Top 3 Exercises for Explosive Gate Starts

February 13, 2009 by  
Filed under Tips

mountain bike gate start 300x225 Top 3 Exercises for Explosive Gate StartsOne of the most frequent questions that I get from riders around the country is “what are the best exercises for gate starts?” Apparently a lot of people are looking for the “magic exercises” that will make a big difference in their perceived weakness out of the gate and/ or the few strokes immediately afterwards. First off, if you are looking for just one exercise to cover most biking ills I would have to recommend the deadlift, as a properly performed deadlift will target most of the areas aggressive MTB racers are lacking in and most are very weak in this lift.

However, this exercise is a must for every MTB rider and not necessarily specific to gate starts. Since off-season training is upon us I decided to reveal my Top 3 Exercises for Explosive Gate Starts. I think that anyone with a gate start at the beginning of the race (like you DH and 4X riders) will find these exercises extremely useful as a part of their strength training program.

First, you’ll quickly notice that there is not a leg press to be seen on the list. With few exceptions (injury being the only one I can think of right now) the leg press should never be used in an MTB strength training program. Sitting down and bracing your back against the seat back of the leg press will artificially strengthen the core. You are only as strong as your weakest link, which is usually the core’s ability to act as a platform to create strength from. By taking your core out of the equation as the weak link (as the leg press does) you create false strength, or strength that you can not use on the bike. Since you can not brace your back against something on your bike, the leg press should be avoided if you are serious about your strength program maximizing your riding potential.

1. Banded Deadlift –This exercise is indispensable in your quest to build an explosive gate start. A more advanced form of the regular deadlift, this requires the use of strength bands. These thick rubber bands are not the same as the rubber tubing you see in most gyms and are designed to add several hundred pounds at the lockout point of the lift.

By attaching the strength bands to the bar and doing a deadlift you will maximally overload the full range of motion, especially the top half, as well as really forcing yourself to accelerate and explode in order to overcome the stretching bands. If you watch a great gate start you will notice that the rider basically performs a ¼ deadlift action, throwing his hips out in an explosive manner. This action requires extremely explosive hips and few exercises can match the specific nature of this movement and its requirements like the banded deadlift.  Read more

Combo Lifts: Squeezing More Results into Less Time

January 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Tips

One of the biggest concerns I get from mountain bikers about adding strength training into their regimen is that they do not have time for it. Family, work, personal lives and (most importantly) riding all add up leaving some of us with less than 2 hours per week for any other type of training. Because most programs (including my Ultimate MTB Workout Program) require 2-3 hours per week to complete these riders end up doing nothing.

However, this does not need to be the case. There is a training technique that will allow you to build strength, power, endurance, coordination and burn some fat, getting it all done in only 20 minutes. I’m sure that this sound too good to be true, huh? Well, this is one time the reality really does live up to the hype.

This “magic” technique is called combination lifts. This method has a few applications that I will discuss but they all have a few things in common. First, combination lifts string several exercises (usually 3-6) with each exercise being done for 5-6 reps each. Second, the exercises are done in a non-stop circuit fashion using the same implement and load. For example, if you chose to use 30 lb. dumbbells for your combination lift series you would use them for all of the exercises, not putting them down until you completed all of the reps of each exercise in the series.

Let me give you an example to better illustrate these points. Here is a good combination lift series that I use a lot in my facility:

  • Jump Shrug (jump off the ground and shrug while holding 2 DBs at your side)
  • Front Squat (raise DBs up by the front of your shoulders)
  • Push Press (shoulder press with a little leg drive to help)
  • Reverse Lunge (bring DBs back down by your sides)
  • Stiff Leg Deadlift
  • Bent Row

For this combination series I will assign 5 reps to each exercise. This means that you will pick up your DBs, do 5 reps of jump squat, immediately raise the DBs up to do the front squats and immediately go into your push presses, etc. until you have done 5 reps for each exercise. At that point you rest 60 seconds and repeat the combination lift series 3-4 more time.

One thing to consider with the combination lifts is that one exercise will always be the weak link in the series, meaning that you will have to pick a weight that allows you to complete the 5 reps for it. In the above example I have found that the push press tends to be that limiting factor for a lot of people. While we make some provision for this by putting the limiting exercise early in the series you still need to be aware of this and choose your weight accordingly. You must be able to complete all of the reps for every exercise using good form or else you must drop the weight down as to avoid an injury.

