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I am a college student, in Air Force ROTC, and I bike for 1.5-3.5 hours a day. My cardio and core strength are great, but I haven't found the motivation to build my upper body. I'm a skinny build, so it will take some work.

My question is: how will increased upper-body strength affect cycling, primarily all mountain and freeride type riding?

On top of HOW more upper body strength affects riding, which upper-body muscles will make the biggest difference?

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    As you have already experienced, riding doesn't use those muscles much, otherwise they would be like your legs are. The main cyclists who use upper body bulk are sprinters, but eben then it's not as much their engines ... er legs. – andy256 Mar 30 '15 at 4:01
  • I found the same. I think if you want to build upper body muscles, you need to do something other than cycling – PeteH Mar 30 '15 at 7:00
  • @PeteH I know that, and that's why I'm asking if improving upper body strength will affect cycling, not if cycling will improve upper body strength. – Sponge Bob Mar 30 '15 at 8:03
  • For someone who is a regular cyclist I would have thought there was a pretty strong correlation between the two. I mean, presumably those muscles that would be touched by your cycling activities (wherever in the body they may be) would already have improved? And that your upper body is unaffected implies that it is largely irrelevant? Dunno, just a thought. – PeteH Mar 30 '15 at 9:29
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    Since you said you ride am/fr upper body will give you more power to huck over jumps/gaps, help you rail berms, and on long technical downhill sections your shoulders/forearms won't burn as much. You said your core is already good so I'd say your back and shoulders would make the biggest difference simply as they are the some of the biggest muscle groups in the upper body. – Hitchmo Mar 30 '15 at 12:10
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For AM and FR (All Mountain and FreeRide) style riding, a strong upper torso is a huge improvement. Like your lower body, you want a lot of it to be endurance as well as strength. Keeping the front end straight and using your arms like shock absorbers as much as your legs will eventually take it's toll. I have been on many a mountain bike ride in the spring after hours of snow riding in the winter (much closer to road riding) and had arms that were totally shot after only an hour or so while my legs were still quite fresh. My personal feeling is that my shoulders and arms (uppers and forearms) seemed to be suffering the worst.

One of the main overlooked advantages of a strong upper body is being able to pump (like a pump track) while mountain riding to maintain speed. I've seen strong BMX kids roll multiple laps around a pump track without pedaling at all, while a competitive road guy barely made a lap before his arms gave out. Much of that can be translated to trail riding where you can use your upper body to extend your legs.

  • What is "AM and FR style riding"? – dlu Oct 7 '15 at 1:47
  • All Mountain and FreeRide. – Deleted User Oct 7 '15 at 2:33
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You need to develop your core as well as arms, so that's weights. Don't forget your lower back as well - an area cyclists need stability, which comes from strength and endurance. Handgrip exercises are good too.

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Upper body strength will increase your skills off-road. Flicking the bike around will be that much easier.

Just because you're a "Skinny build" doesn't mean that it's going to be a lot of work.

I know skinny 12-year-olds who can clear a 2' obstacle on their BMX bike.

Muscle bulk is not synonymous with muscle strength.

If you want to build upper-body strength, ride a rigid bike on the trail. Riding BMX is also great for upper-body fitness.

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More pedalling torque!

One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet is the increased pedalling torque with stronger rowing muscles. When you stand-up to pedal hard, your bodyweight alone is not enough. You'll notice that you tend to pull up on the bars. This allows you to push down on the pedals harder since you are no-longer limited by just your body-weight and gravity. Look at world-class track-cyclists and you'll see they aren't just lower-body. ;)

Stronger rowing muscles = more pedalling torque.

  • I've sometimes wondered how a seat-belt would go on a bike - so your legs have more resistance to push against. – Criggie Oct 8 '15 at 23:48
  • Interesting idea. I immagine more of a harness-like setup. – Willy Goat Oct 9 '15 at 3:28
  • yeah - I figured a strap around the seat pole, then up the back to the rider's belt would be enough. No need to overcomplicate it... just want to hold the bum on the saddle. – Criggie Oct 9 '15 at 8:12
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Really, it's all about your core. Your legs need leverage to push the pedals, and that comes from your core. Crunches are probably the best exercise you can do to improve your cycling. You help stabilize your core with your back and arms, so put a pull up bar in a doorway, and do pull ups. That's all you need to do.

You definitely don't need to do a weight routine. You don't even have to get fancy. Back in the day when I was a serious cyclist, I was doing 200 crunches and 40 pull-ups almost every day. Half in the morning, half in the evening. That's a little extreme for most people, but I was a little extreme back then.

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