Mountain Biking is a rough sport. Hitting high speed jumps, railing berms, and plowing through tech takes a combination of both strength and stability to stay centered on the bike. As riders progress in skill and speed, it takes dedicated work off the bike to improve their performance on the trails. Strength training may also decrease the risk of both overuse and traumatic injuries and keep people riding pain-free. Riders of any skill level, from beginners to pros, can benefit from mountain bike specific strength training.
Mountain bikers are athletes. To truly improve our riding and benefit from a strength program we have to train with purpose. If a novice rider did a 8 week strength program of just bicep curls and skullcrushers, chances are they will be amazing at bicep curls and skullcrushers, but not be any faster on the bike. As mountain bikers we have to train for how we ride. Our strength programs have to recreate and refine our movements on the bike. That way we can transfer the gains made in the gym into performance on the trails. This article talks about the “why and how” to train as a mountain biker and highlights a few of the fundamental exercises that will help you shred!
This is the most important position in mountain biking. Every skill is built off of Ready Position. This has to become second nature to progress as a rider. In Ready Position, the rider is centered in the bike and constantly adjusting their position based on the terrain. As we start to ride faster and more challenging terrain, we have to work harder to resist the forces from the trail. There are several key exercises that help refine that movement and build strength and stability in Ready Position.
Hip Hinge: While not a true “strength” exercise, this movement teaches proper body positioning and is fundamental to mountain biking, weightlifting, and all other sports. Being able to hip hinge is mandatory to get into Ready Position. Hip hinging also engages your glutes and your core muscles to generate more power and stability into your movements. Instructions:
- Start with your knees slightly bent
- Tighten your core, flatten your spine
- Lower your chest by bending from your hips (push your butt back)
- You may use a stick to help with form. Make sure the stick is completely flush along your spine
Deadlift: Once you’ve mastered the hip hinge, the deadlift is the best bang-for-your-buck exercise for riding. It recruits your quads, glutes, hamstrings, core, and shoulder stabilizing muscles to generate power and stability. The deadlift also refines your movement patterns and trains stability during key movements like Ready Position and the “hip drive” during manuals and gate-starts. Due to these benefits, the deadlift can really improve your ability to shred!
- Place feet shoulder width apart, pointed forward/slightly out
- Hip Hinge: Lower your chest by bending from your hips and slightly from the knees
- Grip the bar with your arms slightly outside your knees
- Tighten your core, flatten your spine
- Set the shoulder blades: Pull your shoulder blades down and inwards
- Hip Drive: As you raise to the top, bring/thrust your hip towards the barPhoto credit to: Pinkbike.com
Side note: It’s important to master the exercise form first before increasing weight, especially with deadlifts! Lifting too heavy too soon compromises the movement pattern, which is both ineffective for training and has a high risk of injury!
Being able to pull is crucial to riding aggressively. Lifting the front wheel up to clear an obstacle, the “hip drive” for manualing, popping and boosting off the lip of a jump are all pulling motions on the handlebars.
Bent over row: This is a great exercise to work on the scapular muscles and shoulder and core stabilizers. Bonus: This exercise requires hip hinging, reinforcing mountain bike movement patterns!
Photo credit to: Stronglifts.com
- Start in a hip hinge
- Keep the core engaged/spine flat
- Grip the bar, at this lowest point the shoulder/shoulder blade should be “hanging” and slightly rounded
- In one smooth motion, pull the shoulder blades down towards your butt and inward together as you bring the bar towards your belly button
- Stop when your elbows reach the torso
The “Row” is actually not as simple as it looks! I see many athletes/weightlifters perform them improperly. Most people just pull the bar using only their arms and tense their neck inadvertently, making it a biceps and upper trapezius exercise. This is not the goal of the row and can actually be detrimental to performance! Most people already have overdeveloped upper trapezius, leading to neck and shoulder tightness/pain. By focusing on pulling your shoulder blades down and together as you row, it targets the scapular muscles and makes it a true back exercise! You never want to hike your shoulders up and tense your neck while riding. When pulling on the handlebars, the power comes from shifting your weight and pulling through the shoulder blades, followed by the arms.
Just like pulling, pushing movements are equally important for aggressive riding. Driving the front wheel into a berm, pumping rollers, and nosing the bike downwards while landing a jump are all pushing movement patterns. Absorbing a hard landing is also the “negative” (eccentric) version of the push movement.
Push-ups: Most people are familiar with push-ups, but a proper push up has some subtleties that can make or break the exercise. We also want to make it more mountain bike-specific and recreate the “push” motion on the handlebars.
- Get into a plank position with the pelvis tucked back (core engaged)
- Hand placement:
- Match the width of your hands to your handlebar width (if this feels uncomfortable consider changing your handlebar width)
- Rotate your hands/arms so that your elbows are slightly lower than shoulder level (approx. 45-60 degree angle at shoulder)
- Chest should be directly over your hands
- At the top of the push up, round your shoulder blades (protract)
- At the bottom, stop when your chest reaches inline with your elbows (don’t go past your elbows)
- Regression: Incline push ups on a table or counter
- Wrist issues: if you have trouble placing weight through your wrists, hold onto push-up handles or larger dumbbells. This allows you to perform them with your wrists in a neutral position.
In the ready position, our elbows are rarely at shoulder level. To ride aggressively, you want your elbows “out”, but going to shoulder level (90 degree angle) is an awkward and weak position. Even elite riders’ elbows are still lower than shoulder height. This is the more powerful and stable position and the push-up should reflect that. Push-ups at shoulder height can also be more stressful to the shoulder and could cause discomfort to those with shoulder injuries. Lastly, matching your hand width to your handlebar width helps translate the pushing motion from the push-up directly onto the bike.
The ability to resist trail forces and stay centered on the bike. The heart of mountain bike skills, especially aggressive riding. Core, gluteal, and shoulder strength combined with balance all work together to stabilize your body when riding.
The following exercises work a combination of balance, strength and stability that will help you charge harder through rough terrain!
Single leg Deadlift: This hip hinge progression strengthens the glutes and hamstrings, works on spinal posture/stability, and seriously challenges your balance!
- Start on one leg with your knee slightly bent
- Tighten your core, flatten your spine
- Hip hinge: Lower your chest by bending from your hips (but don’t bend the knee any lower)
- Think about lifting the back leg towards the ceiling
- May use a stick to help with form
- Progression: add weight or stand on an uneven surface (bosu ball, balance board, etc.)
Anti-Rotations: Just like the name implies, the goal of this exercise is to resist rotation from the body. It strengthens the core, especially the obliques, and with different progressions it can challenge the stability of your balance and glutes as well!
- Start in athletic stance (feet shoulder width, knees bent, butt back, spine flat, chest low)
- Hold the handle of a cable/resistance band close to your abdomen
- Step out placing tension in the cable
- Press the cable forward and resist the trunk/pelvis from twisting.
- Hold for time then return to starting position
- Progressions: place a resistance band around the knees, stand on a bosu ball.
There are numerous exercises that can help you get stronger and more comfortable on the bike. The exercises listed are just some examples that can recreate on-the-bike movement patterns. How you train is essential to making gains in the gym. Mountain bike specific training is important in order to translate those gains made in the gym to your ability to shred on the trails. Strength training not only improves athletic performance, but also decreases your risk of injury as well. Hopefully these principles will help you move better as a mountain biker and have more fun on the trails!