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Strength Issues for Women

by Celeste Pinheiro

Like Motocross, proper riding technique on the trails can often compensate for poor conditioning and low body strength.

It’s not long after a girl starts riding that she hears someone (usually some guy) say “well, women will never ride as good as guys because they just don’t have the upper body strength to hack it." To which I reply, “BITE ME!" If  this chick can roll a frying pan or even better, if Annie Seel can finish the 2010 Dakar 45th out of 88 motorcycle competitors (um, 84 of those were guys), women certainly have enough to hack it pretty well.

Of course it is reality women just have less upper body muscle mass than men, but instead of letting it be an excuse to give up, turn it into a positive kick in the pants to help you become a better rider. You can overcome the lack of brute strength to manhandle the bike by learning to ride smarter with better technique (skills), better understanding of how your body works as a whole (strength), and better attention to conserving energy (endurance). Brains CAN make up for some brawn!

I’ll address this female upper body issue in two parts - part one will address how to ride smarter and make more of what you already have, and part two will be some fitness tips to help you build integrated upper body strength.

Looking back, in learning to ride most of my upper body strength issues involved being a control freak and trying to manhandle or steer the bike everywhere, and the jello-fatigue that came from all that tension. Not good when faced with a technically hairy downhill. I still can’t lift my bike up out of a mudhole.  I could probably kinda lay it over drag it around eventually to where I could pick it up, but that doesn’t work when the water is up to the bottom of the airbox! If I got hit with unexpected air on the trail I usually folded on the landing. But I found out that riding smarter and with better understanding and discipline solved a lot of those screw up situations from happening. Building more strength also enabled me to survive those screw ups and even fix them and ride on without taking a “break” to contemplate my suckage.

"And with more strength comes more BITE ME too!"

There is a reason why trainers hammer mercilessly on good bike technique - these skills have been proven to be the body’s most efficient use of energy and ergonomic interaction with the bike to keep the rubber down and feet on the pegs (a whole bunch of cool physics stuff). Any time you practice good form and more importantly correct bad form the payoff is better balance and more speed. You will become more in tune to what your body is doing, both in the individual parts and the sum of those parts as a whole. As you learn to be mindful of your body you will become more sensitive to your balance as well as better balanced, and also be able to pace your reserves so you don’t fall into sloppy riding as you tire (and chances go up for injury).

Tresa Worrell of Idaho logs thousands of miles a year in Idaho’s rocky steep backcountry, and competes in the National Hare and Hound and Idaho ISDE’s. Regarding upper body strength, she says “The only issue I tend to have is lifting the bike back up on gnarly sections of trail after a crash, tip over, or slide off ...or  like lifting the rear back on the trail when you lose it off a sidehill ... or dragging the bike over huge logs that are too big to jump or ride over. I don't really notice any lack of strength while out riding nasty idaho trails or racing locally or out of state. It's really all about technique for me - the more technique I have ... the less brute strength I need”.

Learn and DO the basic attack position

Learn Basic body positioning

This is a great default setting that will put you with the motion of the bike, instead of behind the motion hanging on for dear life (and wasting energy). You will be ready to respond instantly to most everything the track or trail will throw at you—a lot faster than riding slouched on your butt and elbows flapping. Learn it seated, then learn it standing, get this down so it is second nature. The attack position puts your upper body into a strong arched form on the bars - hand, arm, shoulder, back, shoulder, arm, hand. With that arc you’ll be able to withstand and absorb some very strong shocks, much better than having your arms out straight in front of you with locked elbows, or floppy down at your sides (recipe for a broken nose…), it lets you use your available strength to its very best advantage.

Don't tell Tresa Worrell she is too weak to compete. She beats up on the guys on a regular basis placing 3rd overal in the Men's Vet B class.

Next, LOSE THE DEATH GRIP! It may sound weird to say you are stronger when you are relaxed, but it’s true. The death grip freezes up your hands into blobs of mush—you can’t work your fingers with precision on the levers (you DO ride with a finger or two on each lever right???). The death grip produces tension which drains energy, tension feeds on itself and locks up your joints, and then you’ve lost your suspension in your arms and the force of every bump is magnified (and even more tiring). The death grip makes you heavy on the bars, which

  1. Makes the front end heavier and more likely to plow down into holes, ruts, roots and endo, instead of floating over them.
  2. Raises your center of gravity which makes you more tippy and off balance, and
  3. Makes you more likely to look down at your fender instead of up ahead in the trail or track.

