XCM: Improving core and grip strength

I need to consistently work on improving my core and grip strength.

I’ve noticed that my hands and arms are my limiters for long marathon mountain bike races (right now I’m doing the 4-hour races, looking to add some of the National Ultra Endurance series next year (metric centuries, and eventually the imperial centuries too).

My primary question is: how often can I train those muscle groups each week without over training? Assume I’m riding MTB twice per week - shorter on Thursdays (say 90 minutes to 2 hours), longer on Saturdays (say 3-4 hours).

Secondary questions:

  • any recommendations for a set of exercises that’s effective? I have a bunch already, so it’s not critical, but always open to ideas. My list includes planks, push ups, crunches, bird dog and dead bug. I’d prefer body weight exercise since I’m in-season now. I have a set of kettlebell exercises I’ll start once the season ends.
  • is there anything specific I should look for as a signal that I’m doing too much work, or too frequently?

Thanks!

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Why do you think it’s a limiter, what problems are you having? I’ve raced MTB races from 7-17 hours and never thought that my grip or core held me back. Sure they get sore and fatigued, but so does everything else.

I’ve never specifically trained any grip or core exercises in season. With the amount of weekly trail riding you’re doing, that should be plenty sufficient. If I were to incorporate specific strength training that would be in the off season.

I’d additionally look at your cockpit. Maybe your grips are causing excessive fatigue. I use ESI Extra Chunky grips and love them. Or possibly your fit is off and your putting too much weight on your hands.

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A couple gym movements you could add to help with grip strength are pinch grip farmer walks, reverse curls, and farmer carries/walks. Those might help, they’ll strengthen grip and forearm strength. Like stated above, arms get sore just like everything else, long days on the trail also help but if you’re short on time every week try adding those strength movements.

If you don’t have any plates for the pinch grip, try using heavy books.

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Great question @MI-XC! Whenever I ride hard on a moderately technical course - pushing speed and handling - my braking and steering are the first things that get “wobbly”.
Last night, I did our short, 3-lap Thursday night “race” (about 60-70 minutes all-in) and pushed hard to see how long I could stay with the main group. My handling skills started falling apart - to the point where I endo’d at the beginning of lap 3 - well before my leg strength really dropped off.
The same thing happens in marathon races. In hour 2 or hour 3 of a 4-hour+ race, my braking starts to get really punchy (instead of smooth), and my steering is less precise - I run into more obstacles and my lines aren’t nearly as smooth.

Agree with you on strength training in the off-season, it will be a big focus for me this year.

Re: cockpit. In general, it’s a pretty good fit (I run Ergon grips). I agree, I could be putting too much weight on my hands - which goes back to my question about core strength…

Great suggestion - thanks @Foodpedaling !!

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Other than working on your grip strength, here’s a few other things that might help somewhat:

Cockpit

  • Get a bar that has some built in flex. Enve, OneUp etc are two that comes to mind. Several of the best downhill riders in the world, actually rides aluminum bars to help combat arm pump
  • Brakes - Strong brakes, with lever positioned close to the bar reduces fatigue on long descents.

Technique

  • Sometimes arm pump is in part caused by “overgripping” the bars. Try to relax your grip every time you get a break from the rough stuff.
  • Breathing. Make sure you are breathing! When the going gets fast and scary, it is easy to tense up and hold the breath without noticing it. This was a big one for me!
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This still sounds like a setup rather than grip strength issue. Possibly your bars are too stiff, maybe consider carbon bars with some compliance. Is your fork set up with appropriate sag and small bump compliance? Allowing a bit more sag may help. Is your front tire pressure too high? Also possibly try foam grips. Or grips with wider or smaller diameter. I have smaller hands relative to my size but prefer fatter grips.

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You mention planks, push-ups, crunches, bird dog, dead bug. I see no pull or grip strength exercises at all, just push and core. I personally would add pull-ups to that list as a start, and I also do rows, and a bunch of band-exercises for shoulders.

Another exercise I’m a big fan of are battle rope exercises / waves - I’ll do the rest of my upper body workout and finish with 60 second “intervals”

It’s like anything else, should probably do them after your outdoor MTB rides so you have time to rest/recover, and ramp up volume in the offseason.

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Good points. I’m running a carbon bar already (It’s a SQLabs for the 16-degree sweepback).
Brakes - I run a Magura 4-piston on 180mm in the front, 2-piston on 160mm in the rear. From everything I’ve seen, that seems like a decent setup, but I’m open to suggestions!

