Injury Rehab Strategies

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If you participate in mountain biking long enough then odds are you will end up with an injury at some point. The injury scale varies, ranging from surgery and intense physical therapy to simply needing time off with some ice. However, what almost all injuries have in common is that there is usually a gap between where rehabbing the injury leaves off and the level of strength and coordination needed to safely and effectively return to your sport.

In order to best bridge that gap you need to undertake a well thought out strength and conditioning plan. Both scientific studies and real world results show us that without this added approach the odds of re-injury are much higher and the level of performance upon return is lower. Simply going into the weight room and randomly doing some exercises is not the best way, though, and may in fact make the situation worse without the right approach. In order to maximize your strength training program for injury rehab you must follow these four components when planning out your workouts:

-Train Unilaterally: It is extremely important that when you start your post rehab training that you train each limb separately. When you do bilateral exercises such as bench press or squats the stronger side will take over the movement and try to protect the weaker side. This just reinforces the strength imbalance that usually accompanies an injury.

If you do not force the weaker limb to work just as hard as the stronger limb then you will never fully address the strength imbalance, making it practically impossible to return to pre-injury performance levels. For the lower body this means doing exercises such as split squats, step ups and lunges (just to name a few) and for the upper body this means doing single arm dumbbell bench press, pullovers, rows and shoulder press. Incorporating this strategy right off the bat will ensure that balance is restored as quickly as possible.

-Follow the Weak Side Rule: This one ties in with training unilaterally. Since the injured side is usually weaker, it is important that you do not unknowingly continue to reinforce the strength imbalance. To make sure that you do not fall into this trap do your weaker side first in order to let it dictate the load and reps for the stronger side. Once you have completed your first set on the weaker side do that same load and number of reps for the stronger side, no matter how easy it may feel. In fact, if it is a major imbalance then you will want to add in one extra set for the weaker side until it starts to catch up. Only by using this approach can you guarantee the success of your post-rehab program.

-Emphasize the Eccentric: Studies have shown that the eccentric, or lowering, portion of an exercise not only yields some of the biggest strength gains, it is also extremely helpful in strengthening tendons and ligaments. Since these structural portions of a joint are usually part of the original injury, they are in a weakened state upon return. That is one of the major reasons that the odds of re-injury are so high upon return. This makes doing everything that we can to strengthen them as quickly and safely as possible a major priority during the post-rehab period.

There are numerous ways to emphasize the eccentric, some more practical than others. So, for most the two easiest ways are to slow down the eccentric portion and by using the 2:1 technique. Slowing down the eccentric means exactly that – lower the weight down to a count of 3-5, really making sure that you keep tension in the muscle on the way down instead of simply turning the muscle off and letting gravity pull the weight down. The 2:1 technique consists of raising a weight with 2 limbs and then lowering the weight down using 1 limb. For example, a great lower body variation of this is the 2:1 bodyweight squat. Set up a bench behind you, lower yourself down using one leg and then use both legs to stand back up. Emphasizing the eccentric portion of your exercises, especially on the injured side, will help you return structural integrity in a safe and effective manner.

-Emphasize Compound Bodyweight and Free Weight Movements: Since one of the major goals with a post rehab program is to restore full function as quickly as possible, it is very important to use exercises that work a lot of muscles in a coordinated effort. Using isolation movements and machines may help return strength to a specific area but unless your body can properly coordinate that area with the rest of the surrounding musculature you will not have the function needed to safely and effectively return to your sport. Remember that your body coordinates itself to create movement patterns, so using bodyweight and free weight exercises to train these movement patterns instead of individual muscles will return full function in the fastest manner possible.

As you can see, there are several potential benefits to incorporating a well structured strength training program into your post rehab strategy. Besides the physical strength and control you will also gain the mental confidence from knowing that you are doing everything that you can to ensure your success. Seeing your injured side performing well in a controlled environment like the gym will do wonders for your confidence in the chaotic environment of the trail, letting you simply perform instead of constantly wondering if you are going to re-injure yourself. Fitter, more confident athletes also tend to have more fun upon their return, which is still what it is all about.

 -James Wilson-

Don’t Fall for the Bike Mag Hype

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Warning – what follows is a rant that may appear to be a bit random in places. It may also offend a few people but if I’m not pissing somebody off every day then I am probably not trying hard enough.