And I didn’t even mention that death grip causes the dreaded arm pump. Relax, hold the bars lightly, keep your weight on the pegs and you’ll be more in tune with your bike, one with it, instead of flogging it to make it go where you want it to go.  Death grip BAD BAD BAD! Stop it!

Learn to corner. Do not neglect cornering skills so you can work more on impressing people with how far you can jump. If you are steering the bike through the turns you are wasting upper body energy by using it inefficiently to force the bike around - this is usually the cause of the complaints girls have when they say their bike is too heavy to get through the tight stuff. If you watch any sort of bike racing, pay attention to how much they turn the bars to steer - it’s almost nonexistent, they lean instead. This is where riding a motorcycle is more like flying an airplane than driving a car. Learning proper cornering skills will help you to conserve energy and strength by not wasting it in a futile attempt to force it around.

Once you get your body around some basic skills, learn the magic of more throttle. It is a FACT of physics that a faster spinning wheel is more stable and wants to remain upright than a slower spinning wheel. You trust your knowledge of how gravity works, right? Same thing here - for off road you’ll get over a lot of tough terrain smoother and faster with more throttle, and for motocross everyone knows that chopping the throttle usually ends in disaster. I’ve finally trained myself that when in doubt, give it gas. Of course sometimes I don’t do it soon enough and still screw up, but I’ve got it right enough times  to know that sure enough, “more throttle, hold it straight” cures a lot of ills.

Of course all this work on not wasting strength or avoiding manhandling the bike doesn’t mean working out to actually get stronger is optional. Any strength gains you achieve will pay off in more usable strength to get you out of tough situations, more endurance and less fatigue, and better tolerance of all the stressful shocks of riding. It’s pretty cool to be able to land and ride on after being surprise-launched off of a downhill waterbar instead of  freezing up, landing front heavy and endoing or being able to straighten out the front wheel and keep on going when it gets knocked cockeyed by a rock or just being able to go farther faster longer.  Sure it’s dang hard lifting my WR250f out of a mudhole, but I also know riding smarter will let me fly through it so I don’t have to mess with lifting it out at all.

Remember, being strong doesn’t just mean raw brute strength, but building strong bones, tendons/ligaments, AND muscle that works together with efficiency and skill. And riding smart makes the most of what ya got—and a good dose of mental BITE ME doesn’t hurt either!

Remove the Guesswork
At Virtual Trainer, we believe there is a right way to train for motocross. It starts with having a clear goal, finding expert instruction (on and off the bike), performing structured training and receiving immediate feedback throughout the process. Coach Seiji (Andrew Short's longtime trainer) has teamed up with Virtual Trainer to offer our audience an exclusive motocross community geared towards improving your performance on and off the track. The community offers motocross specific training plans designed by one of the best – to help you achieve your best performance. This is literally a one-of-a-kind training and conditioning experience for you, the motocross athlete. Results start here.

Special Thanks to Tresa Worrell. Tresa placed 1st and 2nd in the Women’s Expert class in Rounds 1 and 2 of the 2010 National Hare and Hound.  In 2009 she placed 3rd for the year in Men’s Vet B class of the SIDRA series. KTM 250xc-w and 200xc are her weapons of choice.

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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  1. Gravatar
    Rick Korallus August 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Thanks for the tips, I'm trying to teach my wife how to ride. The more help she gets from experts the better!!

  2. Gravatar
    Lori August 23, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    These are great tips for all of us, women and men. I think we all tend to overcompensate for bad form with brute muscle.

  3. Gravatar
    Sun August 24, 2010 at 6:40 am

    Excellent! I like seeing articles like this. Even better that is women like Tresa kicking ass on a dirt bike!

    Way to go Tresa!

    Thanks for the good info Celeste! Now I just need some tips on motivation and some more work done on my bike.

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