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Perform Better, Not Just Longer

by Ross Muinzer

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Due to the high intensity and duration of our sport, motocross is usually classified as an endurance sport. Because of this endurance requirement, a large emphasis is usually placed on conditioning and muscular endurance so that a rider is able to ride at race pace for the entire moto. It is common to see lengthy bicycle rides, high repetition exercises, circuits, and long motos at the practice track making up the vast majority of training programs. While endurance is absolutely vital for performance in this sport, failing to include all aspects of fitness will not allow a rider to reach maximum levels of performance. Conditioning only allows a rider to do what he or she can already do, just for longer. However, a proper training program can also make a rider faster as well. Strength is one of the most important factors that must be increased if maximum levels of performance are to be reached on the track.

Amateur standout Brock Papi is strong on and off the track.

photo: Mike Vizer

Max Strength

Strength can be increased to very significant levels in a relatively short amount of time. Strength is also the foundation for all others aspects of fitness such as power and even endurance. Therefore, an athlete’s training program should place an emphasis on increasing maximum strength first and foremost. An untrained athlete cannot effectively use all of the muscle fibers in the body.  Thus, by making an athlete stronger, performance is continually unlocked by allowing the athlete to use all of the existing musculature to its full potential. As mentioned in “Reinventing the Strength Training Wheel”, the majority of strength gains result from adaptations to the Central Nervous System (CNS). The sum of these CNS adaptations increases the athlete’s ability to produce force. Essentially, the CNS becomes more efficient at telling the muscles to contract, both generally speaking and specifically in the movements that are used in training. When a particular exercise or movement pattern is performed in successive training sessions, the resulting CNS adaptations generate greater motor control. This allows the specific movement to be repeated in a more efficient and consistent manner. In other words, the athlete is essentially practicing the exercise. Just as a golfer practices the putting stroke or a basketball player practices dribbling with the opposite hand, an athlete improves through repetition of a particular exercise. Practice is the key to success in any sport, and the same applies for strength training. However, practicing the wrong way can engrain incorrect movement just as easily. This is where exercise technique comes into play.

Failing to place a high value on strength training, will never allow maximum levels of performance to be achieved on the track.

The Importance of Proper Technique

Exercise technique is critical when it comes to strength training. One important responsibility of a strength and conditioning coach is to teach an athlete how to move using proper movement patterns. These patterns should be learned first and then strengthened through the use of external resistance. For example, if an athlete cannot correctly perform a goblet squat due to mobility or motor control issues, a barbell back squat should not be introduced until the squat pattern is corrected. Loading a poor movement pattern with external resistance can lead to bad habits which are difficult to un-teach and can lead to injury. Implementing proper movement patterns also teaches an athlete how to move in the strongest, safest, and most efficient way possible. There are many ways to pick up a barbell off of the floor, but when done correctly, very heavy amounts of weight can be lifted. Improper technique not only decreases performance in the gym, but can also lead to injuries because the joints are not being used in the proper manner.

The muscles and joints of the human body are designed to move in one particular manner and in coordination with one another. The movements required in every sport involve multi-joint movements, so when it comes to exercise selection for a strength training program, multi-joint exercises should make up the vast majority of movements used. Remember that the exercises used are teaching the muscles how to produce force in coordination with one another. The movements learned and strengthened in the gym reinforce the movements that are used on the track. For example, the deadlift is a great maximum strength exercise that just so happens to reinforce proper riding technique when standing on the pegs. The hip hinge position (hips back in flexion combined with a near horizontal back angle) of the deadlift brings motocross specificity to a multi-joint strength training exercise.

The deadlift is an important exercise that relates directly to how you ride your motorcycle.

How Strength Relates to Motocross

When strength is significantly increased in the movements that relate to motocross, the rider will have greater control of the bike. Riding techniques that require force production can be done to a greater extent after strength is increased. This does not mean that a rider should be trying to muscle the bike around for an entire moto, but there are times when force must be applied to the bike in order to increase speed through a section of the track. A few examples where being able to apply a greater amount of force to the bike is beneficial include weighting the outside peg in flat corners to maximize traction, seat bouncing into a supercross section, and breaking into the face of a wall jump. The more force a rider can withstand and apply to the bike, the greater the extent to which they can maneuver the bike in a manner that equates to speed. Speed is an area in which every rider can benefit. In essence, the rider can perform better, not just longer. Lap times will decrease as the rider gains the ability to control the bike and will hopefully prevent some crashes along the way.

