Core Training for Mountain Biking

Apr 6, 2010 at 9:29
by James Wilson  
Core training is big buzzword in mountain biking today. It seems that the cure to everything is better "core strength". But what exactly is the core and why should a mountain biker care how strong it is? What is the best way to train the core to help you ride with more skill and endurance? What are some exercises you can start using today to improve your core strength and riding?

I'm glad you asked. Here are some strategies I use to help riders like Aaron Gwin ride with more strength and confidence.

The first thing we need to cover is what defines “the core”. Core training is a huge buzz word that has been used to sell magazines, books, videos and late night television products. It is also one of the most important areas to understand and train. While most people think of the midsection (basically the abs, low back and obliques) you should also include the hips and upper back. In essence, if you cut off your head, arms and legs you would be left with your core.

The core is important because it is the center of your body and if it is weak it will affect everything else. For example, if you do an exercise like a lateral raise (where you raise a dumbbell out to your side) it is traditionally looked at as a shoulder exercise. However, if you had an injured rib you would not be able to lift nearly as much weight. Same shoulder, but a “weaker” core which resulted in the arm being able to lift less weight.

As mountain bikers, the take home message is pretty simple - if you want to increase your strength and power, especially in your legs, you must address the strength of the core first. This is one of the main reasons I dislike the leg press as a training tool for mountain biking - it allows you to bypass core strength and train leg strength directly, often giving you a false sense of true strength.

It is also important to understand the difference in how we trained the core back in the 80’s and 90’s vs. our current understanding of how the human body works. It used to be that if you wanted to get a muscle stronger you picked exercises that allowed you to move that muscle and then you used sets, reps and load with those movements. Crunches, side bends and back extensions are prime examples of this “old school” methodology.

However, we now understand that some areas of the body want to be mobile and some want to be stable. Training all joints in the body the same way is a recipe for pain and decreased performance. For our purposes here, the hips want to be mobile, the lumbar spine (low back) wants to be stable and the thoracic spine (upper back) wants to be mobile. So, based on this understanding of functional anatomy we can see that we want to train the midsection to resist movement, not create it.

If this is the case then we want to avoid exercises that encourage movement and instead emphasize exercises that resist movement. The Core Training for Mountain Biking video that I have posted on my blog is a perfect example of exercise that do just that. If you have not done so already then watch that video and start incorporating those exercises into your routine. Doing planks, side planks and bird dogs on a daily basis will really help jump start your core strength and start addressing the underlying issues that are holding you back from becoming a better rider.

-Note: doing crunches on a stability ball is not more functional and still falls under the “creating movement” category.-

However, there is more to “core strength” than simply doing exercises for the core. The next thing I covered in my talk was how movement ultimately defines your core strength. You can have the strongest core in the world, but if it is surrounded by dysfunctional joints then it will have to compensate for that dysfunction no matter how many planks and side planks you do.

Most people have a lower back that moves too much to compensate for tight hips. If your hips are tight, which describes 99% of mountain bikers I have seen, then you will not be able to shift them back far enough to get the range of motion you need when picking stuff up off the ground or getting into position on your bike. Your body will figure out a way to do what you are asking it to do and so it will then get the extra range of motion it needs from your low back.

This is why you have to look at how your body moves and train it how to move better. For most, this means getting aggressive with you mobility tactics. Stretching, foam rolling and dynamic mobility exercises for the hips and upper back are a must if you really want to break the cycle of bad movement that most of us are caught up in. If those areas can not move freely then you are doomed to a lifetime of compensation and, eventually, pain.

The next step is to utilize exercises that teach your body how to integrate your increased core strength and hip mobility in order to create cleaner, more efficient movement. For the mountain biker nothing beats the single leg RDL and deadlift for this purpose. Those exercises really help you understand how to create movement with your hips while maintaining a strong core.

There you have it - a 21st century blueprint for creating a strong, high performance, injury resistant core. Teach the core to resist movement, increase hip mobility and then practice good movement in the gym. This is the step by step approach I use everyday to help riders build performance from the inside out.

