You don't need gym membership or an expensive set of weights at home to develop good strength for mountain biking - bodyweight exercises are a great low-tech way of training the body without fancy equipment.
While there are few feats of strength more impressive than an eye-popping deadlift, you don’t need to be a gym rat – or even possess a gym membership – to make performance gains off the bike that will dramatically improve your riding ability. It’s the easiest way to kick off your mountain bike fitness program.
What are bodyweight exercises?
Bodyweight exercises use the weight of your body as resistance, rather than equipment such as dumbbells or resistance machines.
With nothing more that your bodyweight as resistance, you can target all of the key muscle groups that are directly related to performance on the bike. Yes, you need to be more creative, especially with lower body exercises to get the necessary level of stress needed to cause adaptation, but by integrating the six fundamental movements outlined here into your weekly routine, you’re going to see a lot of progress, especially if you’re new to strength training.
Don’t let the simplicity of bodyweight exercises fool you, though. Simple does not mean easy. But the great thing about body weight exercises is that by simply manipulating the leverage, all of the movements outlined here can be scaled to match you where you are at. So whether you can only do one pushup or 100, there are ways to modify all of the exercises to your current ability, and more importantly, increase the difficulty over time so you can keep making progress.
With nothing more that your bodyweight as resistance, you can target all of the key muscle groups that are directly related to performance on the bike
You can also perform variations of the same exercise to alter the intensity and work in different rep ranges. As for how to put the exercises together, that’s up to you. Run through them in a circuit makes for a great ride replacement workout, or stagger them throughout the day in a micro-workout fashion. Whichever makes it easiest for you to get the work done.
And because mountain biking is already a gear-focused sport, there’s something refreshing about the simplicity of bodyweight exercises. No equipment is required, the exercises can be performed anywhere, and because you’re moving your body, as opposed to an external resistance, there are additional training benefits that come along for the ride, like increased proprioception and balance. Both useful skills for mountain biking.
Upper body bodyweight exercises
- Push up
The backbone of any bodyweight exercise program, the humble push up AKA press up is so much more than an upper body exercise. Think of it as a dynamic plank and you’ll quickly realise that it’s a full body exercise that uses all of the muscles that connect your hands to your feet.
How to perform a push up: Start in a kneeling position and place both hands on the floor about shoulder width apart, fingers pointing forward. Now extend your legs straight behind you, feet hip width apart so you are fully supported between your hands and feet.
Bring your bum up slightly to relieve any spinal extension and brace your core to remain rigid throughout the movement. Lower yourself by only bending your elbows until your chest touches the ground, then press back to the starting position. Do as many reps as you can to failure, do 3-5 sets.
Make it easier: Hand elevated push up. By raising your hands onto a bench or box, you reduce the proportion of your body weight that you need to lift. Once you can do 15 elevated push ups it’s time to add in some regular ones.
Make it harder: Archer push ups. By shifting your weight from hand to hand you increase the amount of load needed to lift your body off the ground. This is a great movement as you not only gain rotational strength benefits but also mobility, function and an opportunity to identify side-to-side imbalance. It also mimics how your arms move when riding so there’s good crossover too.
2. Pull ups
Okay, you’re going to need a pull up bar, tree branch or ledge to hang from to perform pull ups, but it’s still a cornerstone of any good bodyweight program. If you’ve not done pull ups for a long time, or ever, you may be surprised how difficult they are to perform unassisted, so if you can’t do five strict pull ups, it’s best to start with rows.
How to perform a pull up: Hang from a pull-up bar with palms facing away from you, engage your scapular (shoulders down) and hold a “hollow” position though your midline (rather than passively hanging in an over extended spinal position). Pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar then return to the hang position under control. Do as many reps as you can to failure, do 3-5 sets.
Make it easier: Rows. Hang from the underside of a table or a low bar, with an overhand grip. Engage your lats by pulling your shoulders back and down, then pull yourself up until your chest touches the table/bar. To make the exercise easier, raise the bar up, to make it harder lower it. Shoot for three sets of 15 reps, with your body almost horizontal before progressing to pull ups.
Core strength bodyweight exercises
1. Side plank
Everyone hates doing core work, or neglects it, so let’s keep it simple. Do only one exercise and progress it over time – Jonny’s Side Plank Protocol.
Day 1: Perform the side plank for 6 seconds then rest for 4, repeat for a total of 6 times on your left side. Repeat on your right. Then follow the same work/rest for 4 reps each side and finally 2 reps each side.
Day 2: Repeat day 1 but increase the reps to 8, 6, 4
Day 3: Repeat day 1 but increase the reps to 10, 8, 6
Day 4: Repeat day 1 but increase the reps to 12, 10, 8
Day 5: Let’s get spicy! Start again with 6, 4 and 2 reps but increase the work time to 7 seconds and decrease rest to 3.
Each day thereafter, continue following this format by either increasing reps or time until you are no longer able to complete them. When that happens, take a break for a day or two and start back a few stages prior to where you left off.
Lower body bodyweight exercises
- Rear-foot elevated split-squat
Getting a good lower body strength stimulus is tricky, but not impossible without a squat rack and weights. And this is where single leg work really comes into its own. By halving your base of support, you double the amount of work each leg has to do.
Single leg exercises like the rear-foot elevated split-squat also help with balance, and are great for identifying strength deficiencies in either leg.
How to perform a rear foot elevated split squat: the name is self explanatory but it is also referred to as the Bulgarian split squat even though it’s the same exercise. Raise your rear foot onto a bench and support most of your weight on your front foot. From the starting position squat down under control then come back up. That’s one rep.
The lowering phase also provides a good stretch to the hip flexors so your range of motion should increase over time. Sets and reps: Perform 3-5 sets of 12-15 reps each side.
Make it easier: If the rear-foot elevated split squat is uncomfortable, simply place your rear foot on the ground and perform regular split squats. This spreads the load more evenly between both legs to make the exercise easier.
2. Curtsy squat
To corner well you need some lateral hip displacement while supporting most of your body weight on one leg. One exercise that mimics this motion perfectly is the Curtsy squat, as it lengthens the end range position that’s common to riding while increasing flexibility.
It also adds a lot of rotation through your pelvis, lower abdomen and knee, so start gently, and only increase the range of motion as you feel more comfortable.
How to perform curtsy squats: From a standing position, take the entire load of your body on one leg then reach your other leg behind and outside of your supporting leg, laces pointing down. Reach with your back leg as far as possible while pushing your supporting knee forward. Once you have achieved the limit of your range of motion while maintaining stability, return to standing to complete the rep. 10-15 reps each side, 3-5 sets.
Okay, we agree, it looks like something from a pilates class, but the bridge is a surprisingly good way to target the glutes, while reinforcing your core and lower back in a neutral position. Also the hip extension attained in a bridge really helps offset all of the sitting we do, so your lower back will thank you for it too.
How to perform a bridge: Start on the ground face up with your feet planted and knees at 90 degrees. Your hands can rest on your hips or on the ground, up to you. Now brace your core and bring your hips off the ground until your thighs and torso are in line, supported only by your upper back and feet.
Focus specifically on squeezing your glutes as you raise up and clench hard at the top of the movement. Return slowly to the ground and repeat. Once you can do 20 good reps progress to single-leg bridges.
Make it harder: Single-leg bridges. Adopt the same starting position as the regular bridge only this time stretch one of your legs out straight. Brace your core and raise your hips up so you are supported by one foot and your upper back, with the raised leg still in front of you. Aim to align your outstretched leg and torso at the top of the movement. Return to the ground under control to complete the rep. Perform 10-15 reps with each leg, repeat for 3-5 sets