Weight Training for Mountain Bikers But Not How You Think

Weight Training for Mountain Bikers But Not How You Think

A key to optimal strength training for cyclists is more about how body movement and fatigue are managed while adding heavier weights.

Strength training for cyclists has taken off the last few years, with many riders hitting the weights, at least for their winter or base training. But when it comes to strength training, how you program and approach “lifting heavy” can determine whether you injure your athlete, make them too sore to ride at a high quality, or create performance gains. Strength training for sports performance and strength training for general fitness differ significantly.

Let’s look at what lifting heavy is and a few tools you can easily use with your athletes and clients to help them get better results.

The Importance of How to Lift Heavy

The importance of learning how to lift and move efficiently and effectively is often overlooked by beginning strength trainees and new trainers. Especially when it comes to mountain bikers, which are not generally strangers to weight training, learning how to move the body properly must come before lifting heavy weights. Practicing and refining these techniques routinely are essential as well. How an athlete performs a movement has a huge impact on whether or not it will have its desired effect.

If there is just one thing that mountain bikers and their coaches need to focus on, it’s this concept of form, and which muscles are working, while lifting.

Unfortunately, it’s far more popular (and, let’s be honest, fun) to focus on cool things like Indo Board squats, unstable surface exercises and hand-eye coordination exercises, often while on an irregular surface.

But suppose a rider has not taken the time to learn and continue to refine how to move well, specifically in learning how to create appropriate stiffness through the trunk while getting movement only from their hips and shoulders. In that case, they’re most likely reinforcing poor movement habits and patterns.

Lifting fundamentals is a deep topic, and there is much more to cover beyond a short article like this. For more discussion on the area, consider listening to episodes 81 & 82  of the Strong Savvy Cyclist & Triathlete Podcast. Strength & Movement Coach Miguel Aragoncillo and I discuss the importance of movement quality in strength training for endurance athletes.

Lifting Heavy for Mountain Biking Performance

Our sport of cycling requires us to move in incredibly unique ways, i.e., both feet are connected to the bike via crank-arms that rotate around a set axis, which doesn’t deviate.

As mountain bikers, we have the added challenges of roots, rocks, ruts, changes in surface, as well as demands on our bodies and bikes to absorb these fun and ever-changing challenges.

These particular demands require us to look at how we load our clients for their heavy strength training to meet their sports requirements.

While there is nothing wrong with standard approaches to heavy strength training for mountain bikers, I’ve spent the last 15 years figuring out how to work smarter with my riders rather than training harder. What I’ve found to be incredibly useful are two specific tools. These two guidelines have proven to allow us to load the athlete’s strength training to a greater degree throughout a training day, training week and training cycle, but having far less of a negative impact on the rider via neural fatigue, mental fatigue or soreness.

Through one of these approaches, the athlete will have gotten much stronger through strength training and see significant improvements in their on-bike abilities while training less than expected. I have covered this topic in podcast episode 117 with one of my clients, who achieved better results on the bike than he anticipated.

Two Approaches for Mountain Bikers to Lift Weights

  1. Cluster Sets
    This kind of training includes short 10-second rest periods within the straight set. For example, instead of performing one single straight set of 10 repetitions with an athlete’s 10-rep maximum weight of 100kg for a front squat, they would do a cluster set of three-by-three with their five-rep maximum weight of 130kg, with a 10-second rest between each cluster of three repetitions.

This approach allows for lifting 5RM weight nine times in a slightly more extended period than it would take to perform 10RM in a straight set.

This kind of heavy strength training not only allows for a better technique to be retained and more weight to be both leveraged, but it also far better mimics the actual on-bike demands the rider has of tearing down challenging singletrack.

  1. Stage-System Training
    Stage-System Training is another name given to “drop sets.”
    This training approach uses one to three sets of relatively heavy weights for the given individual’s technique, abilities, and repetition range. These sets are immediately followed by one to two sets of the same exercise with slightly less weight but still relatively heavy. A good starting point is a decrease of 5%-10% of the previous weight used.

An example of this in a program would be:

Front Squats to Box with Pause 2×6 @ 120kg, 2×10 @105kg

This approach is an absolute winner for mountain bikers and road cyclists alike. It allows for loading the athlete with more total weight while simultaneously decreasing the risk of injury due to pushing tissues and technique to the max. It will enable the athlete to get better strength adaptations through more reps to fatigue. When done with the right intent, it will allow the athlete to be regularly exposed to feelings of movement fatigue.

Critical Considerations for Cyclists Lifting

Before using either of these strength training approaches, your athlete must have undergone at least two weeks of anatomical adaptation plus four to six weeks of basic hypertrophy work.  This allows the connective tissue and neuromuscular abilities and the athlete’s movement technique to adapt before generating the benefits from cluster sets and stage-system training.

I’ve published a book if you’d like to learn more about strength training for cycling performance and how to build and overlay a strength training program for a cyclist over their training year. My #1 Best Seller Strength Training for Cycling Performance is available as an e-book and paperback.

It’s Time to Get Dialed In
It’s Time to Get Dialed In
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