Combo Lifts: Squeezing More Results into Less Time

Jul 7, 2009
by Tyler Maine  
Source: James Wilson

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.

Learn how to get more from your training inside,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

Watch James do all the above exercises:
Views: 10,814    Faves: 180    Comments: 12

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 times.

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 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 one 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.

You can find several Combo Drill video demos at Just do a search for Combo Drill and they will pop right up.


James Wilson is the creator of The MTB Strength Training System, the first strength and conditioning program created exclusively for our unique sport. You can find more training tips like this at


  • 12 1
 just remember guys: you must be very careful and follow instructions very precisely to avoid pain in the spine when doing deadlift and similar excercises. the best would be to have a qualified person to control your movements from time to time (if you're not an expert yourself). I do workouts myself, that's just a piece of advice from me: no "jumping" around, no jerking moves and perfect form. otherwise you surely will hurt yourself.
  • 3 0
 I agree 100%, thanks for pointing that out. Your movements in the gym should be smooth and fluid, otherwise you may be causing more harm than good. And finding a "qualified" person will probably consist of more than finding an average personal trainer as they usually have no experience in coaching movement. A deadlift is not just a deadlift as there are specific movement principles that must be followed.

I have a great instructional video on the deadlift you can check out here for those of you who want to learn more about proper execution of this important exercise:
  • 4 0
 I agree that the SLDL may be a bit advanced for a beginner but the article is simply meant to introduce the concept of combination lifts, not to serve as a long term program. Anyone who has followed my stuff knows that I stress technical mastery and progression, sorry if the article caused some confusion.

I will have to respectfully disagree about the "machines before free weights" comment, though. In my experience the best thing to do is to master your body weight first and then add load to the movements.

Machines offer very little to mountain bikers as they do not allow you to work in 3 dimensions and they do not strengthen the core and teach it to coordinate itself with the limbs. There is a saying in powerlifting - You can not fire a cannon from a canoe because you'll sink the darn thing. You need a strong platform like a battleship to fire a cannon from.

Machines strengthen the cannons but not the platform. If you have limited training time in the gym - and who doesn't - you get far more ban for your buck and better transfer from the gym to the trail by using body weight and free weight exercises.

Thanks for reading the article though, hopefully you found something useful in it.
  • 1 0
 i second that
  • 1 0
 Cardio before weights is a pretty poor recommendation. Lifting weight will get you in better shape a lot quicker.

Machine also isolate your muscles too much. Nothing in mountain biking is that isolated.

If you want some more complexes this is a great article by Alwyn Cosgrove.
  • 1 0
 the only cardio that should ever been done before weights is 5 mins max to get the blood movin faster and help get you pumped to push out those extra few reps.
  • 3 0
 That was a pretty good job, it was nice to see someone promote exercises specific to us bikers.
But for the deadlift, I would advise you guys keep your knees a little bent such that they squat just a little when you reach the bottom of your deadlift. That will help keep the lumbar lordosis (curve in low back). As a chiropractic student I have to bring this up. He missed out on educating riders to train endurance in their low back muscles as well. Learn to do what they call the birddog, heres a link

But hold the position for 4-6seconds, you dont need 10s like the guy in the video says.

For those of you who want advanced training, use the BOSU ball, try the jump shrug on that. And if you really want to get into incorporating balance training buy the BOSU video " Bosu sports conditioning series Skiing and Snowboarding", this requires a BOSU ball.

  • 3 0
 Great points. I do have a core training sequence that I advise riders do that consists of the plank, side planks, bird dogs and glute bridges but that was outside the scope of this article. Perhaps I'll see if Tyler wants me to write an article on that as I agree that core stability and endurance is vital for our sport.

