How Getting In Shape Makes You A Better Motorcyclist – One Man’s Story

How To -


Motorcycle Fitness

By applying resistance through a muscle’s full range of motion, that muscle becomes stronger throughout that range of motion. What once may have been a difficult stretch for your body (touching your toes, for example), becomes an easy movement.

Apply that to bike riding: the extreme contortion required to fit legs onto a sportbike’s rearsets suddenly feels more like a natural movement. One that’s easily sustained and repeated.

Five years ago, after a track day, I’d come home barely able to walk; my hamstrings and quads felt like Jell-O. Now, I’m rarely sore at all. Basically, after getting fit, stuff that was physically challenging is now easy, so you can do it better, for longer. This will help you last longer in the saddle on a long ride, complete a grueling moto or last lap to the end of a race, all while riding better than before.

Cardiovascular Function
As the size of your muscles increases, so does the capacity of your heart and lungs, which have to fuel them. Greater capacity means they don’t have to work as hard as your body completes a given task and that means a lower heart rate in any given situation. So, dragging knee on The Snake? You may have been amped up before, but after getting fit you’ll be doing it with a lower heart rate and therefor with less fatigue and more ability to concentrate. In short, getting fit makes you a cool customer. Getting fit makes you faster.

Last summer’s BMW F 800 GS Adventure launch in Moab took place in unexpectedly hot, dry conditions (even for the Utah desert) which, combined with an error in tire pressures, meant virtually everyone crashed off-road multiple times. Fellow moto journalist Neale Bayly and I rode at the back and helped most of the other guys pick up their 500+ lbs bikes, over and over in 114-degree temperatures. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t break a sweat, but I’d like to think we prevented a heart attack or 12.

Combined with flexibility, an increase in core strength makes achieving appropriate body position for sport riding far easier. The idea is to support your torso with your abs and lower back, not your arms. You won’t believe how easy hanging off and changing direction becomes once you’re fit.

The book Body by Science puts a fine point on an unexpected benefit of physical fitness: it may one day save your life after a bike accident. “The medical literature affirms the absolute role that increased muscle mass plays to one’s benefit during life-threatening situations. A lot of the beneficial effects of strength training come from the fact that other organs of the body increase their functional capacity to track, one to one, with increases in muscle mass. As an example, if you were to be in a severe traffic accident and had to be admitted to intensive care, the ‘start’ point from which you would atrophy all your organs is predicated on your degree of muscle mass. In other words, how long it will take before you reach multi-system organ failure and die is directly linked to your level of muscle mass, because all your other organ weights are going to be proportional to that.”

Injury Prevention
Lifting weights has been shown to also increase your bone mineral density. It makes your bones stronger and stronger bones are less likely to break. Muscle also absorbs shocks, decreasing the forces that reach your bones, again reducing the odds of a break.

Injury Recovery
A healthier body is better able to repair itself and can therefore do so more quickly. Last October, I shattered my left arm, broke two ribs, put a huge hole through my knee and fractured my coccyx. It sucked, but for less time than previous, less serious injuries have.

Stronger muscles are more comfortable muscles. Do you ever get off your bike with a sore back? I used to, but it’s been years. Oddly, I’ve noticed that it now takes longer for my butt to get sore on long rides, too, that is if it gets sore at all. I guess the reason why is that my muscles now have a greater capacity, so something as simple as sitting on them for a long time causes less stress to them. My butt also probably has more padding in it thanks to the additional muscle, so less force reaches my sit bones.

Want to improve your riding by getting fit? These are the books that helped me figure it out:
Body by Science
The 4-Hour Body

Have you observed benefits to your own riding through physical fitness? Tell us how in comments.

  • William Connor

    I need to learn how to do this properly as well. I can’t seem to find the motivation to keep lifting as it bores me to tears and I can’t keep it going. I get distracted with other things I want to do.

    • Wes Siler

      Read those books. It takes less time than you might think and getting fit will make you so much better at stuff, happier and healthier that you’ll create more time than you use.

      • William Connor

        I definitely know getting fit helps. I lost 90 lbs in the last 3 years and kept it off.

        • ThinkingInImages

          I dropped 30+ without trying or even noticing until my clothes got way too loose. Every time I went for a snack, the dog wanted in on the action. It dawned on me that what wasn’t good for him wasn’t good for me either.