Also good points. I’m probably “overgripping”, and I do need to figure out how to monitor my breathing. These are great areas to focus on, thanks!

I’ll recheck, especially the fork. Bars are carbon, fork is setup with 20% sag and the Fox recommended rebound.
I run 13 psi in front, 15 psi in the rear on 2.4 inch tires. If I go lower, I start to experience rim strikes on some parts.
Grips - I run Ergon GA3s. I might try foam grips at some point just to see if they feel better.

I wonder if I should practice riding with fingers spread out, rather than around the bars.

Thanks - these are great suggestions! I do have pull-ups in my routine, but right now I can only completely three-quarters of one. So that’s probably a limiter :grinning:

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Get Pull-up assist bands to make them easier so you can complete full sets. Something like this:

A TRX Suspension Trainer set would be another good thing to have - can find different bodyweight “pull” exercises to work up to pull ups.

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Practice practice practice helps.
I preemptively change hands position frequently during my rides.
I added togs which create another possible hand position where i can control the bike.
I tried different angles for my Ergon GA3.

I just did HC100 last weekend and hands fatigue wasn’t my limiter. Yet that’s the kind of race where, at the end, everything hurts.

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How about your gloves and grips?

Santa Cruz makes some sticky oversized grips. And sticky full fingered gloves seem to help me too.

I made a mistake of taking my gloves off at Tahoe Trail 100. My hands were sweaty and slippery and made it much hard to control.

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I love my T.O.G.S.!
A few questions:

  • What’s your approach to changing hand position?
    — Different for different kinds of terrain? Different on a rotating basis by time? Some other way?
  • which angle of the ergon grip ended up working better for you? How did you know once you had found it?

Thanks - Good questions.
I always wear gloves. I’m using FOX MTB gloves for my races. I have Troy Lee designs light gloves for my training rides. The Troy Lee gloves don’t have a s much protection, but still provide decent grip I think.

When I say sticky gloves, I’m referring to the type with rubberized coatings on the fingers and palms. They seem to decrease the grip force I need to feel stable.

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I would start kettlebell exercises mid season just start very light. If you haven’t found Pavel yet his grease the groove method is designed to make you not be sore. He has a ton of free content on YouTube.

If you have kettlebells, simply looping a towel through the handle and doing a static lift and hold for time while gripping the towel is killer for grip strength. That might be a good In season exercise since while its works grip and it may fry your forearms if you’re not careful, it is not otherwise fatiguing.

Most kettlebell exercises work your core and grip along with whatever else a specific move may be targeting so kettlebells are a great bang for the buck training wise. A couple of full blown KB workouts a week during the season might not be what you’re after but 10-15 minutes of kettlebell swings per week will help your core and not be too taxing.
But off season - add this “armor” complex (2 cleans, 1 press, 3 squats) to your mix of whatever else you are doing for strength. While I haven’t seen much reference to is specifically in regards to cycling, it’s got almost all the things cyclists need in one 3 move set. You can do it with one or two kettlebells; one might actually be better for core and you end up doing twice as many squats so that may be the best way to go for a cyclist. Do 10-15 of these 2-3 times a week and your core will be just fine.

Actually, subscribe to that guy’s channel and watch his videos. He’s got the best “how to” kettlebell videos on the internet.

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I’d additionally look at your cockpit. Maybe your grips are causing excessive fatigue. I use ESI Extra Chunky grips and love them

+1

Another thing, where are your brakes rotated to? If they are rotated around toward the underneath of the bar, you’ll be rolling your wrists over the bars to reach them which will tire out your hands and forearms. That in itself may lead to an anxiety about the level of control you have when tired.

If so try rotating them back up so they are not quite parallel to the ground but at least you can rest two fingers on top of the brake lever when your hands are on the bars and fingers pointing forward down the trail. This should help.

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trial and error
I rode with the support pads too low (wrist at an angle, it doesn’t hurt but the pads aren’t helping and i see it)
then rotated too high (heel of the hand took a beating on rocky bumpy drop & descents). What works for me is to have my arm in a straight line when in descending position with saddle up, and a finger on the brake.

As for rotating position, there’s no algorithm. I just consciously move my hands around especially in easy stuff because when it gets technical, that 's not the time to go in unfamiliar positions.

Skimmed the replies so apologies if it’s been mentioned already but rock (real or plastic) climbing would be a decent alternative to dedicated grip training. It’s a bit less specific insofar as most grips are some variety of open hand grip but it does teach only gripping as hard as you need to pretty quickly.

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Thanks! Yeah, my racing and some of my training gloves have this!