An unfortunate reality of motocross is that crashes are inevitable and often lead to injuries. While it is impossible to make a rider bullet proof, strength training can help make a rider less prone to injury by increasing the durability of the connective tissues. When the body is subjected to the mechanical stress of lifting heavy weights, the result is adaptations that make these tissues more durable. Bones become stronger in a process that involves the migration of osteoblasts to the bone surface to produce proteins that become bone matrix and eventually mineralize to become new bone. This process increases the diameter of the bone and in turn, the strength of the bone. Tendons and ligaments are connective tissues made up of collagen fibers. The mechanical stress of lifting heavy weights causes an increase in the collagen fibril diameter and in the total number of collagen fibers. Together these adaptations increase the packing density of the collagen fibers making them more durable. The key factor to causing these adaptations to occur is the mechanical stress associated with lifting heavy weights. There is a threshold of mechanical stress that must be met in order to cause the adaptations to occur. As an athlete increases strength, they are able to lift increasingly heavier weights. Strength gains steadily increase the mechanical stress applied to the connective tissues, and in turn, continually surpass the stress threshold so that adaptations are constantly achieved. In other words, lifting the same weight and increasing the number or repetitions performed with that weight will not meet the mechanical stress threshold, and in turn, these connective tissue adaptations will not occur. This is typical of a muscular endurance based training program in which the number of repetitions performed with the same weight is increased over time.

Strength and Endurance

Trainers love to talk about the aerobic base theory of conditioning which states that aerobic conditioning is the foundation that all other forms of conditioning are built upon. However, very little is ever said about the foundation of muscular endurance, which just so happens to be muscular strength. An athlete will never reach maximum levels of muscular endurance without first increasing maximum strength. For example, let’s say that an untrained athlete has a one repetition maximum (1 RM) of 100 pounds in the barbell back squat. After a few months of strength training, the athlete’s 1 RM is now 200 pounds. The original 100 pound 1 RM is now 50% of the new 200 pound 1 RM. The estimation for the max number of reps with 50% of the 1 RM is greater than 20 reps. Without any emphasis placed on muscular endurance, the athlete went from being able to squat 100 pounds 1 time to being able to squat it at least 20 times. The athlete’s endurance has been significantly increased while focusing on maximum strength alone. Once a foundation of strength has been established, implementing training sessions focused on eliciting muscular endurance adaptations should then be used to maximize endurance. Far greater levels of muscular endurance can be reached in this manner rather than focusing on muscular endurance to begin with.

The take away message here is that there are many benefits to strength training, much more than what is discussed in this article. Strength should be focused on first and foremost because it sets the foundation on which all other aspects of performance are built. Professional teams and amateur moto Dads alike are always looking for ways to improve the performance of the bike. With the amount of time and money that is invested into making the bikes as good as possible, why isn’t the same care taken to ensure that the riders are as good as they can possibly be? A rider’s conditioning is meaningless if the rider cannot go fast enough to win. Increasing performance, not only in the form of conditioning, but also in the form of speed, should be the main goal of a training program. Failing to place a high value on strength training, will never allow maximum levels of performance to be achieved on the track.

About the Author: Ross Muinzer is a strength and conditioning coach with a Bachelor’s degree in movement and sports science from Purdue University and a Master’s degree in strength and conditioning from Texas Tech University. Ross also interned with the strength and conditioning staff and taught undergraduate weight training classes while studying at Texas Tech. He has worked exclusively with top amateur riders such as Luke Renzland, Daniel Baker, and Brock Papi. For more information regarding his training philosophy and training tips, please visit his Instagram account. @muinzer_mx_training

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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Discussion

  1. Gravatar
    Petter December 21, 2015 at 4:09 am

    Hi, I'm in the off season now and I've already been 4 weeks training base 1 (aerobic excercise, running and cycling at 70-80%) and this sunday was the first day back in the dirtbike after 3 weeks, but my average heart rate in a 20 min moto was near threshold(88%) and peaks of 98-99%. I wasn´t riding hard at all, below my race pace. Is it alright to have those heart rates during the off season? Or should I take it even easier and wait till the off season is done to start ride harder?
    Thanks for your time,
    Petter.

  2. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer December 22, 2015 at 9:20 am

    Petter,
    I assume you are referring to heart rate zones that were obtained on a bicycle. Remember, heart rate zones are specific to each different sport. So heart rates obtained while cycling, or rowing, or running, or anything else, HAVE ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with heart rates obtained while on the motorcycle. And it is my opinion to NEVER do heart rate training while on the motorcycle. You should worry more about skill development while on the bike. Hope this helps.

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