Here is a video I did on that sequence if anyone want to see it:

Just a little coaching tip on the bird dog you mentioned - put a broomstick on your back when you do it and have it maintain contact with the head, upper back and tailbone. I have seen a lot of people contort themselves when doing that exercise and the stick will let you know if you are maintaining a strong, nuetral spine which is the point of the exercise.
  • 1 1
 I do like what you said about bird dogs. They are great for restoring mobility in your hips. I do them daily. I disagree with you about doing jump shrugs on a bosu ball. This will more likely lead to an injury then someone doing some light dumb bell complex. In actual fact you should be doing as much of this stuff on a stable surface in your bare or sock feet. You'll get so much more benefit in terms of power generation and you'll be able to use heavier weights and not worry about twisting you ankle. BOSU balls have a place but this isn't one of them.
  • 1 0
 The bird dog is a great exercise!
I am not recommending someone do jump shrugs on a BOSU unless they are advanced in training. Someone properly acquainted with a bosu should have very little injury risk doing jump shrugs. Although I wouldnt advise heavy weight if using the bosu.
I understand the importance of a stable surface to elicit co-contraction, but I was discussing the BOSU in the context of balance training. Power comes from the # of reps and explosiveness, not from whether or not you have shoes on. Also, working out in bare feet to prevent ankle injury is unnecesary.
So ill have to disagree and say this is a great place for bosu balls.
  • 1 0
 I do agree you can include a BOSU ball in some balance work and but I wouldn't even really suggest using any weights on one. There have been studies that have shown you get more improvements on balance lifting on stable surfaces.

"Power comes from the # of reps and explosiveness, not from whether or not you have shoes on."

True but if you lift in bear feet or something like chucks you'll generate more muscle recruitment then using even running shoes that have a lot of shock absorbing soles.

"Also, working out in bare feet to prevent ankle injury is unnecesary." I never said that. It will increase your ankle mobility though which will improve your lifting.
  • 1 0
 I dont want to start a big arguement so this will be my last comment. Otherwise Im just gonna keep nitpickin

"There have been studies that have shown you get more improvements on balance lifting on stable surfaces"
Thats really interesting because studies ive seen suggest unstable surfaces help recruit muscles more involved in balance and proprioception.

"if you lift in bear feet or something like chucks you'll generate more muscle recruitment then using even running shoes that have a lot of shock absorbing soles"
I would like to see the evidence to prove that? If barefoot training increased ankle mobility during the workout, wouldnt this increase the risk of instability and thus injury?
I also think training in shoes is important as it more mimics the sport than being barefoot.

The bottom line is... its cool James Wilson started a training program specific to mountain biking. I am hoping its the first of many and could be another way in which our sport can grow.
  • 1 0
 I don't understand you think having less mobility will decrease your risk of injury. A lot of shoes, basketball shoes for example are limiting in their range of motion.
  • 1 0
 Avoiding hypermobility is definately a way to decrease injury risk. Although your ROM may not differ much between wearing and not wearing shoes, id still wear them. Having a little squishiness in your shoe to absorb the ground reaction force isnt a bad thing. This could prevent forces from travelling up the kinetic chain and irritating other structures.

It seems like you answered your own question. Im gonna guess that basketball shoes limit range of motion to prevent injury. These guys are jumping and landing in awkward positions. If the shoes can help prevent going beyond the physiological range of motion for the ankle, then they are preventing injury (strains, sprains etc).
  • 1 0
 I'm not being very clear with my points.

1) BOSU balls have a place in balance work. But you can get just as much benefit if not more from lifting programs like ones done by mtbsc.

Not that you've suggested it but many people think that doing push presses for example on a bosu ball will help their balance. However, if you did them on the ground you'll be able to lift more weight and you will recruit more muscles which leads to better balance and strength.

2) When you are doing deadlifts or squats you actually do not want squishness. Being barefoot or wearing shoes like chucks or nike frees means you are getting more force because (you are not loosing it into the shoe) into the ground and there for lifting more weight and getting stronger.

On the other side though. Doing some single leg work like Bulgarian split squats is better served with having your shoes on.

If you are playing basketball you want squishy, but basketball players have a high percentage of ankle injuries because their shoes are limiting in the range of motion so when they roll onto them they are more likely to be injured because they don't have a lot of strength through a larger range of motion. So it makes sense to get them out of their basketball shoes and working on their range of motion when they aren't playing.

I agree hypermobility is probably a bad thing. But for most people (specially those with seditary day jobs) are so far from being hyper mobile that any sort of ankle mobility work will be beneficial. Especially for mt bikers. If you ride flats how many times has your foot not been quite on the pedals and you hit something that extends your range of motion.

There are also linkages to improved ankle mobility and positive effects on low back issues.

