September
20

Top 5 MTB Exercises You Should Always Do

Becoming a great mountain biker is all about building strength, power and mobility in the right areas. While the general fitness fanatic (for whom the gym is their sport) can get away with a shotgun approach to building a training program, you need a more specific direction. Laying our strength and fitness on top of the foundational movements we need on the trail is the key to maximizing the transfer from gym time to riding time.

As a mountain biker who needs a more specialized skill set, mastering and getting ridiculously strong on these 5 exercises is better than merely being proficient on a laundry list of more random choices.

In order to make sure that you are addressing these critical areas, here are the Top 5 MTB Exercises that should always be in a mountain biker’s program.

1) Turkish Get Up: This is one of those exercises that you look at and think “what does this have to do with mountain biking”? Well, when you break down each of the 7 individual movements that make up the whole TGU you see that there is a lot of core strength, hip mobility and shoulder stability needed. All of these things are needed to build a strong, injury resistant mountain biker.

There are two more “bonuses” that come with the TGU. First, each if the 7 movements can be done as an individual exercise, allowing you to work around current injuries or to target weak areas. Second, doing 3 to 5 reps of the TGU equals 42-70 individual movements (7 movements per rep both up and down) and takes a relatively long time to complete. To get truly strong you will have to learn how to control your breathing while staying strong, a skill that will help you a lot on the trail.

2) Single Leg Deadlift: The single leg version of the better known two legged exercise, this movement is about as “mountain biker specific” as you can get. The ability squat down on one leg by driving your hips back and down while keeping your spine straight and chest puffed out is the most important lower body movement on the trail. Getting strong on this exercise will make riding switch foot feel more stable and greatly increase your standing pedaling strength.

For most riders starting out with bodyweight will be plenty and you may need to work on your hip mobility before you’re able to really do this exercise well. Just remember that how you do the exercise is far more important than how much weight you lift so stick with little to no weight until your mobility and core strength are built up. However, once you’ve got it down then you want to add load, starting with holding a dumbbell and working up to pulling a bar off the ground.

3) Chin Up: Mountain bikers are notoriously weak in their upper backs which helps lead to the forward shoulder posture so common at the trail head. While a lot of riders can do a few chin ups, don’t pat yourself on the back just yet – you should be able to do reps with 20-50+ pounds held between your legs. Getting that strong on this exercise will help balance the upper body muscles, build grip strength and make rough trails feel much less taxing.

I recommend primarily using a chin up grip, which is when you have your hands 8-12 inches apart with your palms facing you. This grip is stronger and easier to drive the shoulders down away from your ears while pulling up, leading to more strength and better results. Doing this will really get your shoulder blades engaged, which is critical to getting the most out of this valuable exercise.

4) Push Up: The push up is all at once the most common and the least respected of all upper body exercises. While I use more common pressing exercises like bench press and DB bench press, the fact that you are lying down makes them less specific for mountain biking. You have to use your core to create the platform for your upper body on your bike and the push up lets us work on the core-pressing muscles connection.

While it is the first thing that most people start out with, it is rarely perfected and pushed to extreme levels. A push up only counts in my facility if your hands are placed just outside of your shoulders, your body remains perfectly straight and your chest touches the ground. Once you can knock out perfect bodyweight reps with no problems you can start exploring the other push up variations including placing your feet on a stability ball and using a weight vest.

5) Deadlift: The deadlift works on the “hip hinge” movement pattern that separates balanced, efficient movement on the bike from unbalanced, injury causing movement. This primal movement pattern is the basis for your body position, your pedaling power and your ability to corner, manual, bunny hop and jump properly. Without command of this movement pattern and a good deal of strength in it you will struggle to consistently progress as a rider.

Far from just being a lower body exercise, the deadlift works on grip strength, shoulder stability, core strength and the ability to drive from the hips and not from the low back. These are all essential qualities of a good, injury proof rider and no other exercise is as efficient in delivering results as this one. Once you have developed your technique on the regular deadlift then adding in the kettle bell swing (basically a dynamic deadlift) will help with your results on the trail.

Each of these exercises have regressions and progressions, meaning that you should be able to employ all of these exercises on some level no matter what you experience or strength levels. These are the cornerstone exercises that build the foundation of a great rider. As a mountain biker who needs a more specialized skill set, mastering and getting ridiculously strong on these 5 exercises is better than merely being proficient on a laundry list of more random choices. Keep that in mind when designing you next training program and you’ll see the results where it matter most – on the trail.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Scott says:

    Thanks for posting James. I’m currently doing your DB Combos workout and your core activation sequence. How do I incorporate these?

    Reply • September 20 at 5:25 pm
    • bikejames says:

      A lot of the exercises are there in some form. The Get Up Sit Up is the first exercise in the TGU progression, the Bulgarian split squats are in line with the single leg deadlift and push ups are in the combo drill. Because of equipment restrictions with a DB only program I couldn’t program chin ups and deadlifts but if you wanted to do 2 sets of 5 reps of them on off days it wouldn’t hurt.

      Reply • September 21 at 4:17 pm
  2. Jason Murray says:

    James I’ve done all of these exercises, with great results.

    20-50 lbs on a pull up, I’ll have to test that one. I have freakishly long arms and those levers make pull ups (and pressing) with much weight difficult to achieve.

    But I was more interested in what you have to say about explosive exercise like snatch and cleans. My trainer has had me do them in different variations over the past 3 years. “Standard,” single arm, split stance, squat snatch (currently). I have gotten much more explosive that’s for sure. But in your opinion do you think it translates well to the bike?

    PS I ride mostly XC, but have been getting into DJs and the pump track lately.