Views: 23,043    Faves: 277    Comments: 6

-James Wilson-

*Title photo of Aaron Gwin by

James Wilson is the owner of MTB Strength Training Systems, the world’s only company dedicated to developing strength and conditioning programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. He has helped hundreds of mountain bikers around the world ride faster and longer and his current clients include US National DH Champ Aaron Gwin and the Yeti/ Fox Racing Shox Factory Team. Riders interested in learning more about how strength training can help them have more fun on the trail can visit

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Member since Feb 3, 2009
59 articles

  • 13 1
 It's true that the lower back should be trained to stabalise. That's the problem with sit ups: they require flexion (bending) of the lower back, something which your lower back doesnt need to do while doing sports (hence there's no reason to train it to do that). It also stretches out the ligaments which hold the spine together, another reason to ditch exercises like the traditional sit up. However post a 'how do I get in shape?' thread in the PB fitness section and a lot of people will still probably tell you to do 500 sit ups a day. It's good that PB is offering some real training advice. However in riding, supplimentary training is far less important that in other sports. Those who ride the best are often those who spend the most time on a bike.
  • 8 3
 Why is supplementary training far less important than in other sports? Even golfer recognize the need to get in the gym and train and our sport is far more physically demanding. At one time basketball, baseball, hockey and golf all had the "get better at your sport by playing your sport" mindset. Since they realized that was not true the level of play seen in those sports has increased dramatically.

Time on the bike is important but the "we just need to ride more" mindset is holding our sport back. There are things you need on the trail that you don't use enough on the trail to get stronger. That is the essence of real training.
  • 2 2
 Trainings great! but you don'n need to be Arnold Swarchenegger to ride a bike....
  • 4 3
 Well firstly, all your counter examples are those of stick and ball sports. Hard to cmpare to riding, in my opinion. Training to swing a stick, or throw a ball, and finding your weaknesses in such an area is far easier than training to ride down a mountain. I agree that a rider could improve with some smart training, but the fastest riders are normally the guys who dedicate themselves. I see it at the big mountain resorts. The guys who work shitty jobs to live there and ride everyday are fast as hell, and their training is normally beers in the evenings, while the guys who come for a holiday and have trained, lived clean, and prepared themselves in every concievable way are suffering from extreme arm pump and aching thumb joints. Yes, training is important - but baseball this aint!
  • 3 0
 but wat happens when that golfer or baseball player swings that club and bat, there body is twisting and engage there core, same with biking your bent over wit your back at 90 degree angle of your legs and there for your core is helping with most bike movements... all the exercises help gain more strenght in core and back...
  • 2 0
 Then why do the guys at the very top do more than just ride. Bike bums are a dime a dozen... And the example was of sports that were slow to catch on to the value of strength training and used the same excuses you just cited. You are reading way too much into it.
  • 3 0
 I AM A FOOL! Im am sorry for my ignorant comment, I just did my first DH race, I was SO tired half way through and crashed, Physical and mental endurance is EVERYTHING
  • 5 1
 Funny how 21st century exercise is looking a whole lot like yoga these days. probably cause its the bomb when it comes to training for anything. you hit the mat less when riding due to incredible sense of balance. And if you do eat dirt, your less likely to be injured with more flexibility in your body. you get more power with less mass when you can access the entire muscle and not just the 2 inches that you have trained in the gym over and over again. A huge bonus when you shave pounds off the rider for a fraction of the cost to shave pounds off your bike.
  • 2 0
 I was just gonna say the same thing, this is just yoga with weights.
  • 2 0
 Yoga is not bad and a lot of the mobility stuff I use has some roots in Yoga. However, yoga is not "the best for everything" and has some inherent drawbacks. Here are a couple of posts I made on the real pluses and minuses of yoga for mountain biking:

The more info you have the better decisions you can make about your own training. As a general rule, beware the man of one way. Just doing yoga will leave holes in your fitness.
  • 2 0
 Great video. Riders have no idea how much this will benifit your riding. I've been working as a Personal Trainer for over 7 years now and within the last year or 2 I've been getting so many young athletes (of all sports) showing up for core programs. The benifit you'll get from it is so improtant for riders of any disiplins. Get with it folks, you will be ahead of the game if you do. I promise!
  • 8 2
 There is no need to train when you have gold stanchions Big Grin
  • 6 0
 I've been training with beer and pizza, this might work tooSmile
  • 3 0
 lol, i ate through the entire video
  • 1 0
 best information on core exercise has come from the man talking in the video below. The " stir the pot" exercise is really good.

