Practical Guide to Strength Training for Triathlon 

I spend a lot of time railing against what seems to be the new fad in endurance sport training. The new fad of “strength training.” Because strength training has been around since basically forever, it’s really tough to call it a new fad. But I will…not because of its efficacy but rather because of this new approach to it and the bastardized way it’s being implemented into triathlon. Training strength, if understood and done properly, can be a very effective tool. When misunderstood and done incorrectly, it’s a massive waste of time. In this post, I’ll try and explain what it is you should be after as well as some examples of what to avoid. I’ve tried to write it as an overview and conceptual piece so it can be applied globally to many situations. There are some key concepts to understand and questions to ask before heading down this confusing road. With that, let’s get started. 

Here’s the key question to ask of yourself before implementing a new routine; what am I trying to effect and what is the desired outcome? Most of the time, when I ask this of someone doing some form of what they believe to be strength training, this simple question is met with vitriol and anger. Why? Because usually they can’t answer it or they feel you are somehow trying to point out that they don’t know what they are doing. Both are usually correct but sometimes you actually do get a response only to discover that they don’t fully understand strength and how you develop it. So what I want to do here is go through how things actually work and then circle back to how we can apply these truths to our sport….or any sport really.

Everything we do in life has a strength component to it. Every single move you make requires some amount of strength to do. Whether that’s typing on a keyboard or doing a maximum squat, both require some form of strength. There’s even a strength component when you sleep otherwise you wouldn’t be able to roll over or stop yourself from taking a big crap in your bed. So we can all agree that we need strength to do…well, everything. However, some movements in life, obviously, require less strength to do and some require all the strength we have. There is a broad spectrum from things that require very little strength and mostly skill all the way to things that require almost all strength and very little skill. This is VERY important to understand in order to be able to think critically about what it is you are actually doing. Are you doing a predominately skill based movement or a predominantly strength based movement? This is where we lose almost everyone. It seems that people believe that if it hurts and is fatiguing, it must be a strength based movement or exercise. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Everyone knows, or should know, that the body is an amazing machine. It really is. The things it can do to overcome resistance are simply remarkable. Whenever you introduce a movement or resistance, the body’s job is to figure out the easiest, most efficient way to do that movement or overcome that resistance. It will always try and follow the path of least resistance. It doesn’t, however, always figure this out right away. You can “learn” to do movements and overcome resistance (even pure strength movements) better and better over time….without increasing your strength one bit. Let’s take an extreme example of a leg press isometric. You would think this is an all strength isometric. Not moving, solid base in the seat and simply holding as much weight as you can for say, 30 seconds. Let’s also say that this is the first time you’ve done this exercise and you were able to hold 500lbs. Then, we sit you down for a few minutes and let you completely recover. Bring you back and this time, you do 550lbs. WOAH! You just built 10% more strength in a few minutes! Well, we all know that’s bullshit. So what happened? You became “better” at the leg press isometric. Obviously no new strength was created in 5 minutes. Your body and mind learned how to hold the weight more efficiently or “better” if you will. This is not some rare and weird example…it’s actually universal. The first thing that happens in ANY exercise before a shred of fitness or strength is built is motor learning. You simply learn how to do the movements better than you previously could. THIS is why beginners and novices see so much improvement so quickly. It’s not that they are building tremendous amounts of new fitness and strength; it’s that they’re becoming “better” at the exercises themselves. Their skill is raised before any else.

After a while, what we all know happens, happens. We run out of talent. This happens quicker the more we can isolate things and make them almost all about strength…like a leg press iso. This happens WAAAAYYYY down the road on what are predominantly skill based movements. Meaning, if the movement we are doing is complex and based on how well we can do it rather than how much strength we have, you will continue to learn to get better at it before almost any strength can be built. This takes a tremendous amount of time depending on how complex the movement is. Plus, with complex movements, it’s very very difficult to load them to the point that you will actually make a physiological change to the strength of the tissue. What are some common skill based movements that people confuse with strength? Well, how about Olympic Lifts. Yes, you heard that right. Olympic Lifts are mostly a SKILL BASED MOVEMENT. They are based not on how strong you are but how much power you can generate. Generating power is a skill.  Doing Olympic Lifts does very little in regards to building strength. Olympic Lifts make you really good at doing Olympic Lifts….and that’s it. That’s what specificity is all about. Skill based movements do NOT transfer to other skill based movements. In fact, they can be a detriment.

