Saturday, January 8, 2011

Strength Training Questions Answered

First off, thanks for all the nice comments/messages regarding my last post. My dad is a rockstar -- by Friday night he already had several job offers/opportunities! They love him!

Anyways, onto a long-overdo blog post that goes back to an old post and the questions associated.... Time to give some answers to Patrick, Ryan, Chloe, Aimee and anyone else who gives a sh*t ;) It's a mega post, so maybe you should read just one Q&A per day lol.

#1) Do you strength train year round? ~Patrick Mahoney

A: Yes, I strength train year-round. However, what I do varies greatly; I do different volumes and intensities of ST depending on the phase I'm in for triathlon.

Here's how it breaks down: Offseason (aka transition), prep and early base phases are the best times to hit the weights hard. It's during those times when training is more general and about increasing fitness, not triathlon-specific training. Doing ST in such phases will prepare you to dominate once your in-season ;)

Even now, in January, it's not too late to get going if you haven't already. If you're not that experienced with ST or it's been a while, start with lighter loads and generally do 3 sets of 10-15 reps. Add weight as you improve. Eventually do certain exercises with heavy loads in which you're only able to do 2-5 reps / 3-6 sets. You WANT to lift heavy weights whether you're male or female – it's that type of lifting that will increase your strength and power that will translate to the bike especially, but also run/swim – and it won't make you overly buff (watch out, I'm going to repeat this a lot).

Additionally, body-weight exercises such as pushups are great, and working on muscular endurance is good too, specifically do 2-3 sets of 12+ reps – just please don't choose such light weights that you could lift them all day without fatigue. That's a waste of time.

Then as season progresses and gets into the build and competition phases, that's when it's time to decrease ST and increase sport-specific workouts for triathlon or whatever endurance sport it is. For example, you can still do your pullups and ring rows to help your swimming but replace those ST session with more session in the water – only swimming itself will make you a better swimmer. The strength training is just an "accessory" of the sport. Not to mention, S/B/R workouts themselves can be used as ST workouts to build/maintain muscle, i.e. hill repeats, intervals, paddles during the swim.

Bottom line: a) When you're in season, do ST as maintenance, for injury-prevention and to keep from losing muscle; if you're not already ST'ing don't start a crazy new ST plan in the midst of the season in hopes of increasing muscle mass, etc. – that's a recipe for overtraining or some sort of disaster. b) In offseason/prep phases and/or after your main A race is over and you're on a break... that's when you should hit the weight room big time.

I could ramble on for hours on this topic... but I think my next to answers (esp the fourth) do a decent job at elaborating and giving more specifics as to "what to actually do in the weight room."

#2) Q: Would you agree that strength training, ideally, has a lot of compound movements/involves more than one muscle group? If we agree on that (say generally, agree, as I know there may be benefits of isolation), what are your thoughts on these? ~Ryan Denner (pt 1)

Yes, certain ST exercises are multi-joint and utilize multiple muscle groups (aka compound, total body, etc), but many are not – know the difference! Triathletes will benefit most from compound exercises, such as those that load the spine (back or front squats), Olympic lifts (cleans, jerks, push press), etc. However, learning the technique of many compound exercises is a difficult process and takes time. Make sure you're doing such exercises correctly before adding heavy weight to prevent a crazy injury – aka seek professional help.

As for single-joint isolated exercises, I generally do not recommend these unless you're in rehab, addressing a weakness and/or correcting a deficiency/imbalance. hands-down I recommend doing mostly compound/multi-joint stuff because you want to get the most bang from your buck – you don’t want to spend 5 million hours in the gym doing silly little things like wrist curls and leg extensions – yuck.

For example: doing a leg curl (single-joint isolated exercise that works hamstrings) may seem worthwhile but it’s pretty lame (and boring) in my opinion. Instead do a deadlift and work hammys, other parts of the leg, shoulders, traps and core – even arm muscles get an isometric workout.

Bottom line: When considering isolated vs. compound movements in relation to triathlon – are you every just working your bicep in triathlon? Just your quad? Just your deltoid? No!!! So why waste your time in the gym doing exercises that target just one muscle? Triathletes should do exercises that use the motions/movements you use in triathlon, and should work in multiple planes even though our sport essentially just goes in one direction (forward). That said, isolation exercises are great if you’re injured or addressing a specific issue.

#3) Q: [Should I do] Do primarily lower body training (ie. legs) before/after a swim workout (which primarily works the upper body)... Do primarily upper body strength training after a bike and/or run and/or bike/run (say that 3 times fast!) workout ~Denner (Pt 2)

Ideally, you should do strength training as a completely separate workout from endurance, but if you have to combine, try to do the bulk of ST first. Next, yes, I think targeting different areas for the ST vs. endurance is a great idea to some extent. But going back to what I just said about compound exercises, that might not always be doable....

Most my ST sessions and what I recommend to others are full body to some extent. I rarely do just upper body (UB) or just lower body (LB) or just isolation exercises. I may specifically target LB or UB in a session, but even in that case when doing multi-joint LB-specific exercises some “minor” muscle groups of the UB activate to help the “major” muscle groups (like I mentioned about deadlifts above) and vice versa. That said, your arms will probably feel better swimming if you do squats, box jumps and deadlifts rather than a crapload of pushups, pullups and slam balls beforehand.

