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How to get in (motorcycle) shape

May 20, 2015

Want to improve your motorcycle riding skills? Time to hit the gym. 

Check out the photo gallery for more exercises and tips on each exercise. 

Most riders think that to ride faster they need to focus on body position, braking points, throttle control and other riding techniques. However, talk with anyone who's truly pro-level fast and the first thing you'll learn is the importance of fitness. No one is a better example of how fitness affects your riding than yours truly.

Jorge Lorenzo on the cover of Men's Health in Spain.
Until recently, I'd been pretty seriously involved in modeling as it was an easy way to supplement the meager wages I was earning in my previous life as a middle school teacher. My training and gym routines were focused on building "glamour muscles" in the gym that would look good in photos and help me get bigger and better jobs. As it turns out, “looking fit” for the camera doesn’t necessarily translate into “being fit” when it comes to athletic activities. I learned this the hard way as I began to really get into sport and dirt riding.

I noticed I was getting fatigued fairly early on ride days and that I needed several days to recuperate afterwards. I'd feel stiff after lunch and my pace would quickly slow as I got too tired and lazy to really move on the bike when sport riding, or would need frequent breaks when riding dual-sports out in the desert, which confused me since I was the "in shape" guy.

Marc Marquez posted this in a tweet, showing just how flexible these guys really are.

Eventually, it hit me: I had built all the wrong muscles and I wasn't going to get any better until my endurance and strength in some specific areas improved.

The right exercises and weight training improve your performance, help prevent injuries and let you heal more quickly if you do get injured. To figure out just which exercises were best, I enlisted the help of Crossfit Tustin owner Joel Thompson, as well as the team over at Athletic Recon. Joel is about to spend 14 days riding his dual-sport through Bolivia and the guys at Athletic Recon work with some of the fittest athletes in the world, while spending their weekends charting new off-road routes between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Together, we came up with some of the most important exercises to work into your weekly routine.

There are three main areas you need to address to improve your riding: strength, mobility, and endurance.


For high-performance riding, on road or off, you'll need strong legs, core, back, and shoulders.

Sean MacDonald
And people say I skip leg day... Photo by Chris Sorenson.

You rely on your legs to change your body position and help control the bike, so strength training increases both stability and endurance. There is literally nothing worse than coming up to whoops in the desert and not having the strength or energy to brace your body as you hit them.

You hear phrases like "be loose," "be light on the bars," or So Cal Supermoto's Brian Murray's favorite, "hold the bars like you're holding baby birds." Strengthening your core and lower back so they can support your body leaves your arms free to steer the bike and operate the controls. Sportbike riders who complain of aching wrists are using their handlebars, instead of their core muscles, to support their weight. It's incredible how easy it becomes to flick a bike through corners when your upper body is free to move around easily and you're using your hands to operate the controls, not lean on them.

Sean MacDonald
Rows: Keep your back straight with your chest pushed forward. Photo by Chris Sorenson.

Your upper back and shoulders need to be strong to help you control the bars. Hustling a 350-pound bike through a race track or 250-pound dirtbike through single-track trails or an MX track takes a lot of strength and you'll burn your arms out far too fast if you aren't getting your whole upper body involved.

Recommended exercises:

Legs: squats ┃ lunges ┃ leg extensions ┃ leg press ┃ calf extensions ┃ back bridge

Core: hanging leg raise ┃ Russian twist ┃ cable crunches ┃ exercise ball sit-ups ┃ plank

Back: pull-ups ┃ rows ┃ Supermans


I sort of always knew in the back of my head that I would need to start incorporating more leg exercises into my gym routine, but I never really considered how important flexibility would become. Not only do you need some flexibility just to contort your body to fit on most sportbikes, but you also need to be able to open your hips as you hang off the bike or rotate your shoulders to operate the controls while tucked into various and odd riding positions. I was struggling to get my knee out from the bike to get a knee down, and cramped often if I didn't properly warm up.

Sean MacDonald
The Russian twist: Don't use too much weight or you can injure your shoulders. This one is about balance. Photo by Chris Sorenson.

Focusing both on proper stretching before my rides, and improving my flexibility in the gym has been probably one of the most noticeable improvements because I had such a hard time and felt so awkward moving around on the bike and I was constantly getting cramps in my hips. Not only is my range of motion better, but my muscle stability has improved a ton and I'm able to apply that strength in far more ways. There's a reason why the top guys take yoga and Pilates, and it isn't just the babes in yoga pants.

Recommended exercises:

Foam rolling ┃ founder stretch ┃ pigeon stretch ┃ hip and groin stretches


Ben Spies has a max heart rate of 195 beats per minute, and says that his heart rate hovered right around 185 for a typical MotoGP race, which lasts about 45 minutes. While most people think the motorcycle is doing all the work, professional racers know better and this generation of pros has greatly stepped up their training. Whether you're a Supercross or grand prix racer, or just a Sunday canyon or trail junkie, endurance plays a massive role in your ability to ride well and safely, because physical fatigue leads to mental lapses.

Sean MacDonald
Toes to bars: A few sets of 10 reps should make getting out of bed the next day hurt a little. Photo by Chris Sorenson.

I grew up snowboarding and we always had a rule: "no last runs." Basically, the "last run" was when people pushed themselves past their ability and stamina to leave the day on a high note and was always when people got hurt. It's a rule I've carried over into motorcycling. While we don't have runs, it's important to know your limits and know when you're done pushing it for the day. To know when your stamina, strength, or reflexes are zapped and to take it easy. Before working on my stamina, that point came after an hour or so. Today, I make it more like five or six.

Sean MacDonald
The founder stretch: This surfing stretch is a pre-ride favorite. Photo by Chris Sorenson.

Bicycling, whether road cycling or mountain biking, comes up in almost every article about any racer's training. Honda motocrosser Cole Seely told me, when I interviewed earlier him this year, that he'd fallen in love with mountain biking as a way to build leg strength and improve stamina. Likewise, Spies said he and most of the GP guys had turned to cycling for their training because it allowed them to keep their heartrate up while not wearing on their bodies too hard. Some of them are nearly professional-level bicycle racers.

Sean MacDonald Crossfit Tustin
Huge thanks to the guys at Crossfit Tustin for letting us take over their gym for a few hours. Photo by Chris Sorenson.

Recommended exercises:

Cycling ┃ dirtbiking (for you track dudes) ┃ climbing stairs (less impact to the knees and ankles than running... we get enough of that).

Know an exercise or stretch that I missed? Share it or a link to a YouTube clip of how to do it in the comments.