I have to admit it – I’m getting more than a little frustrated at the MTB industry. MTB riders everywhere have been flat out lied to and deceived by the MTB industry, particularly with the help of the magazines. In short, these entities have managed to convince most everyone that the key to enjoying mountain biking is more about the bike they are riding and the components hung on that bike than about how tuned the engine driving the bike is. This approach is total bull shit that will do little to really help riders enjoy the trail more.

I recognize it because the same thing has happened to the general fitness industry. You can’t open a single fitness magazine without being accosted by ads and articles pimping supplements and new machines and gadgets. The same money driven attitude has spawned this “all sizzle, no steak” approach that we see in the MTB magazines. Trust me, advertising dollars drive the MTB world just like it does the fitness world. And what the advertising dollars want you to see and hear the magazines are more than happy to print.

True story – several years ago I knew the owner of a large bike company that was importing a unique new bike from the European market to the states. I saw him on the trail one day and he was pretty pissed after a meeting with the editor of one of the bigger MTB mags. He had wanted to see about getting the bike reviewed by the mag and was told that the write up “could” depend on how much advertising he was willing to buy, plain and simple.

Granted, some smaller bike builders manage to get their bikes reviewed without having to invest in a good deal of advertising but that is the exception, not the rule. It is no coincidence that companies like Cannondale and Trek have no problem getting every bike they bring to market in the mags – they also happen to buy 2 page advertising spreads every month as well.

Magazines would quickly go out of business without these advertising dollars so they feel compelled to oblige those that basically write their paychecks. Now, I’m not saying that there is a big conspiracy in which all of these people know that they are blowing smoke up your butt, they simply don’t know any better. Like my dad told me once – if you grow up in a whore house you just don’t know that whoring is wrong. They just know how business has been done in the past and to them it is just business as usual.

We all know of riders who rip it up on whatever bike they ride. I’ve personally known 2 guys who rode some pretty beat up bikes and absolutely embarrassed everyone else on the trail, no matter how new and advanced the bike everyone else was riding. To use a better known rider as an example, how did Fabien Barrel win 2 DH World Championships on a Kona Stab? Is the Stab the most technologically advanced bike in the world? Hell no, Fabien is just a great athlete and he trains his ass off.

Or how about my boy Rich Houseman? While Yeti obviously makes great bikes, was it the bike that allowed him to win his first Pro title last season? Nope, Rich has worked hard over the years to get where he his at and I guarantee you that he could throw a leg over any bike and be a threat on the track.

Top riders, both pros and bros, know the truth – give them a bike and they can tear it up because they have the most important asset a biker can have – superior physical skills. Training can give the average MTB rider better physical skills and while they may never get to the same point that a Fabien or Big House are, they can get closer than they will be by trying to figure out how to shave a pound off their bike or what shiny new part in the bike mags they must get next.

Seriously, what will make a bigger impact on your riding – adding 75 lbs. to your deadlift or adding a carbon fiber handlebar? Investing in a bike skills camp or investing in the new XTR build kit? Living in Fruita I have seen countless guys on the best bikes money can buy poking along the trail because they are physically weak and their skills suck. You simply can not appreciate the small performance increase these top tier bikes and parts offer unless you are physically in shape to do so.

Now, I do acknowledge that you do need a decent bike that is made for what you are doing. Obviously a Wal-Mart bike will not do and trying to downhill on a XC bike will get pretty scary, but once you have invested in a decent bike that is intended for the type of riding you are doing the best way to enjoy the trail more is to start worrying about increasing your physical skills and capacities.

However, the mags don’t get advertising dollars from training sources so they don’t want to “waste” space promoting something that does not pay them to do so. They are also afraid that they will lose readership if they do something different than the other mags, a lemming mentality that does little to advance our sport.

So, what does this all mean? First, check yourself and your priorities. Do you really want to be a better rider and enjoy riding more? If so, what are you doing to achieve that goal? If your answer is something like “saving for a new (fill in the blank)” then maybe you’re going about it the wrong way. If you are really serious about getting all that you can out of your saddle time then your answer must include investing in yourself through some sort of skills or physical training program, preferably both. If not, then being a better biker is not really a priority of yours, which is fine, just know that you’ll probably be riding at the same level this time next year, even with a shiny new crankset or handlebar.

