Dee Tidwell, trainer for the Yeti/FOX Factory Enduro Team, on why every mountain biker should be strength training. Plus, a workout program used by his elite-level athletes.
As a professional coach and trainer, one of the most common questions I get asked is, “Why should I train in the gym as a mountain biker? Can’t I just put in a bunch of base miles to get ready for the season?”
I can’t help but cringe every time I hear that question because it's based on the false assumption that mountain bikers are no different than roadies. Would a trophy truck driver train for the Baja 1,000 on a Nascar track? Doubt it. So why would simply spinning out on the road be enough to prepare your body for the demands of technical trail riding?
The truth is, we mountain bikers are not simply “dirt roadies"—we're completely different athletes with distinctive needs that should be addressed through our training. Here are five reasons you must train in the gym as a mountain biker and the exercises you need to do it.
1. To Fix Your Posture
Research shows that the average person now spends approximately 12 hours seated during the normal 16-hour awake cycle. Whatever the reason—working a desk job, driving cars, or binge-watching Netflix—too much time spent sitting down breeds poor posture.
This poor posture, characterized by a steepened angle of the sternum, or the first rib angle, makes it more difficult to utilize all of your lungs' capacity because their container (your rib cage) is not in its proper anatomical position. Try this experiment: Without moving from your current position (I’m guessing you’re at a computer or looking down at your phone), take the deepest breath you can in order to get a sense of what that feels like.
Notice a difference between the two? Now imagine how this day-in-and-day-out posture not only affects your normal vitality but also how it affects your riding performance.
Takeaway: Posture MUST be a consistent focus on and off the bike because it’s fundamental to overall health and performance.
SB Chest Stretch
Get on all fours on the floor with knees, hips, and one elbow on an exercise ball at 90 degrees. Lower your upper body (right shoulder in photo below) to the floor. Hold 20-30 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.
SB Arm Movements
Lay on an exercise ball and with straight elbows the entire time and in a “top to bottom fashion,” raise arms above your head with thumbs up, then move them down toward your lower body and finish by squeezing your shoulder blades together. That completes one repetition. Start over at the top.
2. To Increase Your Mobility & Flexibility
If you want to rip downhill with speed and control, you’ll need an extreme range of motion in both your upper and lower body. Being able to effectively and simultaneously hinge from the hips and have good mobility in the shoulders can help keep you from going over the bars and getting injured when things go wrong.
The hip hinge, which also gets impaired by tons of sitting, involves a combination of optimal hip joint range of motion, a properly moving pelvis, hip muscle flexibility, and core stability. At the same time, you must be able to reach your arms forward to counteract your hips moving backward. For many riders, the crux is doing both at the same time.
Takeaway: A good hip hinge and mobility in the shoulders are key to safe downhilling. Use the mirror to work on improving your hip hinge.
Warning: Start light and do not add weight until your movement is perfect. Not sure if you're doing it right? Consult a trainer.
Grab the bar (or dumbbell) and, while maintaining a tight upper body and neutral spine, push your butt back into a hip hinge while letting bar travel down toward your kneecaps. Stand back up, squeezing your butt throughout, to return to the starting position. Be sure you don’t lean back when you return to standing!
Single Arm Cable Push: Lunge
Grab a cable handle or exercise band handle and get into a semi-lunge position. Then, push the handle forward while maintaining perfect posture, and head and hip position. Return to the starting position and repeat.
3. To Improve Your Stability & Balance
You must possess both of these traits to develop skills, go faster, and prevent get-offs. Of course, balance is a byproduct of stability, but each can be worked on separately. If you can’t move your body well on your bike, it’ll be difficult to bump up your skill level a notch!
A necessary attitude to training that I work to instill in my riders and racers is to be precise with their exercises and movements. Being precise in learning movement is important to those learned skills showing up for you while you’re busting down a technical section of your local trail. If you are sloppy in your execution of exercises by not focusing on being stable and planted, then that sloppiness will show up in the form of inefficient movement, poor posture, poor breathing mechanics, and overall sloppy technique.
Takeaway: Focus on being the “best mover” you can be in the gym.
Lunge With Cable Hold: Inside Leg Forward
Grab a cable handle or exercise band and get into a standing lunge position. Maintain perfect posture while resisting the pull of the cable/band and lower into a lunge position with good tracking of the kneecaps over the second toes throughout the entire move. Repeat.