(I combined the final two question with one answer)

#4) I'm finally getting back into the gym. It's probably been over two years since I've ventured into the world of weight lifting/classes. Anyway, do you have any good book or web site suggestions for 'triathlon friendly' workouts? I'm not trying to bulk up, but just focus on the core and to define. ~Chloe

#5) I'd like to start a strength training routine now over the winter and was wondering what type of exercises you suggest? I'm a triathlete...if that helps ~Aimee

A: Hopefully I'm not too late answering these. The most basic way to answer these questions is by saying: Do exercises that mimic the movements of the sport.

As a triathlete you’re better off choosing a handful of exercises and doing them in circuits that have 4-6 rounds and last 20-30 min, as an added bonus add in a short run (200-400m), jump rope, rowing or some cardio component lasting 1-2 min per round. Circuit training is great because it keeps your HR elevated, that aerobic training component is great for triathletes. But please, I'll say it again, just don't choose a weight that's so light you could lift it all day long – make it somewhat challenging (i.e. you're dying after anywhere from 8 to 15 reps)!

With heavy lifting, however, things change. Doing a circuit isn't the best idea because you need time to recover after each set. Heavy lifting meaning so heavy that 2-6 reps are all you can take, and it's usually a compound exercise (Oly lifts, DLs, squats, push press, etc). You NEED to “fully recover” between sets to get the most benefit and to maintain good technique – rest 30 sec to a couple minutes between sets depending on the load. For example, when I’m deadlifting 150 lbs, I probably rest a minute or so after each set.

of course, the major concern I haven't mentioned yet: "I don't want to bulk up!" Trust me, when it comes to ST, I promise that as long as your endurance training is high, you won't "bulk up," especially girls... we just don't have what it takes hormonally speaking (unless you start taking freaky supplements). Look at me, I lift pretty heavy weight very consistently and ST in general 2-3x a week. Do I look like a bodybuilder?

What will happen when an endurance athlete strength trains: The combo of ST and endurance will cause you to gain some lean muscle mass and shed fat, which will make you look more ripped and defined but not “bodybuilder buff.” Endurance training of 8+ hours a week surely prevents that. Plus, due to the wonders of physiology, endurance athletes tend to build “smaller condensed” muscles and don’t really get extreme hypertrophy like a bodybuilder (various reasons for this, and I could babble on but will stop while I’m ahead lol). As a side note: to ensure such results don’t take steroids or any weird drug/supplement and you’ll be just fine.... super sexy/ripped/powerful fine ;)

Getting into specifics:

1. I told you I'd repeat this concept a lot: If you're new to ST start off with lighter weights but don't be afraid to add on more weight and lift heavy loads as you improve – lifting heavy will directly translate to an increase in power and strength; thus, you’ll race faster, be injury resilient and be more fatigue resistant. Using weights that you can lift 100x in a row nonstop really isn’t going to do anything, and it won’t “increase endurance.” However, 100 pushups, situps or [fill-in-the-blank body-weight exercise] – that’s a different story.

2. I'm a big proponent of free weights vs. machines. Free weights add an element of balance and coordination that isn't required with machines. That said, if you're completely mew to ST, might want to start on machines and work your way to free weights.

3. Whatever your program includes, be sure to warm up with non-weighted functional movements plus light weights of the exercises you’ll be doing. Once you’re warm a routine should go in order: the hardest and/or multi-joint/total-body exercises first, then medium-level stuff and finish with the easiest exercises like situps or planks. For example: Deadlifts, knee 2 elbows, band squats, renegade rows, pushups, abmats. Harder/multi-joint/total-body exercises generally require more technique and force production, so you're best off doing those when you fresh (another reason why to ST before endurance exercise).

4. mix up your routines. Doing the same thing over and over will lead to stagnation. Don't get me wrong, I do heavy deadlifts and squats at least once a week, but my circuits, the loads, when/how much I do varies greatly (and also with the training phase).

Last but not least…

Some of my favorite ST exercises:

Lower body-specific

Deadlift (DL)*

Romanian deadlifts (RDL)*

Back squat*

Front squat*


Sumo squats (extra wide stance)

KB swings (common mistake to avoid: Arms should not rise above shoulders when thrusting the KB up. Arms should finish at a position that’s parallel with floor, NOT overhead)

*key heavy lifting exercises to increase LB power/strength

LB with or without weight:

Box jumps/step-ups

Single-leg squats and/or DLs

Glut bridge

Side leg lifts

Lunges – reverse, front, side, multi-directional, walking, etc

Split-leg lunge jumps

Lateral squat walks with resistance band just above knees

Upper body-specific

Inverted ring rows (Olympic rings or TRX)

Ring pushups

Pullups (variation: band or jump pullups – even I can’t do many “real” pullups)

Overhead slam ball


Bent-over row with Olympic bar

Bench press

Regular and reverse fly

Med ball chest throw

Total body

Push press

Hang clean (I’m still learning these)