He trains elite athletes like George St Pierre etc and doesnt have them do silly sit ups. Learn from this and youll be in the clear
  • 5 1
 James needs to buff up and put on a bit of fake tan if he is going to inspire me.
  • 1 0
 ive ridden bikes for 8 years. the last 3 years i have become a personal trainer by profession and my core strength is great as a result of alot of training. including deadlifts 2.5 times body weight and alot of squating. ive seen no direct correlation between my improved core strength and bike riding. i think there is core strength needed for bike riding but it is not crucial to have super high core strength. if you have a very weak core then yes train it.
  • 1 0
 I agree. Most riders have strong enough cores and enough hip flexibility, and their real weaknesses lie elsewhere.
  • 1 0
 I have also trained big lifts, in the hope that I will become stronger overall - more powerful. But when riding, you realise that compound lifts do not address all of the problems riding presents. They are often much smaller, and far harder to train areas, such as hands and forearms.
  • 1 0
 yea grip strength training would be beneficial. for sure, endurance to stop that arm pump.
  • 3 1
 Grip strength and core strength are related. Lifting big weights don't mean jack, it is how you create the movement. Again, if strength training did not work for you then you did the wrong kind. Training like a bodybuilder or powerlifter won't make you a better rider, practicing and getting strong on the movements you need on your bike will. Stop hatin' and start trainin'...
  • 1 0
 Sorry mate think you got the wrong impression, I was just trying to make the point that I rode bikes for years, then started training core and didn't notice not hating and I train hard
  • 1 0
 @mtbstrengthcoach, nobody's hating. Other people are just offering their opinions. For someone who speaks and writes with the authority of a proffesional, you don't make it particularly clear WHY your methods work so well for mountain biking. Most trainers who speak with your tone of certainty have at least got REAL, not just theoretical, results. Where are the sucessful world class pros who've used your unnegotiably superior techniques?
  • 2 0
 @raak, there is a rather large picture of Aaron Gwin at the top of this article where it states he has used the programme. He's pretty good I'd say...probably made one of the most successful first appearances on the world cup DH scene and he is getting better each season.
  • 1 0
 Nice one James. Interesting to say the least. I'm now going to change my Program from what I had planned for next week to involve this after cardio. It is something that a lot of people get wrong sometimes (myself included).
  • 2 0
 sick good tips I will check that video out and work up some core strength Razz
  • 1 0
 how often do you advise doing these exercises?
  • 2 4
 as with most exercise routines you want to be doing these daily or twice daily, but as long as you are doing it regularly it will have the right effect.
  • 1 0
 ok cheers man Big Grin
  • 4 1
 it depends on how hard you work the muscle. everything i have read says 1 full day rest. not allowing the muscle to regrow and rest for long enough after a workout can be bad.
  • 2 0
 also look at chris hoys training. his squat is immense and so is his cycling.
  • 2 0
 Wow that was realy informing helps alot
  • 3 0
 And on top of that, he's actually really good at talking to an audience he doesn't see.
  • 1 0
 Really helpful will have to give the exercises a go and hopefully improves my riding.
  • 2 0
 anyone do Crossfit? I've started and love it.
  • 1 0
 This exercise are good? Well, i'll give it a try, i think..
  • 2 1
 These are some of the best articles going up on here, quality
  • 2 1
 wow sick
  • 2 2
 I used to be a rower before i rode bikes, i got this shit dialed!!
  • 2 0
 For sure man, good rowing technique is a perfect aerobic version of this stuff. For everyone else READ ABOUT ROWING TECHNIQUE FIRST. Can't even count the number of times I've seen people hop onto an erg and do everything exactly wrong. Thanks for these vids James, they are a pretty wicked free resource.
  • 1 1
 bes training is riding. lots.
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