With its 40mph speeds, tight corners and aggressive head-to-head battles, BMX racing is one of the most dangerous Olympic sports on the rosta. Just ask professional racer Ross Cullen, the two-time youth World Champion who was chosen for the Great Britain Cycling Team reserves at Tokyo 2020.
BMX racing arrived at the Olympics at Beijing 2008, when Cullen was just seven years old (though, it should be noted, already tearing up his local track in Preston). Now 20, Cullen has spent most of his life honing his BMX handling skills on the course. But going pro isn’t just about proficiency in (or should that be out?) of the saddle.
“You need to be very good technically on the bike, there’s no question about that,” Cullen says, “but there are many skills you need off the bike, too.” In BMX racing, athletes sprint to the finish on single-lap tracks, so strength and explosive power are critical for getting the edge on your competitors.
During the off-season, Cullen’s priority is to become as strong possible, so he hits the gym four times a week. “My training is a combination of cross-training and Olympic lifting,” he says. “I focus heavily on squats, cleans, deadlifts, Bulgarian splits squats, bench presses, as well as incorporating lots of core work and stretching. I enjoy doing mobility keep myself from stiffening up and I believe it helps me in the gym if I can move a bit better.”
To build the explosive power Cullen needs to accelerate towards the podium, he’ll also work four bike sessions into his schedule – practising at race effort on the BMX track or tackling timed sprints on a flat 60m straight. “We also use a Watt Bike for static sprints and measuring power output. We need a good level of fitness, but our races vary anywhere from 30-35 seconds, so there isn’t much need for high endurance levels,” he adds.
As a professional athlete, Cullen has a wealth of go-to exercises in his training arsenal that help him perform at the apex of his sport. But what if he was only permitted to choose five of them, for the rest of his life? Below, Cullen talks MH through the five moves he’d rely on – above all others – to tailwhip himself into racing shape.
Ross Cullen’s Five ‘Forever’ Moves
How: Squat down and hold two dumbbells, with overhand grip, in front of your feet. Flip your wrists so they face forwards and bring the weights to your shoulders, slightly jumping as you do. Slowly straighten your legs to stand. Then lower the weights down to your thigh before moving into squat position and repeating.
Why: “It’s a pretty technical lift and I am always fighting for better technique every session.” says Cullen. “I really enjoy the explosiveness of the lift.”
MH says: “An explosive full body movement that mimics the dynamic nature of BMXing, working the grip dynamically and the muscles of the upper back which are vital in this sport,” says MH fitness editor Andrew Tracey.
2. Back Squat
How: Stand with your feet more than shoulder-width apart and hold a barbell across your upper back with an overhand grip – avoid resting it on your neck. Hug the bar into your traps to engage your upper back muscles. Slowly sit back into a squat with head up, back straight and backside out. Lower until your hips are aligned with your knees, with your legs at 90 degrees – a deeper squat will be more beneficial but get the strength and flexibility first. Drive your heels into the floor to push yourself explosively back up. Keep form until you’re stood up straight: that’s one.
Why: “Squats have been my main lift for the past few years,” says Cullen. “Back squats, front squats, partial squats… all for building strength. There are a few different variants of squats in my programme but you can’t beat back squats in my opinion.”
MH says: “The king of the lower body movements, outputting power through the legs is paramount for any cycling sport,” says Tracey. “Heavy, explosive squat build pedalling strength. Steer clear of maximum loads and keep the reps explosive for the most carryover.”
How: Squat down and grasp a barbell with your hands roughly shoulder-width apart. Keep your chest up, pull your shoulders back and look straight ahead as you lift the bar. Focus on taking the weight back onto your heels and keep the bar as close as possible to your body at all times. Lift to thigh level, pause, then return under control to the start position.
Why: “There’s something about deadlifts I really enjoy, I think it’s how simple the lift is,” says Cullen.
MH says: “Full body pulling power, requires strength from everything from your grip, right through your body to your feet… just like a bike,” says Tracey.
4. Dumbbell Bench Press
How: Lie on a flat bench holding two dumbbells over your chest with an overhand grip. Push up until your arms are straight, then lower under control.
Why: “This is a lift I’ve got a lot stronger in this year – I do it nearly every gym session,’ says Cullen. “I try to be really strict throughout my reps and keep my technique solid.”
MH says: “Everyone wants a bigger chest, but this one also builds unilateral strength through the chest, shoulders and triceps, helping to keep handlebars steady, and the floor away from your face in a spill,” says Tracey.
5. Weighted Russian Twists
How: Sit holding the weight plate with your arms extended and feet off the floor. Quickly twist at the torso, turning from side to side.
Why: “I enjoy finishing a solid gym session with some core work, especially Russian twists,” says Cullen. “There’s no better feeling than the torso burn you get on your last set.”
MH says: “The ability to rotate your trunk against force, or just as important the ability to resist that rotation and hold steady is vital for high speed riders,” says Tracey.
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