      • E Brown

        This is agree with. I don’t follow the program in those books, but I follow “Starting Strength” for the most part, which is a few compound exercises for a few sets of low reps each workout – takes about 30 minutes every other day, and I do stretching/yoga on the off days.

    • Ben Mcghie

      Try a rock climbing gym. Yes, it’ll hurt your hands lots the first time most likely. You might also find it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It’s also really, really hard to beat for developing a strong upper body and core very quickly.

    • dinoSnake

      The secret is to go MORE, believe it or not. The gym becomes such a part of your life that it is self-motivating; you simply feel like a slacker when you fail to get to it!

      When I first started I most often got to the gym 2 days a week and felt guilty that I wished I could do 3. When I finally got to three I felt accomplished and wanted to go even more. When I started going 7 days a week it became such a part of my life that I can’t see NOT going to the gym on a regular schedule any more – 5 days a week minimum, 7 days when I feel up to it.

      Lifting alone isn’t the key to health anyway, you should be constantly altering your workout routine plus mixing in that cardio. Between cardio, legs, back, chest, arms, core and shoulders, and the focus you should be placing on those as you do them, you really shouldn’t be experiencing anything particularly often enough to feel bored in the first place. Just self-torture lol :D

      • ThinkingInImages

        I lost interest in going to the gym primarily because the repetition of workouts bores me silly – and they took out the racquetball courts. Racquet sports just bring out a wicked competitive streak in me.

        I work out the muscle groups that help me ride and function in the everyday world, not to look good. (That’s a side effect.) It’s more like physical therapy at this age.

        If you need to set up your suspension for two-up riding when you’re riding solo, without luggage, odds are you need “lighten up”. If you’re “down on the tank” but still sitting bolt upright, odds are you need to “lighten-up”. I could go on. It doesn’t have to be a huge lifestyle change to get in shape. Getting out of shape is accumulative. Just reverse the trend.

  • Comic Chuck Ludwig

    Kettle-bells have really helped my core strength. I used to get back aches or spasms from riding a long hours. Now I can hunch over my bike for a long time without discomfort. And I definitely second “The 4-Hour Body” That book is a must read for anyone trying to get fit and has no clue.

    • Wes Siler

      Yep, I do kettlebell swings and turkish get ups (ouch). Just got back from doing the Big Five workout at the gym, taking a break, then it’s onto the kettlebells before dinner.

      • Comic Chuck Ludwig

        I had bad shoulder injuries from doing martial arts for years. Multiple dislocations on each arm. Couldn’t ride confidently. But swings, and turkish getups for the last 3 years and I haven’t worried about them since. I’m even training again.

  • Wes Siler

    I should also add that Intermittent Fast and the diet described by Dave Asbury is the easiest, tastiest and most effective I’ve ever done:

    • NOCHnoch

      Thanks for this article, Wes. Practical, personal, relevant, engaging, and funny. This is the HFL I know and love and I hope to see even more like this in the coming year!

      • Wes Siler

        2014 will be exciting for a number of reasons.

        • Geert Willem van der Horst

          Will we finally see video’s?

    • OOG

      The caveman diet is just a repackaged Atkins diet. Just another fad. I don’t understand this obsession with carbs some people have. A balanced diet would seem more appropriate.

    • OOG

      The caveman diet is just a repackaged Atkins diet. Just another fad. I don’t understand this obsession with carbs some people have. A balanced diet would seem more appropriate.

      • Eric

        I think it is individually very different, people have different genes and body types. The good thing about the whole nutrition, health and fitness business is that it is much easier approachable to the average. Yes, it is business but it raised the average awareness and understanding. It is giving good ideas.

  • Wes Siler

    It is, but everyone’s gotta start somewhere. And gym’s gotta make that money.

    • Rameses the 2nd

      Haha.. I don’t disagree with you, Wes. It’s just very frustating to go to gym in Jan and see the entire city in there at the same time. Consistency is the key to fitness. Kettlebells, running, free weights or whatever, just keep doing it and you will see progress. It takes at least 30 days to make a habbit, but unfortunately (or fortunately) 50% will be gone by the end of Jan and other 45% will be gone by the beginning of March.

      • Jesse

        All true laments.

        There will be a day when some average person wakes up and decides they want to do something to improve their lives. Perhaps they’ve always thought about that something, but decides that this is the day. They go out and get a motorcycle decide to become more active and improve their lives every day by riding working out.