Second, if you are serious about being a better rider then take some action. Invest in yourself and let your favorite bike mags know that you would like to see more coverage of skills and physical training. If they start to think that their readership wants to see this type of stuff then they will be much more likely to devote some of their space to it.

Anyways, so ends my rant. My singular mission at this point is to help re-shape the mentality of the MTB world and hopefully help my fellow riders better appreciate what investing in themselves will do for them. Hopefully some of you can help me do just that. 

-James Wilson-

Focusing on Sustainable Gains

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Sustainable resources are a hot topic today. From fuel and housing materials to water sources, this decade has seen an almost unprecedented awareness about the need to seek sustainability in our lifestyles. In a nutshell, we are starting to realize that if the scales are tipped to far in one direction then we will lack the balance to sustain our resources in the future.

This train of thought is just as applicable to an area that few think about – your training. You have to realize that not all gains made in training are equal. Just like we need to keep a balance with our natural resources we have to keep a balance with our body or else we will break down.

Gains in strength or skill that come at the expense of being able to maintain functional movements are what I call “unsustainable gains”. This means that because of the imbalances that are caused by losing functional movement you have set yourself up for a series of injuries down the road, hardly a fair trade off in my opinion.

Let me give you an example – let’s say that a high school athlete can properly maintain functional movement throughout the entire range of motion of a 135 pound squat. As a quick refresher, functional movement for a squat consists of keeping strong foot contact with the ground, keeping their knees over their feet, being able to keep their lumbar spine straight and strong and able to keep their chest puffed out.

Now, let’s say that they add another 10 pounds to the bar. They are able to squat pretty good but this time they let their heels come off the ground slightly as they lower themselves down. This break in functional movement means that they are shifting a lot of shearing force to their knees and that they are dominating the movement with their quads instead of using the hips to help. These two things will lead to knee issues as the stress on the knees mounts and the dysfunction of having overly dominant quads adds to the injury potential at the knees.

In my opinion, unless that athlete is made aware of and can correct that small break in their functional movement they have not really gained anything except an increase in their injury potential. And in no way should they be allowed to add even more weight. Sure, they could probably add another 20-50 pounds before their form got so bad that even they realize they should stop but allowing an athlete to continue to add weight at the expense of form should be avoided like the plague considering the long term ramifications

The above scenario is a simple example from the weight room, but this principle applies to every facet of training for your sport. For example, consider the example of a rider who takes the “ride to get better at riding” approach. Sure, this will get them some fitness gains and they may even become a very good rider, however that performance is built on a very shaky foundation.

Like every other sport, mountain biking will emphasize certain muscles and movement patterns and rarely use others. Because of this imbalance dysfunctions will occur, such as developing overly strong and tight quads and hip flexors and weak glutes and hamstrings. This common cycling dysfunction will cause knee and lower back pain. If the imbalances developed by cycling are left unchecked they will lead to injuries down the road as your body tries to sustain its unsustainable performance levels.

This is a tough one to internalize because we are such a “right now” society. Gaining 50 pounds on your squat or being able to increase your cycling endurance is great for any athlete, but without thinking about the ultimate costs of those gains you will set yourself up for a lot of pain in the future. Sometimes it can take decades for the pain to get really bad but trust me, it will catch up with you.

To wrap up, training for your sport can cause imbalances that will lead to injuries. In fact, most sport related injuries are completely avoidable if the principle of seeking sustainable gains is applied. In most cases strength and mobility training are the only ways to efficiently and effectively maintain the balance our body needs to sustain its performance levels. All it will take is applying a little bit of our appreciation for sustainable resources to our most precious natural resource of all – our own bodies.

-James Wilson-

Combo Lift Video Demo

Here is a video demo I shot of some different ways to use combination drills in your routine…

-James Wilson-

Combo Lifts: More results in less time

One of the biggest concerns I get from mountain bikers about adding strength training into their regimen is that they do not have time for it. Family, work, personal lives and (most importantly) riding all add up leaving some of us with less than 2 hours per week for any other type of training. Because most programs (including my Ultimate MTB Workout Program) require 2-3 hours per week to complete these riders end up doing nothing.

However, this does not need to be the case. There is a training technique that will allow you to build strength, power, endurance, coordination and burn some fat, getting it all done in only 20 minutes. I’m sure that this sound too good to be true, huh? Well, this is one time the reality really does live up to the hype.

