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No More Weakly Warriors – Stronger

No More Weakly Warriors – Stronger

Carrying on from Part 1 of the series, in this instalment we are going to talk about the granddaddy king of fitness for mountain biking; strength.

Words: Chris Kilmurray

Chris Kilmurray putting one of his athletes - 2013 Junior World Champion Tahnee Seagrave - to the test.
Chris Kilmurray putting one of his athletes – 2013 Junior World Champion Tahnee Seagrave – to the test.

Once again we will be trying to avoid the quagmires of arguments and opinions on strength training for cyclists by keeping things straight-up-and-simple and by never forgetting that we are mountain bikers not road cyclists; there is a whole load more to strength and its benefits to you than just pedaling performance.

What is the meaning of ‘Strong’?

So what exactly does it mean to be strong? Well, first off it doesn’t mean big. Having what look like large muscles or lots of muscle mass doesn’t mean an individual can co-ordinate their movement to create decent amounts of force never mind actual apply it in such a technically demanding sport as MTB. It’s the ability to co-ordinate the creation of force from your muscles in efficient movement patterns that is the real basis of strength. Basically:

Before we move often we must move well

With that said, the first port of call for any MTBer looking to build strength (or any other physical fitness goal) is to make sure they have adequate mobility or stability around all joints and moving parts of their body.

We’ll look at how to ‘train’ mobility later on in the article but, simply put, without the adequate mobility or stability in your body quality movement is not possible and without quality movement applying force is a lot harder to do especially when meeting the other demands the trail throws up at you!

Poor movement (read excess looseness, tightness, stiffness etc..) will not only lead to a loss of energy through ‘energy leaks’ but it will also create problems in other areas of the body that try to compensate for the lack of or increase in range of motion in another area. For example, very tight hips from lots of driving, seated cycling, sitting in general can cause major problems in the lower back or knees (the joints either side of the offending hip).

Creating quality movement is not as clear-cut as being flexible though. Case in point: the lumbar (lower) spine needs to be primarily stable and strong, to move very little. While the hip joint needs to have large range of motion for adequate health and function.

As mentioned above we’ll cover how to address poor mobility later on. A simple 10 minutess four times a week can be life changing, especially to your technique on the bike.

Back to strength

Enough beating around the bush, let’s talk strength: the ability to apply force against an external resistance.

That’s the definition but when we talk ‘strength training’ we are not only talking about improving the ability of the muscles to produce force but training to co-ordinate and apply that force/strength correctly and in a way that will really benefit you on the bike.

Yeti's Cam Cole is another of Chris's athletes and sure is one tough cookie. Here he races in a Superenduro event.
Yeti’s Cam Cole is another of Chris’s athletes and sure is one tough cookie. Here he races in a Superenduro event.

How does that work then? Well we start with a full body, “global” approach to strength. Your body is one unit and likes to act as such. Bodybuilding is a sport in its own right and training “body-parts” as those fine big lads and lassies do will not benefit you on your pushbike. (Weight machines are a waste of a mountain bikers’ time.)

An effective strength training program for a mountain biker should train the torso (I prefer that word to core) to resist movement, like when you get cross-rutted hammering an alpine descent or standing strong in the rough stuff but also to create strong movement, like pushing hard through the bars right from your hips to eek out maximum grip on that loose off-camber.

It should train the upper and lower body to create movement in patterns that will transfer over to your riding, simply, pushing and pulling whether that is horizontally or vertically in the upper body or through your hips and knees in the lower body. Think about how hard you are pulling on the bars to bunny-hop or how hard you drive your weight into the pedals to soak up that big hit on the DH bike.

There should also be a single-sided (unilateral) component to your upper and lower body training and, like we discussed, a mobility and flexibility portion that you can integrate into your warm-up and cool-down that will also work on unilateral deficits like one leg being stronger or more ‘balanced’ than the other. As mentioned, this can wreak havoc and cause all sorts of energy leaks and technique problems.

Bottom line: What we want from a strength training program is simple – improvements on the bike!

Once you go beyond a bodybuilding or Cross-fit type program and create a strength program that will address your weaknesses on the bike and enhance your strengths then you’ve hit the Holy Grail.

Being strong will allow you to maintain perfect riding posture all day, all ride long it will allow you to hammer on the pedals with ease while standing or sitting. It creates a perfect platform for you execute all techniques.

Think about pumping backside on the trail, exploding off a lip, ripping a turn, tracking true and straight through the gnarliest roots, rocks or breaking bumps – being strong will make all of that possible if you struggle in those areas or make it even faster, safer and more fun if you don’t.

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  1. andywaterman

    This is interesting – you’d recommend doing body saws before the heavy lifting? I’d always read that because you engage core so much in things like squats and DL’s, you should put ‘core’ exercises last. But that would have been in pure strength training books.

  2. Chris - Point1

    Hi Andy,

    I’d never recommend the exact same protocol or training methods/means for everyone. In this article I tried to give a good example of what a pretty effective strength training program would look like and hopefully show the reader that if they are being told to hit the bicep curls and leg extension machine then maybe they are doing themselves a dis-service or worse paying someone to do it!

    I do totally agree with you in that on a day when max effort, low rep or max strength work was the goal then I’d put any direct torso work after the major lifts and in many cases I’d maybe just do the activation work and then attack the heavy lifts and leave it at that because as you have already pointed out the training effect gained via deadlifts, front squats etc.. for the torso/core is substantial.

    For building decent strength and also gaining some general conditioning and all around “work capacity” (something very important in my view for the MTBer)then the above example has worked great for my athletes and myself.

    Horses for courses though and many times the novice lifer (which most mtbers are) would gain more then adequate strength gains from just deadlifts, turkish get-ups and some balance of upper body rowing and pushing!

    Maybe the above session is more of a capacity builder then a pure max strength session. But likewise when on your bike you don’t get a choice as to when the trail demands larger strength or stabilisation efforts and many times producing large amounts of force while fatigued (think stage 5 on day two of an enduro) is what is required of you.

    So as with everything in training we’ll just agree on the principles! Principles are few, methods and means many.

  3. serge the seal of death

    Your example sounds very much like a Circuits routine.
    must try and make the time during the colder months

    1. Chris - Point1

      Hey Serge,

      The sample program I have listed is not to be completed in a circuit format but a Super Set format.

      So you would pair the first two movements together as A1 and A2 complete all sets and reps then move on to the next two movements as B1 and B2, completing all sets and reps in this manner with your rest periods between both the sets and the movements until you finish the lat rep of the lat movement which would be D2.

      Hopefully that’s clear and simple to understand?


  4. dave copy, paste, change a few words

    1. Chris - Point1

      Hi Dave. I’m sure if you are implying plagiarism on my behalf or James Wilson’s?

      We probably share many similar ideas on the value and place of strength training for MTB. Maybe because we have studied and learned from the same or similar people and institutions/resources? Also the “direction” that Strength training has gone in the last decade will has left us all realising that quality movement is needed before we start to work on improving force production.

      The fact that you see similarities in my thoughts on strength training for MTB with those of James Wilson then that’s actually a good thing. Principles are few, methods and means are many!

  5. Frye Boots Sale

    Think about how hard you are pulling on the bars to bunny-hop or how hard you drive your weight into the pedals to soak up that big hit on the DH bike.

  6. Big Al

    Is the 3 x 5 2min, 3 sets of 5 reps with 2mins rest?

    1. Chris - Point1

      Hey Al, yes you are correct. With 2 min being the minimum recommended rest.

  7. Big+Al

    Cheers Chris, don’t worry about the internet negative twats on here. Why they bother knocking free advice is beyond me.


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