    Reply • September 20 at 6:03 pm
    • bikejames says:

      I like them but they don’t really work the hip hinge to the same degree as the kettle bell swing and some of the snatch and clean variations you can do. I did an OL intensive phase and while I got stronger on the lifts I actually felt like I lost some command and pop out of my attack position on the bike. If I do use them I like a clean grip snatch but overall I don’t like the traditional OL lifts as much as some of the kettle bell exercises.

      BTW, you can get pretty strong on the chin ups even with long arms, just wanted to throw that out there so you don’t let it hold you back.

      Reply • September 21 at 4:14 pm
  3. Tom says:

    James,
    I was curious as to why you prefer chin ups over pull ups? I thought pull ups were always harder and worked your upper back more and rely less on your biceps.

    Reply • September 21 at 8:34 am
    • bikejames says:

      The main reason that I like chin ups is because they are easier on your shoulders and that they let you engage the upper back muscles better. I really coach letting your shoulders come up by your ears and then driving them down away from the ears to initiate the pull. You can do it with a pull up grip but it is easier to learn with the chin up grip. I use a lot of grips and variations but the chin up is the first one I teach and the one I use to test for strength levels.

      Reply • September 21 at 4:06 pm
  4. Kevin Teague says:

    I just completed a big XC race this weekend, and I’ve been doing all 5 exercises for great benefit. However, I felt like my calf muscles were the weakest link. With three upper body exercises in your top 5, is that because you don’t feel that calf exercises provide that much benefit, or is this more a case of calf work being in the top 6 or top 10?

    Reply • September 21 at 7:59 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Two suggestions…first, make sure that you are foam rolling your calves. If they are full of trigger points they will fatigue quickly and extra calf work may make the situation worse. Second, I like single leg jump rope for building calf stamina. Get to where you can do 50 reps on each leg about as fast as you can with two legs and you’ll feel it on the trail.

      Reply • September 22 at 4:12 pm
  5. Joe says:

    James,
    On the deadlift… I know of a few friends that say they hurt their back doing deadlifts and unfortunately still have back issues to this day. I keep hearing the benefits of deadlifts (even in other sports) and would really like to try it. Are all these stories of people hurting their back with deadlifts unfounded ? It’s easy to say that their technique may be wrong or lifting too much weight, but the real question is.. “How do you do this exercise safely, with proper technique and the right amount of weight, when you do not have a personal coach sitting beside you ?”

    Reply • September 23 at 6:51 am
    • bikejames says:

      Must have missed your question, sorry about that. Here is a great article on how to pattern the hip hinge movement pattern needed for deadlifting.

      http://www.dragondoor.com/articler/mode3/557/

      Use that advice to make sure that you are doing the movement right and then watch my deadlifting video on how to turn the movement into an exercise. It sounds like your friends tried to exercise the movement before they owned it.

      Reply • February 8 at 12:46 pm
  6. scott says:

    James,

    I have a followup to Joe’s question above. Your video on the deadlift provides an excellent description of the movement. Do you have any coaching cues or things we should be thinking of while doing the negative part of the movement (lowering the weight back to the floor)?

    Reply • September 23 at 7:23 am
    • bikejames says:

      Stay tight and follow the same path back down as best as possible.

      Reply • February 8 at 12:46 pm
  7. Chris says:

    Joe,

    I saw your question about the deadlift… the proper weight to use is a weight that will allow you to maintain a “flat” back, while hinging at the hip with a slight knee bend. I don’t believe in using spotters, wraps, etc. when training. If you can’t perform a movement or a lift without those things, then it’s too heavy… plain and simple. So keep the correct technique in mind and crank up the intensity. Locomotion and movement begin at the hips, so i would suggest getting into kettlebells, which are more dynamic and movement based by nature. They are great because it’s dynamic movement, while on your feet… which will recruit all of the “movement” muscle. You will be limited to what your core can handle because the only support comes from having your feet on the ground, as opposed to being supported by a bench or locked into a machine. Hope this helps.

    Chris

    Reply • February 8 at 11:09 am
  8. Nik says:

    I know the post is a bit old but I have a question about it:
    Lately I started doing some pull ups/chin ups on the off days of my DB Combo Program.
    My problem is that when I´m doing pull ups/chin ups my right side/shoulder seems to do more of the work than the left side and also feels more exhausted afterwards. Even when I´m concentrating to keep my body in the centre.
    The same thing occours when I´m doing push ups…

    Do you have any clue how I could avoid that and stress both sides the same?

    Nik

    Reply • May 27 at 7:41 am
    • bikejames says:

      Single arm presses are a great way to work on that, especially single arm shoulder presses done with an emphasis on the “lats” where you actively pull the weight back down as if you were doing a single arm chin up.

      Reply • May 29 at 8:12 am
  9. Susan says:

    Thanks for all of your tips! I’m trying to do as many as I can. I’m really bad at push ups, but I keep trying. I’m noticing some muscles in my arms that were never there before! Don’t know if it’s very ladylike, but I feel stronger. We have a 100 K road race coming up but I’ll be riding my 29er. All of your workouts are really helping!

    Reply • October 24 at 3:19 pm
  10. Josh Ward says:

    James
    How many sets/reps (for each exercise) do you recommend per workout session?

    Reply • August 3 at 9:43 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      A lot of it depends on the exercise itself and your goals for that phase of training. There really isn’t a hard and fast answer to it, wish I had something more concrete but you can look at some of the workout examples I have on the site to see some different ways to use them.

      Reply • August 4 at 2:04 pm

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James Wilson
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Mountain Bike Coach
James Wilson