the way down.

You may notice a tendency to lean over as you lower yourself, indicating weak or inhibited glutes. Leaning over lets you use your low back to help you get back up and should be avoided in order to establish the movement pattern we are looking for. You may also notice that you want to let your hips open up as you come down as well. This indicates tight hip flexors and every effort should be made to keep the hips square in order to maximize the stretch on this area during the exercise. Just like everything else with your strength training, it’s not just about going through the motions, it’s about doing the movement pattern correctly in order to get everything we can out of our time investment.

2) Pull Ups/ Chin Ups & VariationsMost XC/ Trail riders are very weak in the upper body. This really takes its toll as the trail gets rougher and the ride gets longer. Having good upper body strength and strength endurance is vital to controlling your bike and maneuvering down the trail. In fact, if more riders worried about getting stronger rather than how to shave a few pounds off their bikes they would be far better served.

Pull Ups, Chin Ups and their variations are a great way to strengthen the upper back and gain good body control. Let me clear up a few things – 1) it is not a chin/ pull up if you do not straighten your arms all the way at the bottom and allow your shoulders to come up by your ears as well. Most people who think that they can do an adequate pull/ chin up are really fooling themselves by not coming all the way down at the bottom. 2) Pull ups indicate that your palms are facing away from you and chin ups indicate that your palms are facing towards you. Both have their place in a program but I almost always start people out with chin ups as they are easier learn how to initiate the movement by pulling the shoulder blades down. 3) If you can do more than 8 reps in a set then strap some weight to yourself.

Adding more reps will only start to work on short term strength endurance and we want to get stronger through strength training (imagine that). Strength endurance should be addressed in the overall program but not when we are looking to add real strength. I can personally do a chin up with more weight than I can bench (bodyweight of 180 lbs. plus 95 lbs. strapped to me) and I feel that every MTB rider should be able to do the same.

3) Kettlebell Shoulder PressAs I have already commented on, most MTB riders need some more upper body strength and the standing shoulder press is one of the best exercises available for strengthening the pressing muscles. Over the last few decades there has been a real decline in the use of the standing press in strength training programs. Most have shied away from it for injury concerns reasons (I think ego is more of a factor since you can bench far more than you can press over your head). This is extremely unfortunate since, when done correctly, the standing military press will not only add upper body strength, it will actually help injury proof the torso and shoulders as well.

If you make sure that you keep the torso strong with no backward lean when pressing over your head then you not only protect the lower back, you help strengthen the torso like few other exercises can. Pressing over your head also forces all of the muscles around your shoulder to fire in order to stabilize the entire shoulder during the lift, helping to injury proof this area as well. Both of these areas are trouble spots for bikers during long, pounding rides with a heavy hydration pack strapped to them. The kettlebell shoulder press builds true functional upper body strength in a very efficient package.

There you have it, the Top 3 Strength Training Exercises for your average XC/ Trail riders. You guys make up the bulk of the riding world and can gain a lot from a good strength and conditioning program. For a long time now the bike industry has mislead you by making you think that a new bike or a new part will make the biggest difference on the trail when it is the engine that drive the bike that makes the real impact. Getting stronger will allow you to ride harder, faster and longer, adding up to more fun on the trail. Isn’t that what it’s all about anyways?

-James Wilson-

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  1. Mike says:


    Although you did not post it here I have seen that you recommend dead lifts to improve speed while climbimg. I am curious as to why you say that since for me personally after a long ride on the traik its my quads tha are sore and not so much my hamstrings which is what the deadlifts seem to wirout the most. Also I notice that you argue that standing while pedaling is better than sitting and spinning. Do you feel there is certain climb for that? I personally stand and climb for the steep and sometimes technical climbs but for the long steady climbs I just sit and spin at a steady pace so I can save some beans for the rest of the trail. Do you recommend getting out of the saddle for every hill? I think that would be very taxing.

    Reply • January 11 at 10:13 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      If you sit down most of the time then you will be most comfortable with a quad dominant sitting style of pedaling, if you stand most of the time you will get comfortable with a hip dominant standing style. Personally, I stand on almost all climbs and find it very uncomfortable to sit and spin and my quads don’t get very sore, it is always my hamstrings and glutes. I used to lower my seat and leave it down, forcing me to stand on all climbs and forcing myself to use standing climbing made me strong with standing climbing. If you watch strong pro riders they stand up much more than regular riders – not all the time but far more than most. Standing and seated climbing are two different ways to pedal, one does not transfer over to the other and you have to practice standing to build your standing endurance.