I think one thing we can agree on is that you should have a plan when you are in the gym. So many people waste their time in there. Just hoping on a bosu ball or kicking your shoes off won't help.
  • 3 1
 so just because you got tired means its a good workout???
there is a lot more to workouts than just getting tired. you gotta hit all the muscles at different angles so
when they tear you get a rounded result. also proper execution of the exercise is more important than how much you lift. if you dont properly do it you are more susceptible to injury. its a good basic exercise if you are short on time. but there should be some chest and core and more advanced back exercises in it. just my opinion
  • 2 0
 Good point - working hard and training are not necessarily the same thing. I wrote a blog post about that subject you can check out here is you want to get a better idea of my stance on that subject -

Another good point about how you create the movement being more important than how much weight you lift.

I will have to respectfully disagree on the hitting muscles form different angles comment, though. That is a bodybuilding concept and not one that is used in athletic training. We should look at movement patterns, not muscle groups as the movements are what we want to refine and strengthen to help us on the trail.

And yes, I would definitely advise that a long term program include more horizontal pressing movements (commonly known as "chest" exercises in bodybuilding circles) and core exercises. Again, this a an example of a combo drill, not the ultimate mountain biking workout.

Thanks for your comments though,
  • 2 0
 This guy is probably the first person to come up with a good training program for mountain bikers! Too many people have tried to convert training ideas from outdated theories about training, or from other sports. I have read his full program and his theory and program are bang on! From someone who has a degree in Exercise Science, I am stoked to see someone who knows what they are talking about!
  • 2 0
 One of the pioneers in sport conditioning/training and where I train.
For all you North Shore riders who want to get to the 'next level' this is what you should add to complement your riding.
  • 2 0
 I say adding plyometrics in there is a great idea, and foot work. Like ladders octagons, Standing long jump, box jumps, jump ups. I have taken a course in my high school that is second to none in B.C and our coach puts us through boot camps that last 1 hour+ every second day. I have come to find myself able to ride longer distances, go faster up hills with ease, and cardio/health benefits are off the walls Smile If you plan on going down hill I do suggest doing long bike rides sitting down targeting glutes and hams. When you get faced by a hill stand up and push it at a 75% power in a hard gear. Next hill you come to move to a easier gear and give it your all. Not only did I drop 20 lbs from 205-210 to 185 last summer from a mix of BMX'ing and riding 30km+ on my 05 Atomik, but I also had lots of lean muscle in m legs build along with having tonnes of fun doing so Big Grin

Hopefully my comment is constructive. I find myself rambling on sometimes
  • 2 0
 Here's my criticism...

You talk about determining the amount of weight at the end - this seems to be something to mention at the beginning - small point though.

Didn't get a feel for what parts of my riding this was going to focus on - maybe I missed something. I like to know exactly why I am doing something before I jump in. Is this one in a series or targeting specific elements of riding?

That said I watched the video to the end and then book marked your site.

  • 3 0
 One time I tried to bench press 260 without a spotter and I nearly smashed all the organs under my ribs. I learned an important lesson that day...stay out of the f'in gym if you don't know what you're doing.
  • 1 0
 or use a spotter....?
  • 1 0
 Well, those are very good stuff. But you don't suggest stuff like those just like this. It is VERY dangerous to perform those kind of exercises. You put too much force on your spine. You gotta develop your body first. Begginers should start with exercises wich use only their body weigh.
  • 1 0
 I think Common sense is something that you have to poses if you plan on doing any activity. Who just "gets under" enough weight to squish themselves like a bug without building up to it? You wouldn't throw yourself off a 60' cliff on your first day ridding a bike... would you? I personally go the the Gym 4-5 days a week but am in terrible ridding shape. I will definitely be taking James' advice and switching my workouts (but not without fully understanding his entire workout program and techniques first). I don't think this video was designed to be an "all inclusive" video... beginners should never just jump straight into anything (Common Sense applies here). He never once stated this was "the workout" for everyone and everyone jump right in and try it. It was a "sample" video. It peaked my interest and awareness... now I will contact him and get more info. How is this so hard for people to understand?
Quit trying to know everything about everything, if it interests you then research it more, and find out how to use it as a tool for your success; if not, then move on to the next article and stop posting comments about shit you have no idea about.
  • 1 0
 I have used James Wilson's DB Combo routines over the past year. The program works! Props to James and Lee McCormack for helping me develop my strength, mobility, skills, and confidence. I go faster, longer, and suffer fewer injuries.
  • 2 2
 I quite agree, if you are going to start doing workouts, go to a gym and see a personal trainer or gym instructor before you start doing stuff, there qualified trainers and now what there on about. and that jumping ant the best to do, when carrying a weight. If you guys wont to strengthen your legs, then the best thing to do is to do sport specific exercises, do XC rides, or 200-500 sprints on bike in the hardest gear. and keep it varied other wise you will get board. I also work out, and it ant about how much you can lift, its how often you can lift the weight and how long you can keep going. Ride your bikes more, some movements that you produce on a DH run can be hard to replicate in a gym.
  • 4 0
 Strength is a very specific term that refers to an effort that you can not sustain for more than 30 seconds, give or take. When you refer to building "strength" in your legs we have to keep that in mind. Your suggestions are good but they do not build "strength".

