Periodized Strength Training for Mountain Bikers

Example Resistance Training Program for a Cross Country

Mountain Bike Racer (XCO)

Strength and power training are an important addition to the overall training program for mountain bikers. Improvements in strength, explosive power, and lean body mass have been shown to improve the force that can be applied to the pedals which results in greater power during climbing and sprinting.  An increase in upper body strength can also improve bike handling skills, which is crucial to mountain biking.  In addition, improved muscle balance between agonist/antagonists as well as stability in muscles of the trunk and shoulder may help reduce injuries from crashes, or may even help prevent crashes (Willis et al. 1999). Although strength training is beneficial it should not take away from the cyclist’s primary discipline of riding his/her bike.

Preparation Phase: 4 to 6 weeks

A competitive XCO racer’s strength and power training program should be performed as part of the athlete’s pre-season.  Assuming the athlete has a basic foundation in resistance training (weight training at least 2 days a week for the last 6wks), the first mesocycle (4 weeks) can focus on building strength at a frequency of 2 or 3 times a week.  If the athlete doesn’t have a foundation in resistance training a period of 4-6 weeks should be spent to improve muscular endurance and hypertrophy before beginning a strength/power program.  Muscular endurance and hypertrophy training must be of low intensity and high volume: 3 – 6 sets of 10 – 20 repetitions. Exercise selection should emphasize all muscle groups of the hip/knee/ankle, back, chest, shoulder/elbow, abdomen/low back.  Muscle imbalances or soft tissue injuries must be identified and corrected at this time.

Basic Strength Phase: 4 weeks.

Strength training two days a week is sufficient for improving maximal strength for most cyclists (and endurance athlete’s in general), because the majority of time and training priority must be on developing specific aerobic fitness (developing a higher LT and VO2max).  In addition it’s imperative that the athlete has 48-72 hours of recovery between strength sessions to avoid overtraining symptoms and decrease in performance on the bike.

Varying the weight training loads weekly will also help prevent overtraining since the athlete is also performing cycling workouts ~5 days a week.

Training volume should be progressed weekly for ~4 weeks followed by an unloading week where volume is significantly decreased.  An unloading week must occur in order for neuromuscular adaptations fully develop and to safely transition the athlete into the very high intensity power phase.

Load Assignments for Core Exercises

Medium Day

85% of 1-RM (6 reps allowed)

Heavy Day

90% 1-RM (4 reps allowed)

Assistance Exercises 80% 1-RM for both days

Volume Progression 

Week Sets Repetition
1 3 4-6
2 4 4-6
3 5 4-6
4 6 4-6
Unloading 2 4-6
Assistance 2 8-10

Power Phase: 4 weeks

The power phase will span a 4 week mesocycle at a frequency of 2 days; for example Monday is a heavy day and Thursday is a medium day.  Plyometric exercises will be introduced at a low volume the first week and progress in volume to the 4th week. As intensity and volume increase only the athlete’s core exercises (“core exercise” means the most important and specific exercises to the athlete’s sport) are to be performed, so not to risk overtraining (i.e. power clean, BO row, step up).  Another unloading week will occur to transition the athlete into the competitive season.  Frequency will decrease to 1 day per week during the competitive season and will only address the most specific core and power exercises.

Strength/Power (first 2 weeks)

Exercise Sets Repetitions
Power Clean 2 – 3 4
Rows 4 6
Step up (explosive) (75% 1-RM) 2 – 3 4
Front Squat 4 6
Single-Leg Push Off 2 – 3 10
Rest interval between all sets 2 – 3 min
Assistance Exercises 2 8 – 10
Rest 30-60 seconds

Power Only (last 2 weeks)

Exercise Sets Repetitions
Power Clean 4 5
Step up (explosive) 75% 1-RM 4 5
Single-Leg Push Off 2   10
Alternate Push Off 2 10
Rest interval between all sets 2 – 3 min

Week 5: Transition to Competitive Season (1 day/week)

Exercise Sets Repetitions
Power Clean 2 5
Step Up (explosive) 2 5
Rows 2 6
Alternate Leg Push Off 2 10
Rest interval between all sets 2 – 3 min

Exercise Selection

Note: these are only a few examples and will depend on individual injury history, performance goals and needs.