Split Jerk


Inverted hamstring with reverse DB fly

Overhead squats with resistance band around whole body (essentially you stand inside “the perimeter" of the band keeping arms straight/behind the head; this one is a lot harder than it sounds)

Pushups with elevated feet (in Olympic rings or TRX)*



Renegade rows*

Rowing machine

Sledgehammer swings (yes, I’m serious… not practical to do at most gyms, but my gym rocks)

*extra emphasis on core


Planks / side planks


KB Can Openers (lay supine, hold KB overhead and lift lifts up/lower down)

Core twist with med ball or weight

Plank march (rotate lifting each leg and/or taking steps in circle)

Overhead med ball toss + situp with partner

Bicycle situps

NOTE: the exercises I list all use free weights, body weight or bands; they ARE NOT the typical machine exercises (i.e. lat pulldowns, leg curl, etc). As a personal trainer and frequent gymgoer, I find that machines cause people to be lazy and just sit there between sets. I like a ST routine that keeps you moving and doing unique things.

For further reference, here's a great website that has detailed info on exercises of all types and the muscles they work, plus info on anatomy, exercise testing, etc...

Go big!


  1. Hi Tawnee, thanks for a great post! A couple things I'd add. One is that most triathletes may be weak in the glute med and it's a huge cause of many running injuries. (I'm learning all this from personal experience.) You can probably never do too much glute med work. Side steps with bands, clamshell circuit, or using bands when doing squats, are all great.

    Also to answer Chloe's question, Santa got me a great book called Strength Training for Triathletes. For the most part, it's a great book... it breaks exercises into swim/bike/run specific groupings.

  2. Jennifer,

    Thanks for the comment! I couldn't help but laugh because if you look at my past posts from 2010, you'll see I am a huge advocate of glut exercises because I too went through a running injury related to weak gluts lol.

    Also, good call on the book - I have it sitting right in front of me! I think it can be a little overwhelming for someone unfamiliar with ST and it has too many single-joint/isolation exercises in my opinion. What do you think of it?

  3. Awesome! Thank you for the great post! I can't wait to incorporate your fav lifting moves into my workouts. Also, I never thought about doing the rowing maching or running inbetween! I can't wait to get into the gym today and try it out :) Thanks again!

  4. This is awesome. I have been trying to figure out what I should do to start incorporating ST into my workouts. This is really helpful, thanks!

  5. This was a great post! Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!!

  6. Tawnee, sorry, am relatively new to the tri blogging world! Regarding the book, I thought it was easy to follow, although I'm not that new to ST. What I liked about it was how the author identified exercises for each discipline and WHY it was included. I also liked the appendix organizing exercises by "symptom/cause/solution" as well as the guidelines for sets/reps/order. He definitely skimped on the training plan for the HIM/IM distance but I thought that section was well done.

    Like you, I was surprised that there weren't more compound and discipline-specific movements like "swimming" with resistance cords (but maybe they're hard to demonstrate in a book.) He also didn't get into proper form enough (there are all kinds of ways to screw up your body in a 1-legged squat but he doesn't touch on it.) And somewhere he recommended the knees extend past your toes which made me wince.

    Bottom line, it's the only book out there (that I've found anyway) that fully integrates ST into tri training, and addresses the "when" and "why"... I'd probably give it a 4 stars for all the information and thought behind it. Perhaps it would be most effective used in conjunction with 1-on-1 coaching where you could fill in the gaps.

  7. Hi Tawnee, I've recently become a fan of this blog. I always enjoy information related to strength training, it is one of my favorite parts as a recreational athlete.

    Related to Question 2

    Don't most recreational athletes (and specifically, runners) tend to have muscle imbalances from years of training errors? It seems like it takes a long time for a runner, even one who tries to do their research, to learn to do things right, and by then the imbalances are often already there. What are your thoughts on single-joint exercises to preempt imbalances rather than waiting for problems to arise? I've always included them out of habit, but more for muscular form than function.

  8. Thanks Tawnee!

    ps- word verification is blessess. Perhaps this blog post is a bless*ing?

    end cheese :)

  9. Thanx for sharing... Great post for sure. I think you've inspired me to lift a little harder. I've done cross fit a lot and lift throughout the season ~BUT i often find myself lifting easy weights because I don't want to be sore for my swim, bike, run workouts. I think I'm definitely going to try HTFU and lift harder. Thanx again!Pull ups and thrusters will kettle bells are my fav.....

  10. Wow Tawnee, you have certainly outdone yourself with this posting. Probably the best you've done thus far. Im on point with everything you've stated here, it seems that your training philosophy parallels my own. For your other readers looking for information along the same lines they may find benifit from listening to Jessi Stensland and Jay Johnson (both found in Boulder) who stress functional training, and proper multi-joint training. Lastly I wanted to remind you that Pain Lets You Know You Are Still Alive. Thanks

  11. Fantastic post!! I love doing strength training but I end up doing a mish mash of free/machine and plyo - but not consistently, this will help me in making a plan :)