Whether you prefer downhill, cross-country, all-mountain or even cyclocross, you can make yourself a better rider by hitting the gym and working your cycling muscles when you’re not in the saddle.
While there’s no substitute for getting out on the trail and practicing your technique for getting through tight turns and clearing obstacles, technical skills will only take you so far. In fact, you’ll find that some inclines, turns, log rides, and other things you’ll encounter on the trail will require a certain level of strength. You can understand how to clear them and stay on the bike, but if you don’t have the strength and fitness to do it, you’re going to hurt yourself before you get through.
What Can the Gym Do for You?
You probably already know that building anaerobic strength is great for burst efforts, but did you know that lifting weights and doing body-weight exercises can do a lot more than that? They can actually improve your cardiovascular health, increase your metabolism, and help you become a better bike handler, too.
You’ve probably heard that you’ll gain a lot of fitness and benefits for riding off road with regular, long rides on the road. Road riding allows you to get a good cardiovascular workout without beating your body up the way that mountain biking does. Even if money and time were no objects, you physically could not hit the trail every day for your workout and not hurt yourself.
All that said, while road biking will work a lot of the same muscle groups and give you a great aerobic base for your mountain biking, it can’t be your only form of cross-training. If you want to get faster and clear bigger challenges on the trail, you have to spend time in the gym. It’s really the only way to get the results you want.
Why Weight Training For Cycling?
Of course, you won’t get those results if you just go to the gym and hit the spin bikes or the treadmill for an hour. In fact, if we’re being completely honest, with as much cardio as you get on and off the road on your bike, you can all but forget about the cardio machines at the gym.
If you want to see performance and strength improvements on the trail, you need to be working out with weights in the gym. Lifting weights and body-weight resistance training can obviously make you stronger, but it will also increase your basal metabolism, allowing you to burn more calories when you’re at rest and burn them more efficiently when you’re active. Plus, building up the muscles that support your joints can significantly decrease your chances of getting injured on the bike.
Want just one example of why you should be working with weights to get stronger on the bike? Gear mashing. Do you want to be able to grind bigger gears and go faster? Until you build up the muscle strength to do it, if you try to mash up hills in a higher gear, you’re seriously risking injuring your knees. With that muscle strength, though, you can power through anything.
So why use weight training to get that strength instead of just continuing to ride and build it up slowly by pedalling progressively higher gears? It takes way too long! While you’ll build a lot of slow-twitch muscle strength in your legs by riding, it takes time. Plus, you won’t build a lot of fast-twitch muscle on the road bike, and, as we went over just a moment ago, you can’t spend enough time mountain biking to build that muscle efficiently without hurting yourself.
Weight training is the very best way to get faster and smoother in very little time without injury. Not only that, but it also helps prevent injuries. So, now that we’ve gone over why you should be training with weights, let’s talk about your upper body a little bit.
Don’t Skip Arms, Chest, Core, or Back Day
If you have any friends who are really into going to the gym, you’ve definitely already heard the old, “Don’t skip leg day, bro,” jokes, right? Well, for you, every day is leg day, which means one of two things. Either you think that you’re only going to be working on your legs when you go to the gym because they’re the engines that make you go faster. (Wrong.) Or, you think that you don’t need to work on your legs because you work on them every time you’re on the bike. (Also wrong.)
In reality, you need to work and strengthen all of your body’s major muscle groups if you want to see improvements on the trail. Why? Have you ever tried to bunny-hop your bike or roll over a log without tightening your core muscles? I don’t recommend it…because it doesn’t work.
You might not think about engaging your abs and tightening your back, but your body does these things automatically to help you smoothly complete the necessary motion on the bike. It’s pretty mindboggling what your bodies will do while you’re not thinking about it, but you can help yourself out by strengthening the muscles that need to react when you’re navigating a technical portion of trail.
While your legs power you along and keep the bike moving, your arms, chest, and back work to wrestle the handlebars through tight turns. Your core works to keep you stable and balanced, as well, especially through areas where you have to navigate slowly and keep the bike upright through rocks, roots, and ruts in the dirt.
So, while you need to work your glutes, quads, and calves to help you pedal faster, you also need to work your upper body and core to help you manoeuvre through tight spots. The longer you ride, the more you’ll see the advantages of full-body strength workouts. And now that you know the why of it, let’s talk about the how.
These are my favourite mountain bike specific gym routines. They each work roughly the same muscle groups, but they give me some variety, so I never get bored. First we’re going to go through each of the routines and how to do each exercise properly. Then, when we’re done with that, I’ll talk a bit about how to implement them into a regular gym schedule.