      I was talking to a road cycling coach who told me he does the same thing – he has developed his standing climbing to the point that he stands for most of every climb. We both get told that it will wear us out but we are both still waiting for that to happen, once you get strong with it there is no going back. That is also why I recommend deadlifts instead of squats – they build the movement you need to get better at standing climbing.

      Reply • January 12 at 7:43 am
      • Maureen says:

        I didn’t know that the deadlift will help my standing climb. I think the hill climb stresses my knees (they fill with fluid). I wonder what is less stress on the knees. Standing or sitting.

        Reply • May 22 at 4:36 pm
  2. Francis says:

    Hello James,

    And the KB swing?
    Isn’ t it the mother of all general strength excercises?
    What should be the goal for the KB press? Is 5 x 5 with 24 kg acceptable?
    Btw, verry usefull info on your site. Keep doing the good work !

    Reply • January 12 at 11:01 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The swing is a dynamic deadlift so you have to own the deadlift first. It is the mother of general strength exercises and the swing is the mother of the ballistic exercises. Most riders need to work on the hip hinge movement and get strong with it before getting into the swing which is why I included the deadlift and not the swing.

      If you can do 5X5 with 24kg presses then you are doing really well, the standard at the RKC certification was 1 set of 5. Glad you like the blog, hope it helps you enjoy riding more…

      Reply • January 12 at 2:42 pm
  3. Chris Q says:

    Sound Advice James!

    I’m just starting to appreciate the full genuis of the bulgarian split squat for mountain biking. I had a hip assymetry issue for a long time there and I just couldn’t get the split squat to work, but I found a huge moment of clarity in Gray Cook’s book “Movement” and some practical advice from Pavel about “zipping up” and all of a sudden I’m in a position to exploit the bulgarian split squat and in terms of riding like you mean it, this exercise is a game changer.


    Reply • January 13 at 2:10 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for sharing – it is amazing how much understanding more about your body and how it moves can impact the results from your program. You can not just look at your program as a list of exercises to get through so you can go home, there are movement lessons behind each one that you should be learning so you can apply it to your bike.

      Reply • January 13 at 6:12 am
  4. WAKi says:

    Hi James

    How is it with “suspecting what should i focus on now?”. I mean I feel that my lower back and glutes got stronger after almost second month of 4day a week training according to your progam, I’m pretty happy with their current “performance”. Cardio is a bit behind but fine, what troubles me at the moment is quads which get blown before everything else does while uphilling. Should I focus on different squats, get ups, leg press, sprints? Or just follow the recipe and just try to improve quality of my training?

    Reply • January 13 at 7:28 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Stand up more on climbs, sitting will always target the weaker quads more. It also takes a few years to really build the movement and endurance you need to better tap into the hips. BTW, which one of my programs are you currently following? Just curious…

      Reply • January 15 at 10:29 am
  5. Michael says:

    James, my question relates more to the frequency of strength training. If you ride 3-4 time a week, how do you integrate your strength training? The issue I have is if I were to do dead lifts one day (or any other type of leg strengthening exercise), this would seem to hamper my ability to ride the next. What is your recommendation for balancing riding with strength training?

    Apologies if this has been answered in the past but I’m new to your site.
    Thank you

    Reply • January 14 at 12:41 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      If you do 2 sets of 5 reps with a weight that you can get 8 reps with your legs won’t get that sore. The problem comes when you try to apply the bodybuilding mindset to sport training – doing a low volume of strength work spread out over several days will get you strong without making you too sore. Doing a high volume of strength training and taking everything to failure is what gets you sore.