Single Leg Bent Over Rows
Grab some light dumbbells and hinge forward into a neutral spine and bent over position. Lift one leg while keeping the pelvis level the entire time. Now, begin the row by pulling the elbows up and squeezing the shoulder blades together. HOLD that posture well! Repeat.
4. To Go Further, Longer, Harder
I’ve talked to many riders who think that the only way to build endurance is to put in loads of road bike base miles. For sure that’s important, but not exclusively. I know for a fact that if your body is inefficient because it’s littered with tight muscles, muscle imbalances, and weaknesses, it will be difficult to manage the forces of mountain biking and your strength endurance take will quickly dry up!
Think of it this way: Base miles are for the cardiovascular system, and the gym is for fixing movement faults with the goal of an efficiently moving body. This approach creates a body that is capable of withstanding long episodes of smashing and bashing through technical sections of trail, reducing total body fatigue, keeping performance high, and reducing the likelihood of injury due to fatigue.
In fact, this mindset has helped me be successful as a 40+ racer in the Big Mountain Enduro series. Even though I’m 48 years old, I can still hang with my Yeti pros on long days and technical downhill’s, and to this, I owe my gym training time.
Takeaway: Gym time is as (or more) important for endurance as putting in boring road base miles.
Bosu Squat with Lateral Side Shifts with Lateral Band
Grab a band with the outside hand and place the inside hand on top of the outside hand. Standing on a Bosu ball (or another type of balance device that allows you to push it down side-to-side), hold the band straight (shown in both pics) and stay in a good squat position. Push feet back and forth, left down, right down, left down, etc. Do this for 30 seconds (it’s going to burn). Switch sides and repeat.
5. To Get Stronger (Duh.)
Aside from "forgetting" about strength training once the season is in full swing, I most often see amateur riders and racers make one other big mistake: doing open chain exercises, where the hands or feet move and the body is stationary (i.e. leg extensions), when they should be doing closed chain exercises, where the hands or feet are planted and the body is in motion (i.e. squats or pull ups).
Mountain biking is really closed chain exercise (your feet and hands are planted and your body does the moving), so it's critical to train mostly using exercises and movement patterns that improve athleticism, not simply the ability to contract a single joint or muscle at a time like bodybuilders do.
Takeaway: Use multi-joint, compound, athletic type exercises to accelerate your improvement as a rider or racer.
Get under an Olympic bar (or use a dumbbell under the chin) where the bar is sitting against your throat and on top of your shoulder joints, hold there with your fingers. Maintain a perfect neutral spine and erect upper back (don’t round forward!) and squat with kneecaps tracking over second toes. The goal is to stay upright through the entire spine as you move.
Hang from a pull-up bar with grip facing you. Keeping your legs still and abs engaged, pull up to the bar, lower slowly. If you don’t have a pull-up bar or can’t perform a pull up, use a TRX or other suspension strap. DO NOT do this with movement, you'll risk shoulder injury if you do.
Put It All Together
Every exercise detailed above is listed below in a “super-set” format, which simply means you will do all of the “A” exercise group first, back to back, with no rest in between. Then, you'll do the same thing with the “B” exercise group. When you get to the last exercise and complete it, rest for 90 seconds and repeat.
1. Prone SB arm movements: 4-8 reps each side, slow tempo
2. Deadlift: 60-70% intensity, 10 reps, slow tempo
3. Single arm cable push: 60-70% intensity, 10 reps, moderate tempo
4. Single leg bent over rows: 40-60% intensity, 6-12 reps each side, slow tempo
5. Lunge with cable hold: 30-50% intensity, 10 reps each side, moderate tempo
1. Pullups: Maximum reps with proper form, moderate tempo
2. Bosu squat with lateral side shifts: Easy/medium intensity, 10-20 seconds each side, fast tempo
3. Front squat: 40-60% intensity, 10 reps, moderate tempo
Visual learner? Download this handy pdf: Training Chart
Hopefully, you can use these exercises to help you get a start on training for this summer's mountain bike and outdoor activities! In fact, I challenge you to train in the gym at least two times per week from now on through the entire riding season. Come October, send me a message and let me know how training for and through the summer helped you have the best season yet!