Your glutes might look great in your riding shorts (I’m living proof, right?), but I bet they’re not doing their actual job that well. A strong gluteus maximus should support your weight, absorb impacts, and drive pedaling power. In my work with thousands of riders of all levels from first-timers to professionals, I’d wager that less than two percent of riders really know how to use their butts. What a profound waste of perfectly good muscle.
Glutes aren’t just for show. They’re for go!
In the six months I’ve been deadlifting heavy, my riding has become noticeably faster and more pleasant. Here’s what I learned:
1. Deadlifts Are Functional
In a deadlift, you generate massive power by driving your hips forward while stabilizing all the way from your hands to your feet. We’re talking legs, hips, midsection, back and shoulders—all the big movers—doing work, all at once. This is a very good thing.
When you add the upper body element—pulling or anchoring your hands backward while driving your hips forward—you involve all the big pulling muscles in your back, plus all the meat in your core. So many human endeavors involve this pattern: Lifting. Rowing. Climbing. Pump track.
The better you are at deadlifting, the better you can be at many of those things, which is why many trainers consider “deads” to be the king of strength exercises.
“The deadlift motion is the most functional movement we use in everyday life, and especially in mountain biking.” says Dane DeLozier of REVO Physiotherapy and Sports Performance in Boulder, CO. DeLozier is my physical therapist, my strength trainer and a real-deal shredder. “Improved recruitment of glutes, quads and trunk during a dynamic motion is going to improve stability, power output and your overall ability to shred. Strength helps everything.”
2. Deadlifts Improve Hip Drive
That universal hips-push-while-back-pulls thing is a huge part of mountain bike riding (and BMX, CX, road, motocross, etc.). If you’re riding correctly, you fire this movement pattern every time you:
- Pedal out of the saddle
- Climb up a ledge
- Wheelie drop
- Corner (at the highest level)
Here are some examples of hip drive on the bike:
And here’s a pump-manual. Yep, it’s the same hip drive as a deadlift.
3. Bigger Weight, Bigger Benefits–But Start Light!
In my higher-end skills classes, we focus on hip drive. You can—and should—practice it every day. Even if you don’t lift heavy, by learning to fire this chain of muscles you can rock a lot harder on and off the bike.
“A simple deadlift movement with body weight is a perfect way to work on hip hinge, glute recruitment, and trunk control. DeLozier says. “The more you use this sequence, the more likely it will become your default pattern. This is going to help you in everyday life and on the bike.”
I haven’t lifted heavy in about 20 years, but when I started deadlifting with REVO, we hit 210 pounds on day one. That’s because I’ve been perfecting the movement with light weight for years. Six months later, I’m deadlifting 320 pounds—with perfect form and no injuries!
“Soft tissue prep, mobility work and basic movement patterning allows you to make huge strength gains in a short amount of time,” DeLozier says.
When you are physically sound and can move correctly (that’s two big ifs!), heavy deadlifting can be pretty awesome. “Heavy” is a relative term, though! In the beginning, heavy is heavier than you lift in everyday life. Ultimately, heavy will be as heavy as you can work safely.
“Before progressively loading any lift, you need to perfect proper movements and motor control,” says DeLozier. “For safety, efficiency and real world application you should train good movements in the gym and in everyday life. Once your movements are optimized, then it’s time to progressively load those movements to improve your strength. Deadlifting 250 pounds with mint form is way more impressive than deadlifting 400 with terrible form.”
4. Your Body Will Handle More Force
As you increase the load, you’re not only learning to create more force, you’re also learning to manage more force. For a mountain biker, this can mean absorbing a huge flat landing more easily or being able to ride a technical climb or descent without flopping all over your bike. Once your torso alignment breaks down (hunching, arching, twisting etc.) you lose control of your bike, and you can really hurt yourself. “Any time you notice your knees wobbling into the top tube or your arms swaying side to side, that’s your body searching for stability,” DeLozier says.
5. You’ll Feel Better
As my short-short wearing high school strength coach used to say, “Anything a weak muscle can do, a strong muscle can do better.” Or, in the words of DeLozier: “Who ever said it was good to be weak?” Feeling strong is better than feeling weak. Period.
6. Your On-trail Movement Will Improve
When you lift more than you’ve ever lifted, some part of your form is more likely to break down. And I’ll bet it breaks down the same way when you’re struggling up a steep rock garden. This is costing you power and wasting energy, and it might just hurt you. The more stable you are from hands to feet, the better you’ll sprint, climb technical trails, pump, manual, hop, and jump.
7. You’ll Be More Confident
Something powerful happens when you realize you’re strong. You attack more sections. And you clean more sections! Every rider knows confidence can be the difference between failure and success.
8. You’ll Have More Power
Stronger muscles = more power. Duh. But very few riders lift heavy things, especially during riding season. The week before the USA Pro Challenge, Taylor Phinney rode into REVO and did a bunch of squats and dead lifts. A week later, he won a stage. So what if he’s a roadie.
9. Your Riding Will Be Smoother
Watch the best riders floating like fairies through nasty rock gardens. Underlying this smoothness is a whole lot of strength. The way I see it, if you can handle 1,000 units of violence (or UOV, an arbitrary measurement I often apply to rides), and a big rock gives you 500 UOV, you can handle it smoothly. If your max is 500 UOV, you’re gonna be stiff. If your max is 400 UOV, you’ll crumple. Stronger also mean smoother.
10. You’ll Be Harder to Kill
Get stronger, get more durable. More durable for long rides. More durable for crazy rides. More durable when something goes wrong. When you case a jump, for example, you can handle more UOVs and still ride it out.
11. You’ll Have More Fun
Lifting heavy stuff is satisfying in a pure, animal way. For us Type A freaks, it’s another goal to chase (safely). I hit 1.5X body weight after only three weeks of dedicated training. I look forward to lifting 2X, which will be about 350 pounds.
“We’re not doing light weight and high reps. We’re doing the heaviest weight we can lift safely, five sets of five max, looking for pure strength. The more I can lift, the more gnar I can handle on a regular basis,” Delozier says.
And doesn’t that sound like a helluva lot of fun?