This “magic” technique is called combination lifts. This method has a few applications that I will discuss but they all have a few things in common. First, combination lifts string several exercises (usually 3-6) with each exercise being done for 5-6 reps each. Second, the exercises are done in a non-stop circuit fashion using the same implement and load. For example, if you chose to use 30 lb. dumbbells for your combination lift series you would use them for all of the exercises, not putting them down until you completed all of the reps of each exercise in the series.

Let me give you an example to better illustrate these points. Here is a good combination lift series that I use a lot in my facility:

  • – Jump Shrug (jump off the ground and shrug while holding 2 DBs at your side)
  • – Front Squat (raise DBs up by the front of your shoulders)
  • – Push Press (shoulder press with a little leg drive to help)
  • – Reverse Lunge (bring DBs back down by your sides)
  • – Stiff Leg Deadlift
  • – Bent Row

For this combination series I will assign 5 reps to each exercise. This means that you will pick up your DBs, do 5 reps of jump squat, immediately raise the DBs up to do the front squats and immediately go into your push presses, etc. until you have done 5 reps for each exercise. At that point you rest 60 seconds and repeat the combination lift series 3-4 more time.

One thing to consider with the combination lifts is that one exercise will always be the weak link in the series, meaning that you will have to pick a weight that allows you to complete the 5 reps for it. In the above example I have found that the push press tends to be that limiting factor for a lot of people. While we make some provision for this by putting the limiting exercise early in the series you still need to be aware of this and choose your weight accordingly. You must be able to complete all of the reps for every exercise using good form or else you must drop the weight down as to avoid an injury.

Also, while combination lifts are a great way to squeeze a lot of quality work into a short time and quickly produce some dramatic results, it does limit you in a two key areas. Basically, you will never develop as much raw strength and/ or power as you could by using a more traditional approach that will spend periods in each workout and in the overall program concentrating on these qualities. Combination lifts are a compromise in these areas, developing them but not to the same degree a dedicated program will.

Despite this compromise, though, combination lifts offer a lot of bang for the buck, giving you great results in the least amount of time possible. Plus, they can be done at home using only a pair of adjustable dumbbells or (preferably) Kettle Grips. This means that they are the perfect option for those that do not have a gym membership and have very limited equipment options.

Another thing that mountain bikers tend to enjoy is that this technique does not put a lot of muscle mass on the user. This is good for those that feel that too much extra weight could hurt their riding or adversely affect their suspension performance. While you may put on some, it will be minimal and what is added is highly functional muscle and is needed to support your increases in strength and power.

Lastly, I mentioned that there are a couple of different ways to employ the combination lifts and while all of them are outside the scope of this article I will share on more with you. You can take the exact same sequence of exercises listed above but instead of doing 5 jump shrugs, 5 front squat, 5 push presses, etc. you can do 1 rep of each exercise and run through the circuit 5 times. You will do the same exercises for the same amount of reps but you will get a greater conditioning and coordination challenge by going through the exercises this way.

So there you have it, a great workout that will take you less than 10 minutes to complete. I will usually do have people do 2 different combination series, one relying more on explosive movements and one relying more on strength movements in order to give a complete workout in less than 20 minutes. Even if you have the time and desire to devote yourself to a more involved workout program you can still use these combination lifts are a great way to get some anaerobic conditioning in at the end of your workout.

Give this a shot at your next workout and see what you think. If you are anything like me and my clients you will come out of the workout knowing that you just added a highly beneficial and fun tool to your training toolbox.

-James Wilson-

Are you “overskilled”?

I would have to say that 90% of the MTB riders and racers that I have met would be defined as “over skilled”. It sounds absurd since most feel that some aspect of their riding needs work, be it skill related such as gate starts or fitness related such as better power endurance (I define MTB specific fitness as a “skill”). However, when you really understand how the human body functions and best adapts to MTB specific skills and fitness you will see what I mean. First, though, I need to explain the OPP.

The Optimum Performance Pyramid (OPP) was first introduced to me by Gray Cook, a highly influential figure in strength training circles. It is probably the best explanation that I have come across describing how performance training should be viewed. Gray uses the OPP to explain the 3 distinct levels of performance training, their prioritization and how to best integrate them.

The first, and broadest, level is Functional Movement. Contrary to the current fitness trends, this does not mean standing on a wobbly doo-hicky, looking like you are trying out for the circus. Functional Movement simply refers to developing adequate mobility, body control and movement awareness in order to safely handle higher level movements.

