James Wilson: Bad movement causes pain

I’ve been doing a lot more trail riding lately (stoked!), and I’m noticing fatigue in my mid-back. This is vexing, because my training and technique have remained constant. Who better to ask about this than world famous MTB strength coach James Wilson?


OK dude. I’ve been doing longer rides lately, and it’s starting to feel good. My climbing legs are coming back, and I’m comfortable for 2+ hour rides.

The weak link is actually appearing on the DH. I’m training and riding the way I always do, but my mid-back is starting to get tired. More specifically, the erector muscles along the right side of my spine.

I can think of two influencing factors:

1) Bike setup. For many years, I’ve rocked 50mm stems. My new Stumpy has the stock XC setup, with a 90mm stem. I’m trying the stock setup for testing purposes, since that’s what most people roll.

2) The lack of a right clavicle. As you know, I have a non-union, and the only thing holding my arm on is muscle. I definitely get tired in the chest/shoulder/upper back area faster than I think I should. I’ll be getting the shoulder fixed pretty soon.

What do you think, my brother? I’m really interested in the James Wilson perspective.

– Lee

From James:

Two key exercices from James’ MTB DB Combo Workout Program: The one-legged dead lift and the side press. These both improve your movement quality. Strength grows from there.

Here is the first thing I always think when someone tells me that something hurts as a result of exercise – bad movement causes pain. Bad movement also robs you of performance so the trick is to hunt down the bad movement and fix it.

Typically, if someone is getting pain in the erector muscles as a result of riding they will have a mobility deficit in the hips and/ or upper back and the body is coaxing excessive movement out of the lumbar spine. It sounds to me that you have upper back mobility issues as a result of your shoulder traumas.

You should be able to hold your arms straight over your head (elbows locked out and in line with your ears when viewed from the side) while keeping your head and lower back in a neutral position. If you can’t then you need to work on increasing your upper back, and specifically scapular, mobility.

Our body is designed to be a series of mobile and stable joints. In this case we want mobile hips, a stable lumbar spine and a mobile thoracic spine (upper back). You have to restore balance to the system first before you can really hope to address the real causes of the back pain.

As far as it hurting more on the right side, there are few things that could cause that. My guess would be that it is extra movement on that side. Since our left side lower body works with the right side upper body that would make sense if you are weaker with the left leg and you are compensating with the right lower back.

Here is my advice – don’t do any two legged strength training exercises for the time being. Do everything one leg at a time and get your left leg’s movement patterns cleaned up. Cue in on the lumbar movement and stop it by squeezing the glute even harder when it happens.

Also, get super aggressive with your body work. Get a tennis ball and put it between your back and the wall and dig in. The main areas to concentrate on are the right trap and lat but you should dig in all over the place and get the tension levels back there under control. It will hurt like hell but it has to be done.

Long, repetitive efforts like XC riding will expose small “chinks” in your movement patterns and cause pain. That is why strength training and mobility work is so important – they are the only chance you get to fix those “chinks”.

Bad movement causes pain and robs us of performance – find the bad movement and fix the pain while increasing performance. Pretty simple theory but one I have found to work pretty well.

Hope this helps, let me know if I can answer any more questions for you…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson
MTB Strength Training Systems


Awesome. I learn something every time we communicate.

A couple things really resonate:

1. I CANNOT hold my arms straight over my head with good form. Heck no. Both shoulders are jacked up; I’ll be seeing the doctor Dec. 2 to decide which one to fix first.

2. My left leg is weak and dumb! This is noticeable on the bike and obvious when I rock your one-legged dead lifts. I’ll keep rocking those, and I suppose I should do some one-legged pedaling on the trainer.

Thanks again,

— Lee

Check out James Wilson’s MTB-specific training programs:

MT Strength Training System

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