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eeping Fit

Strength Training For Triathletes

© Wayne L. Westcott PhD

The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Keeping Fit by Wayne L. Westcott PhD. View all columns in series

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

Quadriceps Leg Extension Machine Half-Squat
Hamstrings Leg Curl Machine Half-Squat
Low Back Low Back Machine Back-Extension (Bodyweight)
Abdominals Abdominal Machine Trunk Curl (Bodyweight)
Chest Chest Cross Machine Bench Press
Upper Back Pullover Machine Bent Row
Shoulders Lateral Raise Machine Overhead Press
Biceps Biceps Machine Biceps Curl
Triceps Triceps Machine Triceps Extension
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About The Author
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. He is strength training consultant for numerous national organizations, such as the American Council on Exercise, the American Senior Fitness Association, and the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation, and editorial advisor for many publications, including Prevention, Shape, and......more
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