Also, while combination lifts are a great way to squeeze a lot of quality work into a short time and quickly produce some dramatic results, it does limit you in a two key areas. Basically, you will never develop as much raw strength and/ or power as you could by using a more traditional approach that will spend periods in each workout and in the overall program concentrating on these qualities. Combination lifts are a compromise in these areas, developing them but not to the same degree a dedicated program will.

Despite this compromise, though, combination lifts offer a lot of bang for the buck, giving you great results in the least amount of time possible. Plus, they can be done at home using only a pair of adjustable dumbbells or (preferably) Kettle Grips. This means that they are the perfect option for those that do not have a gym membership and have very limited equipment options.

Another thing that mountain bikers tend to enjoy is that this technique does not put a lot of muscle mass on the user. This is good for those that feel that too much extra weight could hurt their riding or adversely affect their suspension performance. While you may put on some, it will be minimal and what is added is highly functional muscle and is needed to support your increases in strength and power.

Lastly, I mentioned that there are a couple of different ways to employ the combination lifts and while all of them are outside the scope of this article I will share on more with you. You can take the exact same sequence of exercises listed above but instead of doing 5 jump shrugs, 5 front squat, 5 push presses, etc. you can do 1 rep of each exercise and run through the circuit 5 times. You will do the same exercises for the same amount of reps but you will get a greater conditioning and coordination challenge by going through the exercises this way.

So there you have it, a great workout that will take you less than 10 minutes to complete. I will usually do have people do 2 different combination series, one relying more on explosive movements and one relying more on strength movements in order to give a complete workout in less than 20 minutes. Even if you have the time and desire to devote yourself to a more involved workout program you can still use these combination lifts are a great way to get some anaerobic conditioning in at the end of your workout.

Give this a shot at your next workout and see what you think. If you are anything like me and my clients you will come out of the workout knowing that you just added a highly beneficial and fun tool to your training toolbox.

Is Aerobic Base Training Dead?

January 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Tips

A couple of years ago I proposed some radical ideas on cardio training for mountain bikers. Ever since then I’ve had a lot of people doubt my sanity. Aerobic base training has been a staple of training programs for decades and many an off season program for mountain bikers has included an extended period of time reeling off boring miles on a trainer. While some people embraced my concepts (and proceeded to achieve better “aerobic endurance” despite doing little to no aerobic training) many others have questioned why this concept is so different that the “scientific” one.

Let me explain why this is – people in the strength training trenches figure out what works in the real world (which is MUCH different than a controlled lab setting) and then implement it. Sometimes what we do flies in the face of the traditional “science” of training. Sports scientists pick up on what we are doing, study it and then tell us why it works. This process usually takes about 5-10 years or more to go from the cutting edge in the trenches to being taught in the classroom.

So, this meant that there was not a ton of scientific studies to confirm what I knew – aerobic base training simply does not work on a consistent basis in the real world. But, now there are two landmark studies that suggest that anaerobic interval training is vastly superior to the out dated models still being promoted by the mainstream fitness media.

The main reason that mountain bikers felt compelled to include aerobic base training in their program was to increase their aerobic capacity. The scientifically accepted method to determine aerobic capacity is VO2Max (Maximum Volume of Oxygen Consumed), which is an indicator of how well your body can utilize oxygen. Aerobic training had been shown to increase your VO2Max, so therefore was considered necessary for overall cardiovascular development.

However, strength coaches on the cutting edge realize that the best way to raise your VO2Max, and therefore your aerobic capacity, is through interval training, not aerobic training! While this may not make a lot of sense, it is true. Several recent studies on anaerobic intervals produced some of the largest increases in VO2Max ever seen, including studies done on aerobic training.

One study in particular was done on what is popularly known as the Tabata Protocol. This method calls for 20 seconds of sprinting followed by 10 seconds rest and these mini-intervals are repeated 6-8 times per round. A workout may involve 1-3 rounds (complete recovery is allowed between rounds). Researchers found massive increases in the subjects VO2Max in addition to the anticipated increases in anaerobic endurance markers. The increases in VO2Max were some of the largest ever seen in a study and showed that aerobic training is not the only (nor the best) way to increase aerobic capacity.

Another landmark study that came out in the September 2006 Journal of Physiology studied the effects of 20 minutes of interval training (30 second sprints followed by 4 minutes of rest) vs. 90-120 minutes of traditional aerobic heart rate zone training. They found that the interval group which did only 1 hour of exercise per week had the same improvements in aerobic capacity as the aerobic group. Did I mention the aerobic group spent 4-6 hours per week exercising?

4 to 6 times as much exercise to get the same results in aerobic capacity? This isn’t even taking into account that the interval group improved their anaerobic capacity, something the aerobic group did not. This finding is astounding and shows just how much time you can waste with aerobic training.