Exercise selection for a XCO racer must address both the lower and upper body prime movers involved in mountain biking.  Core lower body exercises must address the prime movers used in pedaling (quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus). Core upper body exercises must address pulling movements (trapezius, rhomboids, latissumus dorsi, biceps brachi), since the athlete must be able to pull up on the bike during climbing or clearing an obstacle.  Stabilization of the trunk and shoulder is also important while descending.

Core exercises.

  • Front Squat: develops strength to improve force delivery to pedals.  Front squat position increases recruitment of the spinal stabilizers.
  • Step up on <13” box– improves force delivery to the pedals.  The unilateral nature of the step-up more closely mimics the downphase of the pedal stroke. The athlete will perform this exercise at a higher load (85%) during strength phase and explosively with a lower load (75%) during the power phase.
  • 45 ° Bent over row* – mimics pulling movement of the handlebars, while also isometric strengthening of the erectors. *Note: Do not test 1-RM in BO Row, this puts way too much stress on lumbar vertebrae, stick to submaximal efforts on this one*
  • Pullup – develops strength in the lats, biceps, trunk muscles responsible for lifting the bike.

Structural and Power exercises.

  • Power clean/Hang Clean – improves power in the hips for pedaling and transferring power up to the shoulder mimicking the ability to lift the front wheel when clearing obstacles. The hang clean (from the knee) will be introduced as an assisting exercise to the power clean towards the end of the basic strength phase in order to transition the athlete to a traditional power clean (from the floor) during the power phase.
  • Explosive step-ups – unilateral movements better mimic pressing and pulling on the pedals during the pedal stroke.  Performing this explosively will improve maximal force production.  Box height for both step ups and plyometrics should be limited to <13”.  Box height should be specific to the distance the leg travels when pushing down on the crank arm, also to avoid over-stressing the knee/hip.
  • Single leg and alternate leg push-off box – plyometric exercises will be introduced in the strength/power phase to mimic explosive power in the pedal stroke.  Box height will still be limited to <13” for sport specificity and safety concerns.

Assistance exercises.

  • Loaded Pushup or Bench Press – Generally not an assistance exercise because it is multi-jointed. This exercise is not specific to mountain biking, but is included in this program to prevent muscle imbalance from too many pulling motions. Since the athlete discussed in this case study has a high level of muscular endurance in her ability to perform pushups in 1-min an appropriate strength training stimulus for continued gains would be to weight her pushups. Moreover, the pushup causes greater activation of spinal/hip stabilizers of the lumbo-pelvic region than the traditional bench press.
  • SL Romainian DL – Prevent hamstring injury from quad/ham imbalances that could potential develop from the selection of core exercises (squats, step-ups).  The unilateral nature of the SL DL also trains balance and proprioception, though its transfer to sport specific skill may be questionable.
  • Back extension – to prevent weakness in erector spinae and maintain upright posture for balance on the bike.
  • Glute/Hamstring Raise – similar rational to the SL DL, this exercise develops hamstring/gluteal/erector group. Higher repetition range may be necessary to stimulate a training response (15-20 rep).
  • Front and Oblique plank – to improve muscular endurance through isometric contraction of the transverse abdominus (TVA), internal oblique (IO), ilio psoas, multifidus. These deep muscles are responsible for maintaining upright posture through spinal stability and transfer of energy up and down the kinetic chain.


Willis, CM., Jones, MT. (1999). Implementing resistance training into the macrocycle of a competitive mountain biker. Strength and Conditioning Journal; 21(6):33-39.

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3 Responses to Periodized Strength Training for Mountain Bikers

  1. Love the demos Molly; perfect form.

  2. Ashwin says:

    I love this blog, please keep up the insightful posts. This is pure gold. I’m an 44 yr old, married, kids, job, XC racer and am always trying to make the most of training on limited time budget. I’ve followed the Dave Morris (Performance Cycling) strength training periodized plan for many years.

    I’m suffering some Distal Clavicle Osteolysis (aka AC Osteolysis or weight lifter’s shoulder) from years of lifting since highschool and a mistake in doing crossfit for a 6 months. To keep the discomfort under control, I’m refraining from overhead exercises such as pullups/chin ups, and standing military. Similarly, bench press and full range pushups also aggravate it.

    Do you have any suggestions of shoulder exercises and pushing chest exercises that I can do that will help me maintain strong shoulder stability for downhilling? I was excited to get back to military after a year off. My right shoulder had been hurt and was now better. But I overdid it and now my left shoulder hurts with the same exact feeling. I can do resistance band work for internal/external rotators, and bent over rows.

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