Top 5 MTB Exercises Every Rider Should Do
By James Wilson
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.
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 is the owner MTB Strength Training Systems, the word's only company dedicated to developing strength and conditioning programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. His clients include the current US National DH Champ Aaron Gwin. James currently owns a training facility in Grand Junction CO and is the strength coach for the Yeti World Cup Team. You can find more tips and training info at his blog www.BikeJames.com.