I’ve mentioned this before and here is the proof – anaerobic intervals will increase your aerobic capacity as well as your anaerobic capacity but aerobic training does not increase your anaerobic capacity. All of this means that if you have limited training time (and who doesn’t) you may be wasting your time with aerobic training. Anaerobic intervals are the only way to maximize the effectiveness of limited training time.

Also, there is no evidence at all that you will burn out or get injured by training with intervals year round. This is simply a myth that has been told so many times that it has been taken as the truth. I challenge anyone to find me a single study that backs this claim.

What has been found is that going straight into hard training (either strength or intervals or aerobic) without a preparatory period will increase the likelihood of injury. So, like everything else, you must work into full blown hard core intervals and cycle their intensity and duration but there is no reason you can not do intervals year round.

Now, just to balance this out, there are 2 times when aerobic training has a place in your program. First, if you are so out of shape you can not tolerate even the easiest intervals then you should spend some time doing aerobic training to build your work capacity up a bit. But once you can do intervals you should make the switch.

Second, aerobic exercise is great for active recovery (something I have also mentioned before). Going out for a light 20 minute jog or ride will help to flush blood into the muscles and help you recover from your strength training and interval sessions faster. Outside of these 2 things, though, aerobic base training may be dead.

My mission in life is to bring our sport into the 21st century. You can get better results in aerobic capacity in less time while also increasing anaerobic capacity. This should be something that mountain bikers everywhere rejoice at because aerobic training is some of the most tedious and boring stuff around.

Are You “Over Skilled”?

December 30, 2008 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

I would have to say that 90% of the MTB riders and racers that I have met would be defined as “over skilled”. It sounds absurd since most feel that some aspect of their riding needs work, be it skill related such as gate starts or fitness related such as better power endurance (I define MTB specific fitness as a “skill”). However, when you really understand how the human body functions and best adapts to MTB specific skills and fitness you will see what I mean. First, though, I need to explain the OPP.

optimum performance pyramid 300x207 Are You Over Skilled?The Optimum Performance Pyramid (OPP) was first introduced to me by Gray Cook, a highly influential figure in strength training circles. It is probably the best explanation that I have come across describing how performance training should be viewed. Gray uses the OPP to explain the 3 distinct levels of performance training, their prioritization and how to best integrate them.

The first, and broadest, level is Functional Movement. Contrary to the current fitness trends, this does not mean standing on a wobbly doo-hicky, looking like you are trying out for the circus. Functional Movement simply refers to developing adequate mobility, body control and movement awareness in order to safely handle higher level movements.

Examples of exercises in this level would include single leg box squats, pistol squats, Bulgarian split squats, single leg deadlift, push ups and their variations, inverted rows and alternating DB shoulder press. Bodyweight and unilateral exercises make up the bulk of this type of training. However, bodyweight exercises are extremely humbling when challenging variations are used. Do not underestimate the power of this type of training.

The Functional Movement level should also address any imbalances in the body, both mobility and strength wise, as they are a huge red flag for a potential injury. An athlete without a strong base built in this level of training will be far more prone to injuries, have a harder time mastering new skills and techniques and generally find that their training efforts yield few and inconsistent results.

The second level of the pyramid is Functional Strength. This level focuses on improving your raw strength and power. As I have touched on many times, increasing these areas will effectively add to your raw potential. Riders without adequate time spent on this level will also find that they have a harder time mastering new skills and will probably feel as if they have hit a plateau with their progression.

Examples of exercises in this level would include deadlift, front squat, bench press, military press, weighted pull ups/ chin ups, and DB rows. Compound, core exercises for the main movement patterns make up the bulk of this level.

The last, and smallest, level is Functional Skill. Unfortunately, this is where most training that MTB riders undertake would fall. This includes trail riding, DH runs, dirt jumping, 4X track time, gate starts, sprints, intervals and high level strength training methods such as plyometrics and Olympic Lifts. These methods will only yield the biggest “MTB specific” gains if they are used by someone who has spent time developing the base levels of the performance training pyramid. Believe it or not, over use of training methods in this level can actually slow down and stagnate skill development and fitness progression.  Read more

Top 3 Exercises for XC Mountain Bike and Trail Riders

October 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

This post originally appeared in our forum by James Wilson of MTBStrengthCoach.com Please, take the time to introduce yourself in our forum and contribute to it!

