Strength Training For Triathletes

Dr. Westcott
There is a saying that “a stronger athlete is a better athlete.” When applied to sports such as football, basketball, and baseball, most people would agree that strength training is beneficial. However, in the context of endurance activities such as swimming, cycling, and running there is less consensus of opinion. In fact, some would argue that aerobic athletes need to be as lean as possible, and strength training would make them bigger rather than better.

While it is true that you rarely see a successful triathlete who weighs over 200 pounds, this is essentially an unfounded fear. To begin, top triathletes typically have an ectomorphic body type. That is, they have a linear physique with firm but trim features. On a comparative basis they are relatively low on fat and relatively low on muscle. Due to fewer fat cells they do not add fat easily, and due to fewer muscle cells they do not build muscle easily. In other words they do not have the genetic potential to develop large, muscular physiques.

But they certainly can become leaner and stronger through a sensible program of strength exercise. For example, let’s say that Tom weighs 140 pounds and is 12 percent fat. He therefore has 17 pounds of fat weight and 123 pounds of lean (muscle) weight. After 12 weeks of regular strength training Tom weighs 142 pounds. He has added 3 pounds of muscle for 126 pounds of lean weight, and lost 1 pound of fat for 16 pounds of fat weight. His percent fat is now 11 percent, and he is leaner than before even though he has a slightly higher bodyweight.
As an analogy, Tom has changed from a 6-cylinder engine to an 8-cylinder engine. Although a little heavier, he has increased his horsepower and should experience a higher level of athletic performance. Power is essential for endurance events as well as for sprint events. Because power equals work divided by time, the person who completes the triathlon (work) in the least time is the most powerful athlete, and the winner.

Our muscles are the engines of our bodies. But, unlike automobile engines, our muscles use energy when we are moving and when we are resting. Because each pound of muscle increases our resting metabolism by about 35 calories per day, Tom’s 3 pounds of additional muscle requires over 100 calories a day just for tissue maintenance. That amounts to almost a pound of fat loss per month just to sustain normal metabolic function even when Tom is not exercising.
It should be clear that Tom has nothing to lose and much to gain by developing more functional muscles. Although not as obvious, the greatest benefit of a well-designed strength training program may be the experiences that he avoids. I am referring to the various overuse injuries that frequently plague triathletes. Because swimming, cycling and running all emphasize some muscles more than others, joint structures in the feet, knees, hips, back, shoulders and neck may become vulnerable to musculoskeletal problems. By performing a comprehensive program of strength exercise many potential injuries may be prevented.
For example, swimming emphasizes shoulder extension and adduction movements (pulling the arms through the water) more than shoulder flexion and abduction movements (recovering the arms through the air). Consequently, the stronger pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles tend to overpower the weaker deltoid muscles which frequently leads to shoulder injuries, especially in the vulnerable rotator cuff area.

On the other side of the coin, there are muscles that require significant strengthening to enhance athletic performance. Consider the discomfort many cyclists experience in their neck muscles during long rides. Stronger neck muscles may be very beneficial in this regard, as well as during the swimming event. Keep in mind that every physical activity uses a certain percentage of your maximum muscle strength. As your maximum muscle strength increases, so does your capacity to perform sustained work at any submaximum effort level, including swimming, cycling and running.

Are there any drawbacks to a strength training program for competitive triathletes? Yes, namely training time and recovery ability. Because triathletes are already spending a lot of time and expending a lot of energy performing three demanding aerobic activities, there may be little left for strength training. A traditional hour-per-day, split-routine strength training program would clearly be counterproductive for most triathletes.
It is therefore important for triathletes to take a sensible approach to strength training. Rather than find out how much strength exercise the body can withstand before it breaks down, triathletes should determine how little strength exercise they need to gradually strengthen their musculoskeletal system and improve their competitive performance.

