FITNESS: The fundamentals of building strength for riding

Nelia Harding is a Registered Biokineticist with B.Sc. Hon. She has studied the science of human movement for 8 years. In her practice she helps riders develop customized strength routines to improve their riding, be that road, XC, trail Enduro, DH or E-riding. We are working with Nelia on a series of ‘strength for riders’ workouts which will be published here over the next few months. So if you are wanting to shake up your current form with some strength work OR simply would like some guidance on the fundamentals of it all, read on and stay tuned.


Strength training has added immense value to professional riders, but unfortunately, it is mostly overlooked by amateurs or recreational riders. Executed correctly strength training will most definitely get your system firing properly and improve your riding and how you feel off of the bike too. Some basic strength training will help you protect the joints, ligaments and indeed the muscles that are loaded during your riding.

The Big Question

Before I even get started I would like to answer the question that is on most rider’s minds regarding strength training in the gym. Will training in the gym slow me down because of the extra weight I will put on? The answer to that is an emphatic NO. Almost every rider who walked into my studio asked me this question. Although I definitely understand where they are coming from, the truth is the correct strength training can help you stay lean but with the added benefit of having muscles that just work better together, like a well-oiled machine.

Strength Training, by definition

It simply means that you are going to the gym to make your muscles stronger. However, you cannot simply play around with some weights and machines and think it will get you somewhere. This is where the SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demands) principle comes in.

You can choose what you specifically want to adapt for, to meet the demands that will benefit you as a rider – strength, power, hypertrophy (increasing the size of your muscles) or endurance. The specific choice that I refer to when I talk about strength training in this article is simply to build a good base strength to improve the kind of riding you do.

Whether your objective is to hold a more aggressive upper body position on the trails to ride faster, to provide a good base for your legs to power from when on the road bike or to dominate your heavy E-Bike on the trails. It will also reduce the risk of injuries — especially in the event of a crash, and, will reduce joint pain during or after your ride. The upsides are many.

The SAID Principle

I won’t go too deep into the science here, but just give you the basics that you need to know.

1. Firstly you should identify what specific outcome you are after so that your strength routine is goal based.

2. You need to decide which exercises to do – but that’s what I am here for so don’t worry about that. When we work on increasing strength we will add in specific base exercises to help you optimize the increase in strength when on the bike. For example with squats and deadlifts for the lower body and bench press and rows for the upper body — these exercises are bilateral, which means they use either both lower limbs or both upper limbs symmetrically.

In order to maintain the balance between the two sides, you will need to do accessory exercises which are often unilateral and might require you to use single limbs. All the movements we will do are exercises which are functional for riding. In other words we will work multiple muscle groups at the same time because when riding we never use one muscle at a time.

3. You need to decide how often you will go to the gym. This often depends on your level of fitness, where you are in your season and what kind of bike racing or riding you might be preparing for. Mostly I recommend 2-3 times a week, depending on where you are in your season.

You can do up to 4 or 5 times a week but even World Cup track sprinters (who can crank out 2000 watts!) only do around 3 sessions per week so it’s not necessary to spend that much time in the gym. If you are a semi-pro or pro that frequency might vary and you would need someone to meticulously formulate your periodization to prevent overtraining.

4. The exercise order is essential if your goal is to improve strength. Always start with the big moves first, then move on to the smaller or easier ones. By big ones I mean, more weight and more joints doing the work. This will typically be the base exercises I mentioned in step 2. Accessory exercises will go into your rest periods or at the end of your workout.

5. The next thing that we need to consider is reps, load, and sets. There is a formula but for now, I won’t go into too much depth with that. All you need to remember is that when you work for strength, you will never do more than 6 reps. The amount of weight will be 85% or more of your 1 rep max. As for the sets, you will need to do anything from 2-6 sets. Gone are the days of drop sets and doing as many as you can until you fail! Your ride never gets easier toward the end, why would you want to do that in the gym?

Your 1 rep max is nice to know and if you have a professional who can help you measure it, that is always helpful. However, as soon as you start you will quickly see what type of weights you are able to use for up to 6 repetitions. It is all about trial and error, but do not underestimate yourself. If you fail at one set you can always lower your weight, rest and then try again.

Remember to always write your weights down weekly because it is a massive waste of time to try and remember the weight you did last week in every exercise. If you are doing it correctly you will be too tired to remember your weights. This is also an excellent way of tracking your progression.

6. Last but definitely not the least is progression. When you can do two extra reps at the end of your last set, you are ready to try increase your weight in the following week. Make a note to yourself or add an up arrow (↑) next to your weight to remind you the following week to attempt a higher weight. Typically for lower body you could increase your weight by 5-10kg or upper body 2.5-5kg.

One of my favorites, the Turkish Get-Up will be included in upcoming programs.

Benefits of strength training

Strength training can do so much more than merely strengthening your muscles. It can help strengthen your bones and increase the load bearing capacity of your tendons, ligaments and joints. Strength training also improves hormone regulation.  Most importantly, as a fundamental adaptation to performance, it causes neural adaptations. The neural adaptations happen even before structural adaptations. This causes muscles to work more economically.

Ultimately strength training causes you to lower the risks to injuries, makes your body a machine on the bike and most importantly helps you get more enjoyment from riding.

Over the next few months I will compile and publish a series of strength and conditioning routines to work on specific muscle groups to help you improve your riding. Stay tuned. Cheers! – Nelia

About Nelia Harding….

I am a Biokineticist with a special interest in Strength Training.  Being a sports person myself with a background in running, cycling, gymnastics and dancing, I have seen the many benefits of being strong for sport.  Over the past 6 years I have been working with athletes to help them improve their strength and their results have been outstanding.

I have a B.Sc. Degree in Human Movement Sciences and Nutrition, a B.Sc. Hons in Biokinetics and a M.Sc in Biokinetics.

Additionally I am a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association in the USA. I have been in practice since 2013 and recently started my online business called H360 Strength, where I do a consultation and thereafter prescribe a personalized program to meet your specific needs. I also analyze your movements through the use of video and help que you into the correct movement patterns. – Nelia


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