Mountain biking requires agility, endurance, and core strength. Spending a little time (especially in winter) focusing on strength and conditioning will help you become a better cyclist and prevent injuries.
Adding strength training to your routine can feel overwhelming, but just 30 minutes once or twice a week can make a significant impact. All of these exercises may be done from the comfort of your living room with minimal equipment.
NOTE: Be sure to consult your doctor if health or injury risks are a concern! And if you are inexperienced with weight training, it is very helpful to find a personal trainer or class that can teach you good form and healthy strength training habits. Even a few sessions with a trainer or class will make weight training safer and more enjoyable!
Your core muscles are in your abs, sides, and back. Absorbing bumps in the trail and keeping your body centered on the bike requires core strength as you move your body up and down, forward and backward, and even side to side on the bike.
Incorporating core strength exercises that engage multiple muscle groups at the same time will improve your overall bike handling skills and make you a stronger cyclist.
Overhead squats engage the core, shoulders, legs, and lat muscles. Squats also help with general flexibility. If you are just starting out or training at home, you can use an exercise ball or even a broom handle instead of a barbell.
Stand with your feet planted about shoulder-width apart. Lift the bar over your head so you are holding it with straight arms parallel to your ears and your hands just a little wider than your shoulders. With a straight back, squat down as far as you can while keeping your arms straight overhead and your core engaged. Push back up using your quads and glutes. Don’t let your arms fall forward—focus on keeping them parallel to your ears. Don’t forget to breathe through the whole squat!
Planks should be a staple in most athletes’ strength training routine. They develop strong core muscles and shoulders, which improve balance and posture—two things cyclists depend on!
There are a number of variations of planks. Start with these three basics and work up to being able to hold each for 1 to 3 minutes.
- Traditional plank: place your elbows directly under your shoulders so your arms make a 90-degree angle. Squeeze your glutes (butt) to stabilize your body and be sure not to let your butt get too high. Focus on making a straight line from the top of your head to your heals. It helps to stare at a spot on the floor about a foot in front of your hands. Start by holding the plank for 25 seconds and work up to several minutes.
- Left and Right Plank: This variation focuses on the obliques (side muscles). Lie on your left side with your legs stacked on top of one another. Keep a straight spine and straight legs as you prop your body up on your left elbow. Repeat on the right side. To make the side plank more difficult, raise the top arm straight into the air and look straight up toward the ceiling.
- Planks with Dumbbells: Use the instructions for a traditional plank but put a lightweight dumbbell under each hand. Hold the plank and alternating pulling each dumbbell up and lowering it slowly. It helps to put your feet in a wider stance (perhaps shoulder-width apart) to give more stability.
Glute and Leg Exercises
The glute (butt) muscle is critical in cycling, generating about 27% of your pedal power. However, cyclists often have weak outer glutes—the muscles that stabilize you in the saddle. Weak outer glutes can contribute to knee pain.
Incorporating glute exercises will improve your pedal power, maximize stability, and help prevent knee issues.
Quad Hip Extensions
Start on your hands and knees with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Engage your core muscles (tighten your stomach or imagine pulling your belly button toward your spine without holding your breath). With a straight back, slowly lift your left leg, keeping your knee bent at a 90-degree angle. Try to avoid arching your back or hunching your shoulders at any point during the leg lift. Lift your leg back until the bottom of your foot is pointing toward the ceiling and your knee, hip, and shoulder are in a straight line. Hold for a few seconds then slowly lower. Repeat 8-12 times for each leg.
Lunges have many variations and are very useful in developing core and glute strength. As you do lunges, keep your feet hip-width apart and keep your spine straight (try focusing on a point straight in front of you at eye level to keep your neck aligned). Don’t let your knee go past your toes on your lead leg.
- Forward Lunge: Stand tall with good posture and your feet hip-width apart. Take a large step forward with one leg and put your foot flat on the ground, keeping the majority of your body weight on that leg. Lower your hips slowly until your rear leg almost touches the ground and the front leg is at a 90-degree angle with your ankle and knee directly aligned. Then, drive through the heel of your front foot to push yourself back to the standing position you started in. Start with 5-10 lunges per leg, focusing on good form.
- Weighted Lunges: Once you have mastered the forward lunge and can keep good form, add some weight to each hand (dumbbells, full water bottles, or even filled gallon jugs work).
- Overhead Lunges: Keeping the same lunge motion, hold your arms straight over your head parallel to your ears. Once you can perform a good squat with your arms above your head, add some weight to your hands. Start small and be sure to keep a straight back, strong core, and not let your forward knee move past your toes.
The bridge is simple but it works the glute muscles particularly well when done correctly. Lie face up with your knees bent, your hands flat on the floor by your side, and your feet planted flat on the floor. Everything should be aligned (don’t let your knees point out to the sides). Slowly engage your glute muscles and raise your pelvis and hips off the floor to create a straight line with your body. Your ankles should be directly under your knees and your knees, hips, and shoulders should be in a straight line.
Clench your butt and focus on not arching your back. Try to imagine pulling your belly button in toward your spine to engage your core. Hold this position and breathe deeply for a few seconds, then lower slowly.
For added difficulty, while in bridge, slowly straighten out one leg, being sure to keep your body in a straight line. Hold the leg for a few seconds then repeat with the other leg.
Mountain biking requires a deceptive amount of upper body strength, particularly if you are navigating technical courses. Many of the above exercises work your upper body, but here are two targeted upper body strength exercises.
Pushups are one of the “tried and true” core and upper body exercises. Start in a good plank with straight back and hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Slowly lower your body, keeping your elbows tight to your ribs (point your elbows back toward your feet as you lower). Hold at the bottom for a few seconds then push back up to the top.
For an easier variation you can do the pushups with your knees on the floor. Be sure to keep your back straight.
Pull-up bars that go over doorframes are cheap and easy to find online. Pull-ups are a high-strength move so don’t worry if you can’t complete one at first.
Start by grabbing the bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart facing either toward you or away from you (whichever is more comfortable and easier). Pull your body weight up until your chin goes over the bar then lower your weight slowly.
If you cannot do a pull-up at first, place a chair a few feet in front of you and let your heels rest on the chair. Don’t use your feet to push up. Instead let the chair “hold” some of the body weight that is in your legs.
Even during winter you can maintain some of your conditioning. You might be surprised how even simple exercises will keep you in shape for spring cycling.
Skipping rope isn’t just for schoolyards! It’s a great all-around workout that strengthens your ankles, calves, and legs. It improves coordination, body awareness, and general fitness levels all at the same time.
Start simple with a time goal. As you gain confidence and fitness get creative and make it more challenging. Double-unders and other tricks are fun to master.
They’re fun to say but not as easy to do. Burpees will get your heart rate up while working your arms, chest, quads, glutes, abs, and hamstrings.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands at your sides. Move your hips back and bend your knees to lower into a squat. Put your hands on the floor in front of you and quickly jump your feet straight back so you are in a plank position (remember to keep your body straight from the top of your head to your heels). Now jump your feet back toward your hands so you are in a crouch position. Jump into the air and land softly on the balls of your feet and you should be in the start position to immediately begin another burpee. Don’t forget to breathe!
Start with 5 to 10 burpees in a row and move up to several sets of 15 to 20. Your heart will be bounding and your legs will feel heavy at the end!
With just one or two strength and conditioning sessions a week you will be well on your way to a strong spring mountain biking season!
Do you have a favorite off-season exercise routine or strength workout? Share in the comments!