Sample Strength Training Program
Triathletes should pursue a strength training program that is safe and efficient, as well as effective. That is, you should not perform high-risk exercises or high-speed exercises, as these typically reduce training safety. You should also avoid multiple-set exercises, as training in this manner requires a lot of unnecessary time and energy. Studies show that single-set strength training is just as effective as multiple-set strength training for all practical purposes, and it is obviously less time consuming.

It is assumed that endurance athletes should train with more repetitions than strength athletes, and this is basically correct. Endurance athletes typically have a higher percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers, and respond better to higher repetitions. However, it is important for every exercise set to be completed within the anaerobic energy system (about 90 seconds), as this provides the essential stimulus for strength development. Research indicates that endurance athletes obtain excellent strength results by training with about 12 to 16 repetitions per exercise set.

Of course, your training speed determines how long it takes to perform 12 to 16 repetitions. Research shows that 6-second repetitions are both safe and effective for increasing muscle strength. At 6 seconds per repetition (a set of 12 to 16 repetitions) requires about 70 to 95 seconds of continuous muscle effort. We are stronger in negative muscle contractions (lowering movements) than in positive muscle contractions (lifting movements). For this reason, I recommend 2 seconds for each lifting movement and 4 seconds for each lowering movement, as the slower lowering phase makes the negative muscle contractions more productive.

To ensure balanced muscular development, it is essential to train all of the major muscle groups. Therefore, a basic triathlon strength training program may include the following machine or free-weight exercises.

Major Muscle Groups

Machine Exercises

Free-Weight Exercises


Leg Extension Machine



Leg Curl Machine


Low Back

Low Back Machine

Back-Extension (Bodyweight)


Abdominal Machine Trunk Curl (Bodyweight)


Chest Cross Machine

Bench Press

Upper Back

Pullover Machine

Bent Row


Lateral Raise Machine

Overhead Press


Biceps Machine

Biceps Curl


Triceps Machine

Triceps Extension

If you are unfamiliar with the proper performance of these exercises, be sure to consult with a certified strength training instructor or study a strength training textbook. Also, if you choose to use free weights, keep in mind that dumbbells offer more versatility and less injury risk than barbells.

You may perform the basic workout 2 or 3 days per week, depending upon personal preference. Studies on strength training frequency show that 2 sessions per week are about 88 percent as effective as 3 sessions per week.

Once you have mastered the basic workout, you may add a few more specialized exercises to further impact your triathlon performance. For example, I recommend the 4-way neck machine to strengthen one of the most important and most vulnerable muscle groups in the body. A stronger neck should help both your swimming and cycling performance, and certainly won’t hurt your running ability.

Another consideration is the oblique muscle on each side of the midsection that are used extensively in the turning action of the freestyle stroke. My choice for conditioning the internal and external oblique muscles is the rotary torso machine or twisting trunk curls.

Because the triceps are used dynamically in swimming and statically in cycling, it may be advisable to give these muscles a little extra attention. Bar dips target the triceps muscles, and also allow you to master a bodyweight exercise. As you become stronger you can add external resistance for additional strengthening. Just be sure not to dip too deeply, as this may unduly stress the shoulder joints.

Finally, as the legs are heavily involved in all three events, it is important to increase their functional strength as safely as possible. My preference for working the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles together is a well-designed leg press machine which may be substituted for leg extensions and leg curls. One good set of properly-performed leg presses provides all the stimulus you need for stronger leg muscles, without compromising your low back in the process.

Properly-performed strength training improves overall muscle strength, which increases performance power and decreases injury potential. It is therefore advisable for triathletes to include sensible strength exercise in their training program. However, to conserve time and energy for triathlon training, the strength workouts should be relatively brief and infrequent. Research indicates that performing 8 to 12 basic exercises for one set of 12 to 16 repetitions twice a week is highly effective for balanced muscular development and strength enhancement. Regular but reasonable strength training is my recommendation for a safer and more successful triathlon career.

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South
Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of 14 strength training books.

©2001 Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D. all rights reserved

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Written by Wayne L. Westcott PhD

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