Examples of exercises in this level would include single leg box squats, pistol squats, Bulgarian split squats, single leg deadlift, push ups and their variations, inverted rows and alternating DB shoulder press. Bodyweight and unilateral exercises make up the bulk of this type of training. However, bodyweight exercises are extremely humbling when challenging variations are used. Do not underestimate the power of this type of training.

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The Functional Movement level should also address any imbalances in the body, both mobility and strength wise, as they are a huge red flag for a potential injury. An athlete without a strong base built in this level of training will be far more prone to injuries, have a harder time mastering new skills and techniques and generally find that their training efforts yield few and inconsistent results.

The second level of the pyramid is Functional Strength. This level focuses on improving your raw strength and power. As I have touched on many times, increasing these areas will effectively add to your raw potential. Riders without adequate time spent on this level will also find that they have a harder time mastering new skills and will probably feel as if they have hit a plateau with their progression.

Examples of exercises in this level would include deadlift, front squat, bench press, military press, weighted pull ups/ chin ups, and DB rows. Compound, core exercises for the main movement patterns make up the bulk of this level.

The last, and smallest, level is Functional Skill. Unfortunately, this is where most training that MTB riders undertake would fall. This includes trail riding, DH runs, dirt jumping, 4X track time, gate starts, sprints, intervals and high level strength training methods such as plyometrics and Olympic Lifts. These methods will only yield the biggest “MTB specific” gains if they are used by someone who has spent time developing the base levels of the performance training pyramid. Believe it or not, over use of training methods in this level can actually slow down and stagnate skill development and fitness progression.

In fact, if you talked with any of the originators of a specialized training method I will guarantee you that they would tell you that they intended that method to be used by someone who had progressed into it. Every good strength coach understands the importance of laying a solid foundation and building on it in a progressive manner, but that approach is rarely reported on in the media or used by less skilled fitness professionals. What you find in the magazines and training boards is someone who reports on the specialized method independent of the progression intended to lead into it. Everyone wants to report on, learn and/ or use the “special” and “secret” training method of the champs, but failure to understand the progression into that method does a great disservice to the pioneers that gave us those methods.

Plyometrics have to be one of the best examples of this. Developed and refined by the old Soviet Union, plyometrics have developed an almost mystical status here in the United States. Almost every training conversation that I have with a rider eventually comes around to “what about plyometrics”, as if they hold the key to all riding goals. Riders who can barely pull off a bodyweight squat are jumping around cones and off of boxes in the quest for a MTB specific workout. However, the pioneers of the plyometric method would be greatly disturbed by this approach.

Some of the old Soviet training texts suggest that an athlete should have progressed (there’s that word again) to a double bodyweight squat before they were ready for depth jumps and other high level plyometrics. While I may not agree with that specific suggestion (more recent suggestions are around 1-1.5 times your bodyweight), it does underscore the fact that no one came into their training program and started off with plyometrics. In fact, it could be years before they would allow an athlete to use those higher level training methods if they felt adequate functional movement and strength had not been established. BTW, the Soviets kicked a lot off butt with this approach and this template has become the model for almost every high level strength and conditioning coach in the world.

So, as you can see from this point of view, most riders spend far too much time and focus on the Functional Skill level of the OPP. A lot of them may not have spent any time working on Functional Movement and/ or Functional Strength. This makes them over skilled, as their MTB specific skill and fitness progression is maxed out compared to the base that they have built. This means that a long term approach with an eye on safely progressing through the 3 levels of the OPP is needed for sustainable results. Without it, you are simply guessing at what will help you and hoping that it will. I don’t know about you, but that approach leaves too much to chance. If I’m going to invest time into training I want to be sure that it is going to pay off.

Note: do not confuse “over skilled” from a performance training point of view with having “adequate skill” from a pure performance point of view. Most of us will never be satisfied with our skill and fitness levels in every aspect of riding so we will always be looking to get a little better in some aspect on the bike. What I am saying is that at a certain point you must re-solidify the base of your OPP in order to continue to realize the gains offered by the higher level strategies.

-James Wilson-

21st Century Cardio Training – Part 2

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In this podcast I show you how to use an intensity based program to avoid the pitfalls seen in most cardio programs:

21st Century Cardio Training Part 2

You can also download the handout I refer to in the podcast:

Cardio Training Handout

-James Wilson-