When I was about 15, I remember tearing out a page from Muscle & Fitness Magazine and taping it to my bedroom door. The picture was Lee Priest flexing hisbiceps and showing off his Super Man tattoo embedded into the skin of his shoulder.
A quick glance would inspire me to drop and do a set of as many push ups as my skinny frame could handle because I wanted to be strong. These days, being “strong” comes in a little different form since my priorities are strength training for triathlons.
The bodybuilding industry’s influence has really infiltrated the way that most people use weights for strength training. Different goals mean different methods, so when it comes to strength training for triathletes, things have to change. Triathletes strength train for increasing speed and performance and for injury prevention.
As a trainer and triathlon coach, I hate to see people waste time in the gym on exercises that won’t directly help them reach their goals of improved performance. Still worst is when triathletes use strength training to promote injuries, rather than prevent debilitating pain or long-term training problems.
Reasons Why Strength Training For Triathletes Should Be Different
The numbers are all wrong for triathlon training
“Bodybuilding-type” strength workouts use straight sets, which means you would do your 10 reps, rest for 60 seconds, and complete your typical 4-6 sets. There is actually nothing wrong with this method as it is a good way to build muscular size and strength. But in my eyes, it has a few problems as far as strength training for triathlon goes.
One is, it makes your weight training workouts more time-consuming with long rest periods, but it also only trains those muscles specifically for that range of repetitions. What I mean is, a bodybuilder will have explosive power with heavy weights, but they are essentially training their muscles to stop and rest at 10 reps every time.
Bodybuilders are usually trying to gain weight, which is well and good – but different and does not apply to triathletes.
My question for triathlete strength is this: When is every hill climb exactly the same length, for the same duration? When do you get to sit and rest for a minute or two before continuing? Not too often.
Triathletes should be looking to build strength WITH endurance, which means you’ll have the ability to tap into the reserves, power up the hills, pass a bunch of other competitors, get to the top, and continue cranking to the finish line.
The Triathlon Strength Training Solution:
Use much more variety in sets and reps. Lifting “heavy” with low reps does have some benefits. However, using higher reps such as 15-20, generally translates into better performance for triathletes. (I’ll get into that more with an upcoming post.)
Also, instead of maxing out one muscle at a time and then resting, jump right into another exercise. It could be a different body part all together, but to really challenge your endurance with that intense muscle burn, use a similar exercise in quick succession. This circuit-type technique saves TONS of time in the gym, and also trains your body to build full-body endurance. Practice getting used to little or no rest in between sets.
Don’t focus on only one muscle group when strength training
This idea breaks down into a couple categories. I see people in the gym spending an hour working only chest and shoulders. And that’s fine, because they want to sling heavy weights around, “get big,” and are not worried about functional performance. As their chest is recovering in the following few days, these folks will train other muscles like back and biceps or legs…or neglect legs altogether as seen all too often!
In general, strength exercises for triathletes should not only target one isolated body part, but rather incorporate multiple joint movements, a.k.a. compound movements. Ideally movements that are similarly used in performing triathlon disciplines such as swimming stroke, pedaling on the bike, and sprinting to the finish line, will pay off best.
Carefully plan any triathlete strength training workout with full-body exercises that use multiple joints and muscle groups at the same time. A squat with a shoulder press is a great one, and so is a walking lunge with a bicep curl. Or pushups with alternating knee kicks is another one of my favorite compound exercises for triathletes. <–<< Click here for 16 more killer triathlete exercises!
Triathlon strength training needs functional training concepts
Similar to the last point, many weight training exercises will focus on only one isolated movement at a time: bicep curls, tricep extensions, seated leg exercises, etc. It’s worse when these exercises are on machines because most machines move in an even plane of motion, thus removing your ability to balance, control, and stabilize the load.
Sure these exercises can help build strong muscles to increase speed and endurance, but if you can choose between the two, pick free weights for a more functional workout. That will not only give you better bang for your buck in your triathlon performance, but also extremely important, it will help prevent injuries by training synergist, stabilizing muscles.