        All we can do is hope it sings to them and they stick with it.

  • E Brown

    Being fit is just handy all around. Many a time I saved my bike and others from falling by simply being strong enough to catch it at a low angle. Makes it easier to load onto and off of trucks, put onto the stands, etc.

  • Benjamin Kuo

    I second this. When I first got my Ninja 18 months ago, riding for 30+ minutes would make me tired and sore. After 3 months of weight training, I realize my rides have gotten much longer and more enjoyable because of the improved shape I’m in. Thanks.

    • dan strayer

      30 minutes? I rode my V Strom 900 miles non stop (except for gas and peeing) in 17 hours…..yeah I was tired but not sore, at age 57. I’m in good shape because I ride….I don’t exercise to get in shape to ride.

  • Kr Tong

    Great article. About time too! And it being winter now folks have something to do besides powder coating everything blaaaack.

  • taba

    Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe

  • Guzzto

    Lets face it you’ll look better in your suit and your bike will go faster if you shed the extra pounds. Why spend money on carbon fibre when laying off the pies will have the same result. Happy new year guys.

  • Thomas Whitener

    The my most recent bike is a ’98 Honda VFR800. When I got it, I realized very quickly (as in, the first time that I took it out of the driveway) that I couldn’t lift it. I couldn’t even stop it from falling over once it started, but as soon as I got it going, I knew I was hooked.

    This last year has been nothing but weights and climbing the mountain next to the apartment. I can now carefully lay the bike down from center, while off balance, and then pick it back up easily (with an old mattress under it, thanks RideApart clutch-fixing tips!).

    It’s stunning how motivating the fear of being stranded without the ability to lift the motorcycle is.

    • ThinkingInImages

      Funny, I can relate to not being able to lift a motorcycle. Years ago my one and only road accident left me a bit “off” on the right side. I tipped over my Suzuki GS – in a gravel parking lot – behind a store. For the life of me I couldn’t get it upright. I went back into the store to find help. The woman who owned the store, some years older than me, went out back and popped it right back up like it was a toy. “It happens a lot back there.” I found out she had a motorcycle, too.

      Now I just buy lighter motorcycles.

  • ThinkingInImages

    I agree, although I don’t hit the gym. I keep flexible and light, and I’m getting near my sixth decade. Flexible is very important, as well as training for rapid muscle response. There’s a balance between flexibility and muscle mass. You don’t see muscle bound professional tennis players, and ballet dancers, for instance.

    I don’t have “a plan” that would work for everyone or anyone. I keep my weight down because I feel and move better. I weigh the same (actually slightly less) now than when I was in high school (decades ago) and did track and some gymnastics. I have to admit I get a kick out of people’s reaction to seeing an old guy like me getting off a sports oriented motorcycle. Apparently (we) seniors aren’t supposed to be able to “fold up” like that.

    If you need motivation, just remember: the lighter/faster you are the quicker/faster your motorcycle is. You’re part of the overall mass.

  • atomicalex

    I’m a GS rider, so body position was never an issue until I got a CBR250R. I’m ashamed to admit that even that taxed me for a while. A friend clued me in to back extensions and squats, and within two or three weeks, most of the issues I had disappeared. Which reminds me’ I need to get back to that routine…..

  • Nick Odantzis

    I used to lift weights, and for a while I enjoyed it, but eventually the same routines got tiring (both mentally, and physically). Thanks to some friends I’ve discovered an amazing alternative, which is both mentally simulating, challenging and – exciting! It’s called bouldering, and you get the benefit of being in a gym, and more, without looking like a gorilla (though some of the serious climbers are very muscular).

  • cheese302

    I am looking to start working towards a couple fitness goals this year, and just bought both books recommended here, hopefully i can get the routine down to get back into it. For the first time, i think i really am a resolution-er, but the previous 5 years of my life knocking off 60lb and going from running out of breath tying my shoes, to completing 10k’s and sprint triathlons on a regular basis hopefully shows that i wont just hang out for a couple weeks and taper off from there.

  • roma258

    I’ve found yoga and mountain biking far more applicable to riding then lifting ever was. And more fun. There’s a reason why most elite road and off-road racers aren’t “huge”. To each his own.

