The Riding For A Lifetime Podcast
The Riding For A Lifetime Podcast
James Wilson - MTB Strength Training Systems
Strength Training Basics For The 40+ Year Old Rider
1 hour 3 minutes Posted Feb 16, 2024 at 12:30 pm.
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As you get older, strength training changes from a “good to do” to a “must do” status. Losing your strength, muscle and power are all realities for the 40+ year old rider and strength training is the best way to slow that process down.

This is the #1 tactic for riders who want to do this for a lifetime - get and stay strong and you’ll avoid age-related physical decline for as long as possible.  

Plus, improving your strength, power and muscle mass can help improve performance and reduce your risk of injury, so it helps now and acts as insurance against future losses. And while a lot of things can help, if you want to maximize your results there are some basic principles that the 40+ year old rider should be observing.

First, almost anything can “work” but it eventually stops working and it may not build the strength and fitness you need for riding. The goal is to follow a training program that will help us on the path towards riding for a lifetime: improving our MTB specific fitness and our overall longevity/ health.

With that in mind, here are some basic guidelines to help you with designing or choosing a training program.

Podcast Notes:

2-4 days a week is plenty and the specific number depends on how much you are riding and your ability to recover.

  • The more you are riding and the more important your performance the fewer days you will lift.
  • The more you are trying to focus on strength training/ building muscle the more often you need to lift.
  • So this breaks down to 2 days a week during the riding season and 3-4 days a week in the off season depending on time available and goals.

You want to focus on big, compound movements but doing some isolation exercises won’t make you dysfunctional and can be beneficial in some cases.

  • You want to focus on getting stronger or doing more volume with the main movement patterns and the exercises that train them - Squat, Hinge, Push, Pull, Carry and Rotate.
    • I’d also break them up into unilateral and bilateral exercises
  • But doing some isolation exercises like curls and tricep extensions can help with total body isometric strength as well as help with muscle building/ preservation.

You want to use a variety of set and rep schemes, with the bulk of them focusing on the 2-4 sets of 3-8 reps. 

  • 2-4 sets is enough volume to build strength and power without excessive fatigue.
  • 3-8 reps covers the strength and power end as it gets into the hypertrophy end of things, giving you a variety of training stimuli to pick from.
  • I’d recommend 80% of your training falling in this range and the other 20% falling into the higher rep ranges, going up to 20-30 reps.
  • I don’t recommend spending time in the 1-2 rep range as the risk to benefit ratio isn’t high enough for me to be comfortable with recommending to most riders.

You don’t need to train to failure to see results and IMO it should be avoided as a 40+ year old rider.

  • There is a lot of science that tells us that you don’t need to train to failure (or beyond) to see results.
  • You can train to near failure and see the same results while also saving your body some wear and tear and also lowering your injury risk.
  • Training to within 1-3 reps of failure is plenty to see results. This usually occurs when you start to slow down the concentric portion of the exercise, so as long as you go until you start to slow down then you are fine.
  • Leaving 3-1 Reps In Reserve (RIR) also helps avoid injury since the closer you get to failure the more likely you are to see a technical breakdown that can lead to an acute or overuse injury.

Don’t use bodypart training and instead focus on total body or upper body/ lower body splits.

  • Using bodypart training split (where you train the body by body parts like Chest, Back, Legs, Biceps, ect.) is a great way to build muscle but not the best way to build functional strength and power.
  • Like I mentioned before, you want to focus on training movement patterns and so you want to divide your workouts based on those movement patterns.
  • This means you can do a total body training split (where you train the lower and upper body on the same day) or an upper body/ lower body split where you focus on one area of the body each day.
  • Total body training is usually better for minimizing soreness and maximizing recovery while the upper/ lower training split is better for creating more stress in one area, which can deliver better results with proper recovery or can help riders who recover really well and need more volume to stimulate progress.
  • I suggest starting with a total body training split and then trying the upper/ lower training split if you feel you aren’t getting fatigued from your workouts.

Don’t Overdo Circuit Training

  • You don’t want to turn everything into Circuit Training, where you do 3-4+ exercises in a row before repeating the Circuit for the specified reps.
  • Circuit Training is great for getting a lot of work done in a short period of time but not great for building strength and power.
  • You also don’t need to get that much done each workout - 3-6 exercises is plenty for most people. Better to focus more on less as you get older.
  • Do Straight Sets (where you do one exercise at time) or Supersets (where you do two exercises in a row) for your main lifts and save the Circuit Training for your secondary lifts.

Use Isometrics to help round out your strength and safeguard your health.

  • Isometrics are exercises where you create tension but don’t create movement.
  • It is the basis for the stabilization strength you need to display strength and power from a strong, stable platform.
  • It is also a great way to practice good breathing habits during high tension efforts, which translates very well to the trail.
  • Isometrics have also been shown to help with high blood pressure and isometric strength has been linked to fewer TBIs and longevity.
  • Use isometrics to train movement patterns that you can’t train with weights, either through lack of equipment or previous/ current injuries.
  • If you are healthy then do one day of isomerics each week to round out your strength and longevity program.

Build up the intensity of your workouts over several weeks.

  • You don’t want to come out and go as hard as you can in Week 1 of a new program. This gives you little room to improve and means that you will be maxing out your recovery abilities too soon.
  • You want to start out easy in Week 1, moderate in Week 2 and then hard in Week 3.
  • A good way to do this is to use the Reps In Reserve idea we talked about earlier. In Week 1 leave 3 RIR, in Week 2 leave 2 RIR and in Week 3 leave 1 RIR or go to failure if you must.
  • Week 4 should be a deloading week so go back to 3 RIR and give your body a chance to recover from the hard week.

Change your workout every 4-8 weeks, with longer periods with the same workout being better.

  • I’m convinced that we change workouts far too often and that the 40+ year old rider would do better with changing workout every 6-8 weeks.
  • As long as you are able to progress (i.e. add load and/ reps) then there isn’t a huge need to change workouts. 
  • Longer periods of time with a workout means more chances to build on the skill behind the exercises you are doing, which means you build mastery and lower your chance of injury.
  • The more you do a workout the less sore you get from it, leaving you feeling better when you’re riding or just during your everyday life.

Last Piece Of Advice Is Not To Lift For Social Media Or Look To It For New Ideas

  • Lifting to look cool on SM is a young person's game.
  • You don’t need to max out your Deadlift or try to jump up on a bunch of boxes.
  • You also need to remember that a lot of the stuff you see on SM is there to get likes and look cool and probably isn’t the most productive use of your time.
  • Stick with the basics and weigh the risk to benefit ratio when trying new things.

What does this look like in real life?

  • I’ll link to a copy of my current training program here for you to check out. This is also the format I use in my online training program, especially the Ultimate MTB Workout Program.
  • What you’ll see is 1 Power Exercise, 2 Main Exercises that use an upper body and a lower body lift around 3 secondary exercises that hit other movements or muscle groups I want to target.
  • You’ll also see that I’m using Straight Sets for the first 3 exercises (Power and Main Exercises) and Circuit Training for the last 3 (Secondary Exercises).
  • After 6-8 weeks of this routine I’ll switch it up by changing the exercises, sets and reps but sticking with the same basic outline.
  • Switching between Sets and Reps like 3 X 3, 2 X 5 and 4 X 8 is a good way to use the suggested parameters from phase to phase.

These are the basic parameters I focus on with my own training and the clients I work with who are in the 40+ crowd.  Focusing on doing fewer things but at a higher level of focus and mastery is one of the themes I like to push with these workouts.

You can and should train hard, you just have to be smarter about when and how you push yourself to the limit.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson