Intensional and Untensional riding

By Coach Andy Somerville

There are only two states of Riding with a Capital R:

Intentional: Applying and releasing tension or force deliberately and briefly to create a desired outcome.

Untensional: Riding in a relaxed but stable and ready position between Intentional moments.

Tension is good in some sports. Like … planking. For Riding with a capital R, tension is good only when intentionally applied for brief moments in time. Any other kind of tension ruins riding (and might cause headaches).

Think of that steep rock garden your buddies hit with ease while you walk down. Just picturing it in your mind right now might even create tension. Last time you stood at the top of that rocky chute, before your front wheel even started rolling, you were tensing your head, neck, hands, arms, shoulders, lungs, back, legs and toes. Hell you might have gotten out of breath just standing at the top looking down. When you feel like that, walking is the smart thing to do.

Later you said “I can’t ride that rock garden” to yourself and your buddies. But ponder this: Are the real obstacles the rocks littering the section, or the tensions paralyzing your brain and body? Picture some planking hipster trying to navigate over and around the rocks with stiff arms and legs. If he was on a fixie (which he is of course), his head and torso would receive nearly 100 percent of the terrain changes, and he would be jettisoned off the bike faster than a PBR shotgun.

A top downhiller riding the section would filter 90-95 percent of the terrain changes before they reached his head and torso. You’d only see violent movement in his arms, legs and hips. Those appendages and joints are cycling through moments of tension strategically and intentionally generated by the rider, not the terrain. In between these moments, he looks … relaxed. Of course he’s stable, engaged, in balance and ready, but there’s an absence of visible tension.

Andy rolls up to a ledge on Moab, UT with Untentional poise. He’s about to Intentionally drive his bike into the drop.

Mere mortals are somewhere along the spectrum of tension control. The good news: With skills coaching and practice, core stability and body mobility, you can move the needle far along the spectrum away from “Ironic Beard” toward “Aaron Gwin”. It’s never an overnight process, but with intention(!) and work, you’ll find yourself confidently and fluidly riding an ever-increasing portion of a gnarly trail or section Untensionally, and applying bursts of tension … Intentionally.

Here’s a formula:

1. Learn, practice and build a set of strong base skills.
Practice some more. This does all kinds of good things, like building confidence, creating a safe, fast and universal default body position and migrating cornering, braking, dropping and pumping skills from conscious thought to muscle memory.
Practice. Some. More.

2. Build and maintain a stable core.
A strong, stable core creates strength and balance without requiring tension, and when intentional tension is called for, BAM it’s right there right now. Planks are great for core stability.

3. Improve mobility
Especially hip and shoulder mobility, for better range of motion and for getting into and staying in a solid attack position without creating tension.

4. Develop balance
First with stability, then with strength. Lee’s F6 program takes care of both. I use it myself ’cause it’s fast, efficient and effective. 30 minutes twice a week works for me.

5. Get stronger
More fitness = less fatigue = slower decline in power and skills in the second half of a ride. And, by the way, the stronger you are, the more violence you can handle while staying smooth and supple (aka untentional). One reason Gwin can flow through bigger impacts than you can? He’s way stronger than you are.

Unless you’re training for the Planking World Cup (this is a real thing), start working on bursts of Intentional tension (pumping backsides, loading transitions, hitting apexes, preloading hops, climbing ledges). In between, ride Untensionally (accepting frontsides, topping boulders, porpoising, flowing fluidly).

Andy carves a corner with Intentional power.

Have fun out there,


To learn about skillful riding, check out these books:
Mastering Mountain Bike Skills
Teaching Mountain Bike Skills

To build your skills, take an LLB skills clinic.

To gain MTB-specific mobility, stability and strength, rock the F6 off-bike training program.

Know more. Have more fun!

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