    • Wes Siler

      Lifting won’t make you huge unless you’re genetically programmed to be huge, it just makes your body work in a way cycling or yoga can’t. I’m 6’2″, 194 lbs and have a 31-inch waist.

      Trust me, all the top-level racers are lifting weights. They may do other stuff too, but it starts there.

    • Chris McKendry

      Remember though, ‘lifting weights’ is far from a blanket term. Not everyone who lifts looks like Ronnie Coleman (lightweight baby!). Light weight/high reps with occasional max days for progress is what, I would think, a lot of those racers are doing. Wildly improved strength/endurance/flexibility while keeping overall mass down.

      That said, all those super sweet squids seem to just worry about benching and they seem to have the whole ‘riding technique’ thing perfected…

      • roma258

        I’d like to see some verification for this flexibility claim. Not disputing, just curious. When I was lifting on a more regular basis, flexibility was certainly not one of the benefits I picked up.

        • Chris McKendry

          Sorry, worded that kinda weird. Didn’t mean that it was a byproduct of weights directly, but rather a focus of the athlete in addition to the strength training.

          • ThinkingInImages

            Muscle mass simply “for show” is different than building up strength and that corresponding mass. You don’t want to limit your range of motion but increase it, along with strength.

            Different motorcycle styles utilize different muscle groups. Riding, in general, requires a lot of core strength, and fine and fast muscle reaction. I can relate to the standard and sports riding position. Leg strength is important with those motorcycles. You may spent time standing on the pegs. I can’t speak for cruisers. I imagine that riding position puts stress on different muscle groups.

            I’m no saint when it comes to healthy living. The only thing that’s changed from my youth is better cigars and bourbon. I’ve cut the stressful things in life as much as possible. Between a motorcycle and an active dog I get a lot of exercise.

            • Wes Siler

              Is that your dog in your avatar?

              • ThinkingInImages

                Nope. Here’s the little guy.

                • Wes Siler


    • Davidabl2

      Most Gp racers are also serious cyclists as part of their conditioning regimen, or so I’ve been told.

      • roma258

        Yeah, that’s my impression as well. I guess it’s because the muscles used are similar and the endurance aspect carries over.

        • Davidabl2

          ..And of course bicycle racers do some weights,as well.

        • Davidabl2

          And when you pass a pack of sports bicyclists on your sports (motor)bike, you can’t help but notice that the position assumed is just about the same:-)

  • Jorn Bjorn Jorvi

    My diet tip: replace sodas, beers and juices with unsweetened ice tea. Easiest 1st step and will show results in under two months

  • notfishing

    200 lbs Wes? You have put on bulk – but let’s be careful out there.

    I’ve always fought my weight (the fat boy in elementary school) only to become big in High School (Road Cycling, X-Country running, Soccer year round, pouring concrete & digging ditches as a Union Construction Laborer made that happen). When I was well past my 30′s and after a Cafe Bike, I still stayed reasonably fit sculling and cycling (Had to give up the Cafe Bike because of a family loss). Then I worked to much and got fat. The Resurrection in the Gym was painful, weights, stairmasters set on maximum and step class (sure I was the biggest by at least 75 lbs). I too was at my strongest after a year in the gym with hard work. I lasted another 15+ years.

    Now I’m 60, fat again and will go through another Purgatory. Family obligations are taken care of and getting back on the Cafe Bike is part of my Bucket list. A Griso, I’ve always wanted a Guzzi since the Leman’s 1 came out.

    Watch out for the Seduction of Bulk, it turns to fat quickly when you get older. I’ll be happy when I can get down to my 190 lbs college weight – it’s just going to hurt a lot more now to drop the weight.

  • Stephen Miller

    You need to do resistance exercise, but I’m not sure weights are necessary. You certainly don’t need a variety of bars and machines. Dumbells, a pull-up bar, maybe some kettle bells, and your body weight can get a guy pretty strong.

  • karinajean

    All this is a billionty times true for women, especially when we need to improve upper body and core strength (sadly men have the biological advantage on most of us here) and worry about long term bone density.

    Women – don’t let anyone tell you that you’ll bulk up if you lift weights. It takes a serious lifestyle change and probably lots if supplements to look like a power lifter. What you will get is the stamina to beat (ok, or keep up with) the guys and the power to get off of your bike at the end of a long day without feeling broken. So worth it.