      Also, the more you do an exercise the less sore you get from it so don’t change exercises every program but instead focus on the same basic movements and switch the sets and reps up. Check out the book The Naked Warrior by Pavel to get an idea on the mindset you need to get strong without getting too sore. Hope this helps, thanks for checking the blog out and I hope it helps you enjoy riding more…

      Reply • January 15 at 10:32 am
  6. WAKi says:

    Hi James, I am using UMTBW 3.0 – bought it December 2010. Currently week 6 Phase 1.5 – 4day a week / 3 day a week program depending on my newborn’s mood 🙂

    It might be the right reason what you are saying. Before I took your program I was very weak in my lower back, I wasn’t doing standing pedalling because I was just getting pains quickly, and after it started hurting for good, I was done, I could barely walk. So well I am actualy riding standing a much as I can since a year (10 years in the saddle)

    Thanks! I guess it’s just to be patient and concentrate on qualitative exercising.

    Reply • January 16 at 6:13 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, patience is key. We grow up in a “right now” world and forget that while training can have an immediate impact on our riding it can take years for some things to really take root. Another thing to keep in mind is that more is not better all the time and, as the father of a kid myself, sometimes training a little less gives me more energy for the trail. Thanks for the all the input in the blog…

      Reply • January 16 at 6:26 am
  7. VScM says:

    Here are two videos of Team Nicolai riders doing a lot of standing pedaling (on flat pedals). Pretty impressive. Lots of types of terrain covered. Prime examples of the application of strength, power and core integration in pedaling that James is describing in the blog write ups and videos.


    I’m guessing that for most of the mtn bike community struggling to do more standing pedaling it is combination of creating a better physical application in the position coupled with breaking the habit of sitting and spinning. It makes more sense to stand than to sit on the climbs because of the increase in musculature available to power to bike. The glutes are the powerhouse of the body; don’t waste them by leaving them on your saddle.

    Reply • January 17 at 9:35 am
  8. Albert says:

    I like what I am seeing. I just started strength training to improve my biking. I started a program called velocity, that works on explosive power. I was not sure if this would help my biking. It looks like it will. We do lots of exercises to Target the quad and glut. I am guessing push UPS are another great exercise for bikers is that right?

    Reply • January 17 at 10:38 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I could come up with a dozen Top 3 lists and push ups would be on some of those lists.

      Reply • January 18 at 8:41 am
  9. Jon says:

    Hi James,

    I’ve recently read Convict Conditioning (which I know you’re a fan of) and noticed some significant differences, to your own suggestions, in the recommended form for some exercises. In particular the shoulder press and chin-up as discussed above. I hope I do a good job of summarising the differences below.

    Regarding the shoulder press CC recommends against flaring the elbows when pressing, instead keeping the elbows in front of the body. CC is also against bringing the weight down to the chest, instead limiting the range of motion to the upper part of the movement. Both of these actions are cited is CC as being the cause of injuries when pressing (and avoided with the recommended handstand push-up, not that I can do one of those yet).

    With the chin-up CC is against bringing the shoulders to the ears in the bottom position (again to avoid shoulder injuries) and in limiting to motion to just bringing the chin over the bar as further movement no longer uses the lats, and so limits strength gains.

    I was interested in your response to these points.


    Reply • January 18 at 3:39 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Good points, those videos are a few years old and there are a few things I do a bit differently. On the shoulder presses, I don’t flare the elbows out at the bottom as much but I still flare them out as I reach the top, resulting in my biceps being lined up with my ears at the top.. However, I still think that full range of motion shoulder presses are not “bad” for your shoulders, not knowing how to drive from the lats out of the bottom is bad for your shoulders.

      On the chin ups I don’t think that letting the shoulders come up all the way is necessary, however letting them come up a bit helps promote full extension of the elbows at the bottom and puts a pre-stretch on the lats which will help recruit them to initiate and drive the movement. Also, pulling the collarbone to the bar is not going to hurt anything and from a practical standpoint if you ever need to pull yourself up and over a wall or onto a something you will need to be able to get more than just your chin over the bar.

      Coach Wade had some very good points in the Convict Conditioning book and I agree with 90% of it but I still have my own ideas on a few things based on my own experience and things I have learned from other resources. I’m not saying he is “wrong” but at the end of the day you don’t want to blindly follow anyone’s advice, including mine. Read from a lot of different sources, practice the lifts both ways and see what conclusions you come to.

      Reply • January 18 at 8:36 am
  10. Lisa says:

    The Bulgarian Split Squat has really helped! I had torn my ACL in my right knee and even though Im back to full strength riding, my right quad is not as built as my left. These squats really help target and help my right leg catch up to my left.

    Reply • January 18 at 11:42 am

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James Wilson
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