Curtis Keene’s training philosophy

There are many ways to prepare for gravity racing. Here’s how one of the U.S.’s fastest (and strongest) downhill racers does it.

Curtis Keene is one of the stronger characters out there. He can climb like an XC champ, and he can flick a downhill bike around like it’s a graphite fly rod. When I met Curtis a few years ago, he appeared out of nowhere, and in his second year of racing he became the semipro national DH champion.

Curtis has a ton of natural talent and strength, but over the fast few seasons he’s purposefully transformed himself from 215 pounds of gym meat to 190 pounds of pro downhill machine.

It’s taken some experimentation, but Curtis is now significantly quicker and more athletic. “I feel better now than I ever have,” he says. “I wake up with energy, and I can go hard throughout the day. I like the feeling of being able to ride a road bike up a huge mountain, or to go ride moto all day.”

Here’s his yearly program:

October – December : Building

As soon as the race season ends, Curtis sells his mountain bikes and says “see ya” ’til spring. It’s been a long season, and he’s ready for a break.

It’s time to rebuild the muscle mass he lost during the season. He hits the gym hard five days a week. Each day he does core work and cardio, and he focuses on one body part. He does 4-5 exercises, 3 sets of 12-15 each, in supersets. A superset is a pair of complementary exercises that you alternate: flat bench, incline press, repeat 2x.

Monday – chest

Tuesday – legs

Wednesday – back

Thursday – just cardio and abs

Friday – shoulders

Weekends are all about moto. He rides a Honda CRF250R every Saturday and Sunday, for hours.

“We go out and RIDE. Some of the sections are 20 minutes, fully tapped, taking a beating the whole time. It’s like riding Tunnel Trail (in Santa Barbara) for 20 minutes. It’s part of my training, both physically and mentally.”

From October to December, Curtis puts on 10 pounds of muscle.

January-March : Honing

He puts down the weights and lays off the monster burritos. He spends a lot of time doing cardio in the gym and riding the road bike. A few days a week he does something like:

4×20 pullups

4×30 dips

4×50 pushups

Lots of abs


And moto every Saturday and Sunday.

When Curtis starts endurance work, his weight falls right off. From January through mid February he’s lost five pounds. By now he’s starting to think about mountain biking. When it’s time to resume riding, he’ll be jonesing.

“I don’t touch a mountain bike for five months, and every March I come back faster than I was in October. I come back really eager, and I’m used to going fast on a moto. It trains the mind to work faster.”

April-September : Punishing

Curtis races most weeks for six months, and that doesn’t leave much time for training.

“After Thursday through Sunday walking the course, practicing, crashing and racing, you need Monday though Thursday to travel and rest. Travel is hard on you. The rest of the week is recovery.”

Curtis rides XC, dirt jumps and downhill whenever he can, but the season is more about surviving than pinning it. After six months of punishment, he starts the cycle anew.

“I love mountain biking, but I need a break. The season is so tough — I get so beaten up. I have no desire to ride at the end of the year. But in January I start thinking about it again, and now I want to rip. I’m eager. Stoked. Driven.”

10 replies
  1. Olen says:

    I say, the American Dream indeed. Such regiments have crossed my mind many times in the past, and still haunt me off and on. The question: although CK is a funded athlete, where does the time and financing come from to support such dedication to recreation? Many of the things listed require not only financial investment (motos, new bikes) but also time away from work (for those of us with a day job). Is mountain biking the other starving art? My belly thinks so.

  2. NorCalHeckler says:

    Sounds like a starving artist for sure.

    Buy a house? Where? Bakersfield? He’s not going to be able to buy much in Fremont on a part-time electrician’s salary, that’s for sure. Milpitas?

  3. joe says:

    hey lee just wanted to tell all the readers that they should listen to this artical. keene is one crazy cuce… and lee i dont no if u rember but i went to dh camp last summer with simba and curtis was there.. man i learnd a lot that week from kate you and curtis.. im toatly coming back this summer…

  4. John DeMasi says:

    I noticed a slight mistake in the above mentioned ‘supersets’ description. Supersets are indeed 2 exercises completed back to back with no rest. Usually they are complementary exercises. However, flat bench and incline bench are not complementary because they incorporate similar movements targeting the SAME muscle group (chest, triceps). Complimentary exercises are those that target OPPOSING muscle groups, such as chest and then upper back. The complementary movements for flat bench would be seated cable rows or lying pull ups (start on your back underneath a low bar over your chest, then pull yourself up to the bar, exactly the opposite of a bench press).
    Performing 2 exercises back to back that target the same muscle group is often called a ‘compound’ set. This technique of hitting one body part hard with multiple exercises is actually a method body builders use for building size over strength, generally developing more weight gain for the same amount of strength increase. The growth occurs because you are pushing the muscles as far as they go by using different approaches. The downside (and the reason you don’t gain as much strength) is that you have to go lighter when hitting the same muscle back to back.
    Usually when speed and strength are your goals rather than size, compound sets aren’t the best method because you end up heavier. This may explain why Curtis ends up adding 10 pounds in 3 months to an already fit body. For speed and strength you need to go heavy. By doing straight sets (finishing one exercise before moving on) you are able to go heavier and develop more strength and speed with less weight gain.
    Because speed can be generally based on your strength to weight ratio, more strength on a lighter body = a faster rider. Just look at lopes. He is very strong, but his weight is relatively light. I believe he was quoted in an article as saying his weight is well below 180, like 160 maybe? Very strong, not too heavy, disgustingly fast. Not to sound like I’m doubting CK though, he obviously rips. And the number one rule in the gym is what works for you works for you. Phew! That was breathy. Anyway, hope that helps.

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