There are things that we need on the trail, like strength, that we simply do not use enough on the trail to effectively increase. That is where strength training comes in as it allows us to more effectively target these qualities in a more systematic manner so that we can reap the benefits on the trail.

The days of "just ride to get better at riding" are going to come to an end, just like "just play golf to get better at golf" or "just play baseball to get better at baseball" have ended. We seem to be one of the last sports hanging onto that concept and unfortunately it keeps us from having more fun on the trail.

Thanks for the comments, though, I'm glad that you at least put some thought into what you do to be a better rider.
  • 1 0
 I dissagree strength training will allow you to have more "fun" on the trail. It will help to be stronger but not nearly as much as if you practise things like braking, pumping, and balance. If fun is what you want save the gym for a rainy day and hit the trails.
  • 1 1
 Yeah trainer! It's cool to see this guy blowing up the scene with real strength training. Matt-W is a little off base on his comment (extremely off base). James is the real deal. All these skeptics and stuff are whack anyhow. Tell em' how it is brother!
  • 1 0
 Thanks for the props. I just want to help my fellow riders have more fun on the trail, hopefully this article will open some people's eyes to how they can use strength training to do just that.
  • 1 0
 I have some friends who said that lifting weights aren't going to help them with their downhill racing I said it would increase their times substancially. Care to make any comments?
  • 1 0
 ask them if downhill racing requires endurance strength or power? If they answer yes to either one then you gave them the right advice. Also, injury prevention results from proper training.
  • 1 0
 injury prevention would probably be the major advantage you would get from proper weight training and stretching in downhill riding. also core training and explosive lower body training along with endurance exercises will improve there times quite a bit.
  • 1 0
 improve recovery times between training sessions, more power when they pedal, not that it matters for downhill racing but better climbing, better bike control in the air. DH bikes are not light so being able to handle them better physically can only help you.
  • 1 0
 Wayne Gretzky had a famous saying - "I'll lift weights when a barbell scores a goal" or something to that affect. Today, though, you won't find a hockey team or player without a strength training program. I'd be willing to bet that the athletes playing hockey today are better than they were just a few decades back and that even the Great One would be forced to pick up a weight to deal with the increased size and athleticism good strength training brings about.

All sports have gone through the "you don't need to lift weights" mindset. The fact is strength training increases strength, power and helps decrease injuries. Stronger, fitter riders are faster and have more fun. I think a lot of the excuses come from riders who don't want to train and try to rationalize that it won't help them rather than admitting that they simply are not willing to do everything they can to get better.
  • 1 0
 you need to realize that the rules of hockey have chnged over the years and back when all the hall of famers played it was pretty much an over talented beer leagues. i can almost guarantee you could find them all out at the bar after the game, not riding the stationary bike for 3hrs
  • 1 4
 this guy wasnt jacked enough for me to attempt that workout. i mean you suggested a strait leg deadlift to begginers. which is retarded because most of them will have shit form, and pull out their backs lol. you should have suggested more interval training and cardio before introducing weights. especially free weights, you should workout at least a month on the machines before moving the free weights.
  • 1 0
 Finally, a 20-minute workout without all that trashy, DDR music!
  • 1 1
 I suggest working out at the gym if you are a biker, simply so you don't end up with jacked legs, and a scrawny upper body.

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