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You Need a Stronger Body, Not a Better Bike

Upgrading your bike might seem like an easy way to get faster—but you can save some money, and get more satisfaction, from upgrading your body instead.

You often hear people saying “My bike’s too slow” and “I’ve got to get something with better suspension.” Some of them rush out and, stock issues notwithstanding, drop several grand on new wheels, believing that a lighter frame, different gear set, or cushy suspension are the secret to better performance. It might be for a little while, because it’d be naïve to say that what you’re riding doesn’t matter. Soon enough, they’ll inevitably plateau and are left wondering why. Often from observation, the answer is simple: they need a stronger body, not a better bike. 

How Movement Patterns Can Limit Your Performance

With many people, movement, mobility, stability, and strength limitations are the main limiters, not their gear. They often cannot get into the positions that produce maximum power—and even if they can, as they fatigue their positioning starts to fall apart. It could be that their hips and quads are so tight that they can’t get their hips and butt back for stability on the bike. Or perhaps they lack the upper body strength and shoulder mobility to maneuver over larger obstacles. Many have stability issues stemming from an underdeveloped core. 

Sometimes it’s all of the above and more—and the solution is not a better bike. The good news is that such issues can be remedied with strength training, so that people can either make the most of their older bike or get more from their new one. 

This is where Functional Movement Screen (FMS) assessment comes in. The test itself offers a lot of useful insight into their limitations and can help to pinpoint if it’s primarily insufficient mobility, stability, or strength that’s holding them back. By observing them closely, FMS can also see where they’re at from a movement literacy standpoint, and whether they’re not just able to get into certain positions, but also sequence them correctly. 

What Goes into a Functional Movement Screen?

The overhead squat component of the FMS is one of the best indicators of an imbalance. We often see that someone is a “knee squatter,” which means that they can technically squat, but they initiate it by bending their knees and rounding their lower back, rather than pulling their butt and hamstrings back. 

If someone is a knee squatter, they will be asked to touch their toes. Most of the time they can’t do it, at least without straining or making some weird movement compensation. In which case, Gray Cook’s toe-touching correctives are used and can usually get them to touch their toes within five minutes. This might not seem like much, but it’s actually a pretty big win because they’ve learned something that will benefit them on their bike: how to get their hips and butt back. 

From there, this lesson is reinforced by putting a thick band in a squat rack at about hip height. The cyclist puts their hands on the band and pushes it down as they pull their hips and butt back, while keeping their knees slightly bent. This mimics the MTB riding position and requires them to sync movement in their upper and lower body. 

In the second session, they will hold a light kettlebell in the top position of a goblet squat and repeat the motion with a little more load. Another progression is to have them take a TRX Suspension Trainer strap out to full length and maintain the tension in it as they again drive their hips backward. Being able to feel it makes it easier to understand than simply explaining the concept or providing the cue of “get your butt back.” The progress seen over the course of just two sessions is pretty amazing. 

Building Strength and Stability

Once someone has reached the point where they understand the optimal position and can get into and sustain it, stability and strength are then assessed. A lot of cyclists are extremely quad-dominant and have overstretched hamstrings because of the anterior pelvic tilt this creates. To get lower body back in balance, posterior chain needs to be developed. To do so, exercises like TRX hamstring curls, Nordic hamstring curls, and deadlifts with a trap bar or a kettlebell can be used. Deadlifts also help to reinforce the hip hinge pattern they’ll need to access on their bike. 

As soon as the hinge with evenly spaced feet is nailed, cyclists will then get into a staggered stance that’s around the same width as their crankset. They’ll create a lot of tension in the hamstrings and glutes on the active side, which will enable them to put more force down into their tires and prevent the wheels from sliding out from under them.

As a lot of the motion in cycling is in the sagittal plane (i.e. forward and backward), quite a lot of work are also needed in other directions. Incorporating lateral lunges, jumps, and side step ups accomplishes this, and also makes the client more comfortable moving away from their midline, which they’ll need to when they’re turning their bike. Core strength and endurance is also key to maintaining control, particularly during a steep, fast descent. So planks, side planks, and other variations that will help them not only create force but also withstand it are important. To take this a step further, anti-rotation exercises like the Pallof press can help improve stability. 

Leg strength is another area that most mountain bikers can focus on. Taking the cycling motion into account, unilateral work is equally important. This includes split squats (both with feet flat on the floor and the rear foot elevated), lunges, and step ups. Often, it’s all someone can do to keep from falling down the first few times they try these exercises. Once coordination, balance, and muscle control improve, add weight or speed. 

On the trail, you also need grip strength more than you might think. Beneficial exercises include kettlebell/dumbbell carries, pull-up holds, and hanging exercises. 

By improving strength, stability, mobility, and movement competence, you’ll have better staying power on ascents, greater control during descents, and be more stable when going at top speed. No new bike required. 

If you require Functional Movement Screening, we have a certified coach at Warrior Fitness who is able to help you on that. Please contact us to schedule your assessment :)