Routine 1: Getting Started
I highly recommend this routine for beginners. If you have never lifted weights or done much strength training, these exercises will help you build up to more advanced workouts without hurting yourself. I should point out, though, if at any point you feel pain, stop! Muscle fatigue and soreness are fine, but pain is not. Don’t hurt yourself, or you’ll end up off the bike and in bed with an icepack. And nobody wants that.
For the Getting Started routine, you’ll actually be doing almost all body-weight calisthenics with one exception for dumbbell curls. You’ll be doing five exercises:
Free standing squats
Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed out slightly. Keeping your chest up and your back straight and tight, pretend you’re sitting down in a chair. Keep going down as far as you can. If you can go below chair height, that’s great. If not, just go as low as you can. Keep your chest up and your heels on the ground. You should feel this in your glutes, quads, and core.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes straight ahead. Step forward with one foot. Dip down into a lunge, keeping the knee of your forward foot over your toes. Go as far down as you can and then straighten back up. Repeat ten times on the same side, and on the tenth rep, hold for ten seconds. Switch legs and repeat. These work your quads and hamstrings.
Place your hands beside your chest. If you want to work your biceps more, bring them in closer. If you want to work more on your pectoral muscles, spread your arms out. Keep your back straight. If you can’t do full push-ups, do them on an incline or on your knees.
With weights that you can lift ten times for at least three sets, take two dumbbells. Hold them at your sides with your palms facing forward. Alternating arms and keeping your upper arm pointed at the floor, curl each dumbbell up toward your shoulder until your arm is completely bent and your fist is pointing upward. These work your biceps and triceps
Lie on your stomach with your arms out in front of you. Raise your arms and legs as high as you can. Hold for 30 seconds. These work your lats.
If you’re just starting out, do three sets of ten reps each for the first four exercises. For superman holds, do three sets at 30 seconds each. If you still feel fresh after three sets, do five sets. You can also do all five exercises in a circuit, repeating the entire circuit three to five times.
Routine 2: Getting Stronger
This routine will challenge you a little bit more than the last one, but if you modify the weight and number of sets to your fitness level, you can do this from your first week in the gym.
Use the same motion as your dumbbell curls, but you’ll be working both arms at the same time and lifting a barbell instead of dumbbells.
RDLs (Romanian deadlifts)
Hold the barbell in an overhand position with your palms facing backward and your hands a little more than hip-width apart. Standing upright, the bar should sit just below your hips. Bend your knees just slightly. Keeping your back flat and tight (even a little bit arched), bend at the waist, keeping the close to your legs. Bend over slowly as far as you can go without letting your back go. Return to a standing position. Repeat. These work your lats and hamstrings, as well as your core and triceps.
The same motion as freestanding squats, but hold a kettlebell in front of your chest with one hand on either side of the handle. After a set of ten, if you can, hold for ten seconds at the bottom before you stand up again.
Do the same lunges in Getting Started, but hold dumbbells at your sides while you do them.
Hold one dumbbell in both hands so that both hands are on the grip. Lift your arms straight over your head. Keeping your elbows pointed straight up, let your forearms lower behind you until they are at a 45-degree angle. Lift the dumbbell up until your arms are straight. Repeat.
Do three to five sets of ten of each of these exercises for a great intermediate workout.
Routine 3: Stronger and Stronger!
This routine requires you to have enough strength to do a back squat with a barbell. If you can do that, you can do this one from day one, as well. You’ll be doing three to five sets of ten reps for each exercise unless otherwise specified:
Twenty-ones (barbell curls, modified)
Start doing a barbell curl, but stop halfway up. Do seven reps. On the seventh, stay at the halfway point and go all the way up. Lower the bar back to the halfway point. Do seven reps. Then lower the bar all the way back down and do seven full curls. This is one full set, so it’s okay if you only do two sets of these for a while.
Lie on the floor on your back. Bring your legs up as if you were sitting in a chair. Keeping your back straight, crunch your abdominal muscles to bring your shoulders off the ground as far as you can. If this is too easy, straighten your legs and hold them off the floor. Hold for 30 seconds or as long as you can.
Hold the bar as you would for RDLs. Bring it up to your chest with your elbows out in front of you. Lift the bar straight over your head as high as you can, shrugging your shoulders up, too, while you push your head forward between your arms. Repeat 6-10 times, depending on weight.
Same as freestanding or goblet squats, but do these in a squat rack. Set the barbell up in the rack so that you can walk it in and out so that you don’t have to bend or torque your back. With the bar evenly resting on your shoulders and your arms supporting it, start squatting.
Three Days in the Gym for Faster Rides
To get stronger, faster, and more agile on the bike, just incorporate one of these routines into your gym workout three times per week. If you make sure that you stretch and warm up before you start lifting and then cool down and stretch some more afterward, you won’t get injured, and you will notice serious improvements. If you can believe it, these exercises can make getting muddy on your mountain bike even more fun than it already is. Good luck and happy riding!