Strength training for the MTB world has been slow to catch up to the unique and highly physical demands of our sport. Today’s average rider rips up trails that just 5-6 years ago would have been considered extreme and today’s extreme rider…well, let’s just say that they continue to defy all logic in their quest to progress our sport. Considering how fast our sport has evolved in such a short period of time it really comes as no surprise that most MTB specific strength and conditioning programs are stuck in the time when cantilever brakes were still viable options and anodized purple was a highly sought after fashion statement (not that there is anything wrong with that).

Today’s MTB world is not simply road riding on a dirt road. Muscling a 30-35 pound bike around on a technical trail requires a far different skill set and physical attributes than MTB riders needed at the turn of the century. As such, routines and exercise selection needs to reflect this fact. With this in mind, let’s review what I consider to be the top 3 exercises for the XC/ trail rider to include in their program (besides the deadlift, of course, which is a must for every rider).

bulgarian split squat 300x225 Top 3 Exercises for XC Mountain Bike and Trail Riders#1.   Bulgarian Split Squat – One of the best things about this exercise is that, when done correctly, it serves as both a great uni-lateral leg exercise and a great hip flexor stretch, something all mountain bikers can use more of. Prop your trail leg up on a bench, make sure that you start with your torso completely upright with your shoulders and hips square. Lower yourself under control (don’t just turn the muscles off and drop) and make sure that you keep your torso upright and everything square on the way down.

You may notice a tendency to lean over as you lower yourself, indicating weak or inhibited glutes. Leaning over lets you use your low back to help you get back up and should be avoided in order to establish the movement pattern we are looking for. You may also notice that you want to let your hips open up as you come down as well. This indicates tight hip flexors and every effort should be made to keep the hips square in order to maximize the stretch on this area during the exercise. Just like everything else with your strength training, it’s not just about going through the motions, it’s about doing the movement pattern correctly in order to get everything we can out of our time investment.

female chin ups 236x300 Top 3 Exercises for XC Mountain Bike and Trail Riders#2.  Pull Ups/ Chin Ups & Variations – Most XC/ Trail riders are very weak in the upper body. This really takes its toll as the trail gets rougher and the ride gets longer. Having good upper body strength and strength endurance is vital to controlling your bike and maneuvering down the trail. In fact, if more riders worried about getting stronger rather than how to shave a few pounds off their bikes they would be far better served.

Pull Ups, Chin Ups and their variations are a great way to strengthen the upper back and gain good body control. Let me clear up a few things:

-It is not a chin/ pull up if you do not straighten your arms all the way at the bottom and allow your shoulders to come up by your ears as well. Most people who think that they can do an adequate pull/ chin up are really fooling themselves by not coming all the way down at the bottom.

-Pull ups indicate that your palms are facing away from you and chin ups indicate that your palms are facing towards you. Both have their place in a program but I almost always start people out with chin ups as they are easier learn how to initiate the movement by pulling the shoulder blades down.

-If you can do more than 8 reps in a set then strap some weight to yourself. Adding more reps will only start to work on short term strength endurance and we want to get stronger through strength training (imagine that). Strength endurance should be addressed in the overall program but not when we are looking to add real strength. I can personally do a chin up with more weight than I can bench (bodyweight of 180 lbs. plus 95 lbs. strapped to me) and I feel that every MTB rider should be able to do the same.

standing military press 300x225 Top 3 Exercises for XC Mountain Bike and Trail Riders3.  Standing Military Press – As I have already commented on, most MTB riders need some more upper body strength and the standing military press is one of the best exercises available for strengthening the pressing muscles. Over the last few decades there has been a real decline in the use of the standing military press in strength training programs. Most have shied away from it for injury concerns reasons (I think ego is more of a factor since you can bench far more than you can press over your head). This is extremely unfortunate since, when done correctly, the standing military press will not only add upper body strength, it will actually help injury proof the torso and shoulders as well.

If you make sure that you keep the torso strong with no backward lean when pressing over your head then you not only protect the lower back, you help strengthen the torso like few other exercises can. Pressing over your head also forces all of the muscles around your shoulder to fire in order to stabilize the entire shoulder during the lift, helping to injury proof this area as well. Both of these areas are trouble spots for bikers during long, pounding rides with a heavy hydration pack strapped to them. The military press builds true functional upper body strength in a very efficient package.

There you have it, the Top 3 Exercises for your average XC/ Trail riders. You guys make up the bulk of the riding world and can gain a lot from a good strength and conditioning program. For a long time now the bike industry has mislead you by making you think that a new bike or a new part will make the biggest difference on the trail when it is the engine that drive the bike that makes the real impact. Getting stronger will allow you to ride harder, faster and longer, adding up to more fun on the trail. Isn’t that what it’s all about anyways?