Q&A: James Wilson, MTB Strength Trainer

While his training system is tailored to mountain bikers, Wilson says his program benefits athletes in general

James Wilson may be one-of-a-kind: a mountain-bike specific strength trainer. With a decade of experience both in the fitness industry and as an avid mountain biker, Wilson has developed a unique, holistic approach to mountain bike strength training.

Wilson’s coaching clients have ranged from upper-echelon athletes, such as current defending World Cup downhill champion Aaron Gwin, to everyday riders looking for a sport-specific training plan. He owns and operates MTB Strength Training Systems in Colorado,  which consists of a brick-and-mortar training facility in Grand Junction as well as a video-based training program available to anyone online.

After a stint spent managing a gym in Texas (fondly remembered as “the most soul-sucking job in the world”), Wilson moved to the mountain bike Mecca of western Colorado. After the gym he started working at turned into a Cross-Fit Studio, Wilson decided to start his own kind of gym in 2005.

What led to you to develop your own mountain-bike specific training system?
It all stems from me trying to find a good training system for mountain biking. I started looking into ways to improve my riding, and I couldn’t find much. I read the Mountain Biker’s Training Bible and a bunch of other common sources, and immediately realized a lot of what’s out there doesn’t apply to me, or are just body-building programs in disguise. I knew enough to know that’s not how athletes train. So I’ve developed my own philosophy and training system.

How do you sum up that philosophy?
It’s really simple: I apply natural human movement to a bike. Just because you sit on a bike doesn’t mean that everything we know about how the human body functions goes out the window.

We see ourselves sitting on this bike, so all of a sudden we have to invent all these new ways of powering things. It’s not that complicated. We just have to look at how the human body moves and functions already, and apply that to the bike.

One specific (and rather contentious) aspect of mountain biking training that you’ve publicly addressed before is the perceived advantage of clipless pedals over flats—what’s the takeaway here? Is there any way to put it in a nutshell?
In a nutshell clipless pedals are not "better" than flats despite what all the advertising dollars and hype surrounding them tell you. For the full explanation, check out my complete post the myth of clipless pedals versus flats.

How many athletes do you work with?
I work with 30 to 40 clients at my facility, which I look at it as my laboratory. I don’t want to be an Internet trainer who doesn’t actually train anyone.

My main goal is to drive people to my web site. I don’t care if people buy a program, I just hope I can open people’s mind to training, and to how they can make themselves better at mountain biking. To date I’ve sold more than 4,000 training programs and have worked with dozens of riders via distance coaching.

You mentioned a gym you once worked at turned into a Cross Fit gym. How would you compare what you’re doing to what Cross-Fit gyms do?
Cross-Fit is good in theory, bad in practice. In general, the main issue I have with it is that it values quantity over quality. It doesn’t really take the time to teach people how to do movements and exercises correctly before pounding out a ton of reps with weight.

Beyond that, with Cross-Fit the specialization is that there is no specialization. But if you’re a mountain biker, there are specific movement patterns to apply to your sport. Take a kettle ball swing [drill], for example. Body position, hip drive, forward and backward production of energy—these are all things that directly relate to bike control. It’s not just taking a kettle ball and ripping off reps to try and get your cardio up.

In general, fitness is not a sport. Fitness is what you develop to excel in different, specific sports.

Your primary sport is mountain biking, but how much of what you do crosses over to other sports?
Mountain biking is what I’m passionate about so that’s where I focus most of my efforts, but I train athletes for multiple sports. I don’t speak motocross, and I don’t speak surfer. I just don’t know the terminology, and people can sniff out a pretender real quick. What I can do is increase your athleticism, and I can tell you exactly how that athleticism applies to your bike. That’s what makes it mountain-bike specific training.

That said, 99 percent of what I teach is universal. The main difference between sports and within disciplines comes with the conditioning. A DH rider or an XC rider or a mountain climber all have different conditioning requirements. But the movements, flexibility and strength requirements are pretty consistent across the board.

I can’t tell you how many people have contacted me to say my program has helped their climbing, or their snowboarding or their surfing.