Weight training for mountain bikers

Hang Around Road Cyclists At The Olympic Training Center, then watch mountain bikers at NORBA national races. You’ll be struck by the difference in physical appearance.

International-level roadies are often lean greyhounds with thin arms, adapted to pedaling elegantly for hours with quiet upper bodies. Their dirt-based brethren are more muscular, ragged, and (dare we say it) often more athletic-looking.

Like any stereotype, there are plenty of exceptions. Mountain bike legend Ned Overend is svelte, and ’94 Tour de France green jersey winner Djamolodine Abdujaparov looks as gnarly as his name. But there’s no denying that as mountain biking matures, the ideal body is emerging–and it generally oozes strength.

The sport requires more total-body fitness–from fingers to quads–than road riding. The heavier bikes are lifted, jumped, wrangled and wrestled over tough terrain, and actions such as extended braking can make forearms and hands burn with lactic acid.

To help you handle these physical challenges, we spotlight 6 cycling-specific exercises and show the riding technique they most directly relate to.

But Weight a Minute

Before you rush to the weight room, a couple of cautions. Done incorrectly, strength training will injure you. And your program must be planned to build strength in winter and maintain it during peak riding season. If you need help in either area, consult a local strength training expert certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

You can also learn from 2 videotapes prepared by Harvey Newton in cooperation with the United States Cycling Federation: Strength Training for Cyclists: Program Planning and The Exercises ($38.95, Newton Sports, 719/475-8366, CO).

The exercises we show here should help get you started. We’re not attempting to teach you how to do them–that’s best left to a NSCA pro or Newton’s teaching tapes.

If you’re one of those cyclists who don’t weight train because it takes too much time and club memberships are expensive, Olympic mountain bike coach Skip Hamilton sympathizes. He says a simpler approach is possible.

“Work the legs on the bike by doing hard 30-second repeats at a cadence of 60-80 rpm. Don’t overgear–just shift 2 cogs harder and go,” explains Hamilton. “Concentrate on pushing and pulling through the pedal stroke. Do this 6 times, once every 5 minutes, so you recover between efforts. It’s a great in-saddle strength builder and it’s more sports-specific than squats.” He recommends doing this workout on the road during a long endurance ride.

For the upper body, Hamilton suggests dips, pullups, and pushups. “I tell the riders I coach to stop at a local park at the end of their ride twice a week and do these exercises on the equipment,” Hamilton says. Or you can buy an inexpensive chinning bar, and do dips on the backs of 2 sturdy chairs. Do crunchers for the abs and lower back.

Although the benefit from these exercises won’t be as great, you’ll still notice a significant increase in strength–and thus your mountain biking. “If you just ride,” says Hamilton, “you won’t reach your potential.”


1 The upper body is an integral part of the pedal stroke in technical riding.

While roadies covet a smooth pedaling action with no upper-body movement, top mountain bikers pull on the bars and rock their shoulders. Elite U.S. mountain bikers tested at the Olympic Training Camp in March of ’94 compared favorably to road riders in V[O.sub.2] max and other measures of pedaling power. But they scored much lower efficiency. It seemed they wasted energy by moving the upper body to much. Or did they? After analyzing hours of videotape, Skip Hamilton concluded that, “due to the nature of the terrain, mountain bikers need to be more animated. Their upper bodies are like can openers that lever along and add to the power of the legs. Look at the top riders. Juli Furtado has tremendous upper body animation.” This is why singletrack makes your arms as tired as your legs. It’s also why ab and lower hack strength are crucial.

2 Mountain biking requires bursts of power from the legs.

Cleaning short, extremely steep hills takes 10 or 15 all-out pedal strokes. Longer hills are usually mined with short sections so steep that thermonuclear gams are the difference between walking and riding. Even the flats conceal rocks and roots that can be cleaned only with a sudden surge at the right time. “Road riders want a smooth stroke,” says Hamilton. “But mountain bikers may need an explosion of effort at any point in the pedal stroke.”

3 Off-roaders need more crash protection.

Mountain bikers dump it more than roadies. Fortunately, most falls are slow speed topples in technical sections, but even these pratfalls can lead to injury without a strong upper body to cushion the impact and distribute the forces.

In a 4-year study of injuries at the NORBA pro/elite level, Ronald Pfeiffer (A.T.C.R., and director of the Human Anatomy Lab at Boise State) found that the most common maladies were wounds, abrasions, and bruises. Fractures were relatively rare, and he uncovered no catastrophic injuries. Pfeiffer, who calls top mountain bikers “gymnasts on the bike,” says that the total-body strength common among these racers could be responsible for keeping minor falls from turning into something more serious.

4 Strength helps prevent fatigue.

Of course, it’s better to prevent falls than survive them. More muscle means more resistance to the fatigue that dulls reflexes and increases the chances of serious soil sampling. “We all love those long adventure rides,” says Hamilton, “and strength means you can outlast the fatigue of descending. Because neuro-muscular control is based on strength, you’ll stay sharp so your technical skills won’t deteriorate.”

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