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
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.
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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