So, let’s move away from strength for a second and talk about skills. What are skills and how do we become better at them? Skill is defined as the ability coming from one’s knowledge, practice and aptitude to do something well. As triathletes, we all wish to better three skills: swimming, biking and running. We do this through fucking endless hours of training and practice. Some people train and practice as much as a full time job. Obviously, for pros, it is their full time job. Countless miles on the bike, endless laps in the pool and millions of steps when we run. So why the hell do you want to introduce a new skill into this equation? You have enough skill building and conditioning in the three sports you’ve decided to partake in. Adding more skills is not the answer. This includes all kinds of bullshit skill movements like core work (core, my favorite made up word), bosu balls, those stupid heavy ropes, doing hand stands, lifting weights incorrectly (which almost everyone does) or even lifting weights correctly depending on what you’re doing, jumping on boxes depending on how you do these too, on and on and on. For one, these skills will build almost NO NEW STRENGTH. Of course you’ll get some very very small strength benefit from some of them. Remember, everything we do requires strength. But how much strength (remember the sliding scale) and how much transfer is what we are really looking for. These movements have been coined with another made up word as “functional”. Take a second and think about that. Functional. What the fuck does that even mean? Is it supposed to mean that it’s going to “function” in some way to what I’m doing? Well, how do we know that? If something is termed “functional”, functional for what? For everything? You mean this exercise has been proven to function in some way for EVERYTHING I do? That’s functionally awesome….but also complete crap. The movements you’re doing are functional for one thing, the specific movement you’re doing. That’s it.

One more aspect before I bring this all the way back around. Skills have effects on other skills. The worst thing in the world you can do when trying to improve a skill is to mimic that skill outside of the activity itself. For example, take a weighted bat or golf club. You see people swinging these things around because they think with this logic, “well, this bat/club is heavier than the one I use, so when I swing it, it’s going to make the other one seem light. Then, when I swing the real one, I’m going to swing it faster and harder and hit the ball farther.” Ummm, no. That’s actually not what’s going to happen. Swinging a bat or golf club is all about coordination. Coordination and timing. You can not mentally turn a golf club face square in the millisecond you have to do that in or hit a 90mph ball consciously by thinking your way through it.  It has to be done intuitively. By feeling, coordination and timing. When you introduce a heavy club into your practice, all you are doing is messing and screwing up that coordination and timing. It’s actually hindering your skill. So what you thought was beneficial is actually hurting you. This holds true with any skill. You want to be as far away from the movement of your chosen skill when strength training. You do not ever want to mess with the timing and coordination of the main skill you are trying to better. Bringing this back to triathlon with another example, Gerry Rodrigues of Tower 26 (an expert in triathlon and open water swim training) never has swimmers under a certain proficiency level use swim paddles. Why? Because it fucks everything up. It messes with timing, coordination, balance, stroke rate, you name it.

So where does this leave us. It leaves us with some knowledge. We know a few things now. We know that most of the BS we see out there is just that, BS. We know that if we decide that we need strength training, to do things that ACTUALLY EFFECT STRENGTH. Not coordinated, skilled movements that can’t be progressed and involve more motor learning than strength building. In order to train strength, you need a lot of load and force on specific muscles. Anything that involves balance and launching is not going to build much strength. A stronger muscle can handle more force, more impact and be more resilient. That is a fact that can not be disputed. The trick is doing things that actually change the muscle to handle more while keeping the balance we need to maximize the specific sports we do. The one universal truth is that training works. Doing the specific sports of swimming, biking and running will always yield the highest return on investment. Always. When you decide to add supplemental training to your regiment, please, ask yourself….

  1. What am I actually doing? Am I really building strength or am I simply adding another skill to my routine?
  2. Do I know what muscle specifically I’m affecting and how is that going to help me?
  3. Am I able to apply enough load and torque to the joint to actually change the physiology of the muscle to become stronger? Then, does this muscle being stronger actually help me somehow in triathlon?

If you are unable to intelligently and genuinely answer these simple questions, I suggest just sticking to what we know for sure works. The one thing I hear so much in this sport is “time crunched”. Well, if you’re really time crunched, these pseudo strength training programs are probably the biggest waste of time of them all.

Some Recommendations:

  1. Your strength training and or plyometrics should NOT have a conditioning aspect to them. ie crossfit style. Strength training is specific and REALLY hard. You should be concentrating on the specific exercise and always loading to maximum or close to maximum. You should not be running from machine to machine. Same with plyometrics. Plyo’s were never intended to be a conditioning exercise. In fact, you can not do plyo’s effectively in order to get the max benefit in a fatigued state. They are done individually and controlled. You get plenty of conditioning and fitness from the three sports you already do.
  2. Your exercise should never be an attempt to mimic your skill sports. ie swim bike and run. It should look as different from what your skill is as possible.
  3. Try and find someone that knows how to train strength. These trainers are very few and far between. If they have you running around the gym, that’s not what you’re after. How can you tell? Well, the only way is to really be educated yourself and understand basic principles like these. Remember, you don’t need fitness or conditioning….you want to strengthen your tissue. 
  4. Actual strength training is controlled, acute and specific. When done properly there is almost a zero percent chance of injury because you’re not hopping or running around. Can you say that about your current routine? 

What bothers me most is folks wasting their time and being tricked by dumbass articles and jerkoffs looking to make a buck into doing routines that do nothing for them. I’m looking out for you. I want to see you succeed and do things that are actually gonna make a difference. I hope this causes some of you to criticize and question what you’re actually doing….and make a change if you need to.

About Dusty Nabor

I'm an Age Group triathlete out of Southern California...
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