    Wes, why does this gotta be men’s health? All your advice is good for geese and ganders. That graphic is misleading.

    • Wes Siler

      Men’s Health is a popular magazine and it’s notable that it featured a major motorcycle racer on its cover. Motorcycle racers are among the fittest athletes in any sport, but sometimes little attention is paid to that fact. The lede image incorporates a third party magazine cover and is not an original illustration. If toucan suggest a similar image of an insanely fit female racer, I’d be happy to include it.

      • karinajean

        thanks for the reply, Wes. I’ll look for an image, but I’m guessing there’s not a lot of mainstream magazines out there that feature fit women riders on their covers. There’s two eggs to crack here: one, finding popular examples of a healthy and strong woman (not that traditional and unhealthy media-sexy woman); and two, the perception that there’s not many female motorcyclists out there. I suggest that RideApart has the audience and the opportunity to change this.

  • Eric

    i cant seem to make a lot of time but at least warm up daily or take a
    good walk and all the stairs are mine no matter how tired. That plus
    loosely following the Yayog application (Own bodyweight training) helps.
    Well in the last few years. But then, i have been a pro contemporary
    dancer and maybe i still draw from the years of training. I am turning
    44 this year and start to understand more about the importance of
    recovery. in my case i need some undoing tecnique after hefty activities, like body rolling.

  • Brian

    because everyone’s phsyiology and condition is different, there is no 1 magic bullet solution. That being said, long distance running for cardio endurance has done wonders for me, and while I haven’t done as much cross training as I should have, I am starting to add more. Yoga is the most underestimated, and yet should still be seriously considered by anyone, along with Pilates. Sure a body pump class or spin, or even Crossfit style workouts can do wonders in the short term, but there has to be a goal of what you want and where you see yourself ultimately and why. In the end though, it can’t be just a change in your exercise regimen, it has to be an all inclusive change in lifestyle adding in changes in your dietary intake too.

    • Wes Siler

      Try real exercise at some point. It works.

      • Brian

        that is a pretty close minded response!

        • Wes Siler

          It’s a product of experience and the best advice you’ll ever get.

          • Brian

            I beg to disagree with you, because of the lack of definition of what specifically “real exercise” is. My goal’s are to drop 10 more pounds ( which I put about 5 of on during holiday eating) and shave 5 minutes off my next half marathon time so I can break the 1:50 mark. So professor Wes, the certified exercise guru, what are you going to recommend for me?!?!?!?

            • Wes Siler

              Did you read the article? I often find that doing so before you comment can be helpful.

              Do you want to lose 5lbs of fat or 5lbs of muscle? If fat, then lift weights. A little extra muscle will help you burn fat all day every day. If you want to lose muscle then yeah, running will be effective.

              Want to be a faster runner? Run more. But weight lifting, and adding muscle, will increase the capacity of your heart and lungs and help you increase your endurance.

  • Afonso Mata

    Great article, Wes.
    Just to emphasize the idea of increased muscle mass plays to one’s benefit during life-threatening situations, I’ll share a story: last November good friend of mine who’s really fit and lifts a lotta weight had a bad crash: a driver hit-and-run him on the highway while he was riding at roughly 60mph, in the rain.
    €2000 repair bill on his 2005 Yamaha FZ6 S, and not a broken bone.
    He was only wearing his HJC €150 helmet, his €100 cordura jacket with shoulder and elbow CE protections, and a pair of €40 gloves. No protective pants, no riding boots. He walked it off with just a few bruises and scratches on his legs and a sore knee. He did a whole lot of medical exams (X-Rays, MRIs and stuff) and apart from the bruises and scratches, he was perfect. The orthopedic doctor told him that if he wasn’t as fit as he is, he’d probably have been a lot more injured: his increased muscle mass absorbed the impact forces and the bones were ok :)

  • EReader61 .

    ” As the size of your muscles increases, so does the capacity of your heart and lungs, which have to fuel them. Greater capacity means they don’t have to work as hard as your body completes a given task and that means a lower heart rate in any given situation. ”

    Nah.., only if you train your body as a unit, doing the least amount of exercises that train the most muscles, and put your body under the most strain of gravity. Like lifting something from the floor and putting it arms extended overhead. Myriad “isolation” exercises can enlarge muscles without forcing the cardiovascular system to adapt.