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Strength Training for Mountain Biking

Rep Ladders to Keep Fresh

Words by James Wilson.
November 15th, 2013

How to increase your strength without feeling sore and tired on the trail…

James Wilson is well known in the mountain bike world for training athletes at the World Cup and Olympic level, but he’s also got some great tips for the everyday rider. With the winter season firmly upon us, you might be looking for the secret weapon to keep you faster than your riding buddies when springtime comes along…


One of the paradoxes of strength training for mountain biking is that in order to get strong you need to lift heavy stuff – but lifting heavy stuff can leave you sore and tired. If you are sore and tired then you can’t ride as effectively, which isn’t what you want from you workouts. This means that finding a way to build strength without affecting your riding is a key to a good mountain bike strength training program.

One of my favorite methods for this purpose are Rep Ladders. Rep Ladders have you stick with the same weight each set but step up the number of reps each set. Once you reach the highest number of reps you drop back down to the first rung on the Rep Ladder and repeat.

For example, if I wanted to use Rep Ladders for the DB Clean and Press I’d pick a weight I could get for 5-6 reps and then do a 2/3/5 Rep Ladder sequence. If I did this sequence twice it would look like this…

Set 1 – 2 reps
Set 2 – 3 reps
Set 3 – 5 reps
Set 4 – 2 reps
Set 5 – 3 reps
Set 6 – 5 reps

You want to rest as long as you need to in order to give a high quality effort on the next set. Don’t make the mistake so many riders do and try to turn everything into a form of cardio training.

With this workout I was able to get 20 high quality reps in with only a couple of sets feeling “hard”. I’m increasing my strength from the volume of work done but I’m doing it in a way that doesn’t take the body to the edge every set.

This means you won’t feel nearly as beat up as if you had maxed out every set and tried to do something like 4 sets of 5 reps, which would give you the same 20 reps but would leave you far more sore and tired the next day.

Remember that as athletes you are after quality movement practice with your strength training sessions and Rep Ladders are one of the best ways to keep that quality high without placing excessive wear and tear on your body in the process.

In this video I  go over Rep Ladders and show you how they would look in action with the DB Clean and Press.

Try this workout next time you train, starting with going through the Rep Ladder sequence twice and working up to five times. You’ll find your strength and endurance will increase without making you sore and tired in the process. And this will lead to the ultimate improvement – having more fun on the trail.

If you have any questions about using Rep Ladders just post a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them. And if you liked this article and video please click one of the Like or Share buttons to help spread the word.

Until next time…
Ride Strong,
James Wilson


MTB Strength Training Systems is the world leader in integrated performance training programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. As the strength and conditioning coach for World Cup Teams and 3 National Championships, his programs have been proven at the highest levels. James has helped thousands of riders just like you improve their speed, endurance and skills on the trail. Visit bikejames.com to sign up for the free Trail Rider Fundamentals Video Mini-Course.


How do you plan to keep your strength and fitness up over winter?

  • iLalena

    Hey riders,

    My somewhat new job gives me access to a gym for free. I would like to take advantage of this in the off season. However, the gym has always intimidated me, as I always feel like I’m wondering what I should be doing next. Martial arts, including boxing and jiu jitsu has always kept me in shape during the off-season… but I won’t be doing it this winter.

    I’d like to give the exercise in this article a try… but I wonder how long of an interval should you wait between sets? A minute? Less? More?

    If anyone out there wants to give me a bit of advice on where to start, at the gym, please fire me a PM.

  • morgman

    Hey Lalena,

    I’m not sure how much experience you have in the gym, but if it is not a lot, I would suggest starting with at least a couple sessions with a personal trainer to learn some movements and proper form to avoid hurting yourself.

    As for the rest between sets in the ladder, it’s basically as long as you need to feel comfortable doing the next set. This could be 30 seconds, and could be two minutes… but if you’re having to wait two minutes, you may want to assess the weight you’re using or the total number of reps.

    Again, form is very important to avoid injury.

    Morgan