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Effective Weight Training

Triathletes can benefit from strength training to reduce the risk of overuse injuries.

Adding weight room exercises to your triathlon training won’t just improve muscle, joint and ligament strength, flexibility and mobility, power production and tissue tolerance to injury. It will help you race faster, too.

“Triathletes can benefit greatly from strength training, in particular to reduce the risk of common overuse injuries, like IT Band [lateral thigh and knee] related issues,” says Rick Tkach, a registered massage therapist in Burnaby, BC who has almost 30 years experience in the sport. He adds that the quads are under high demand while on the bike, which can lead to exceedingly tight hip flexors. During the run, the gluteus medius must work hard to maintain a level and stable pelvis, but is prone to weakness.  When weak, the pelvis drops to the side, during single leg stance, placing unnecessary tension along the lateral thigh. Cupido states that tightness in the hip flexors, along with weakness in the gluteus medius, are factors contributing to IT Band issues. Lateral knee pain is just an example among a host of other injuries associated with triathletes.

So what are the best exercises to do in the gym to maximize your strength gains and increase your tolerance to injury?  Be effective in the gym with these exercise options:


Triathlete exercise quick tips:

  • Machine based exercises were designed for body builders, not triathletes.  Perform free weight exercises to maximize transferability to racing.
  • Seated exercises are only good for further tightening your hip flexors and shutting off your core and pelvic stabilizers – you spend enough time during the week seated, so don’t sit at the gym.
  • Closed-Chain exercises (foot or hand in contact with ground) are more effective at building transferable strength for a triathlete compared to open-chain exercises, which are commonly machine based.

Exercise Option: Recumbent bike warm-up

Better Option: Foam Rolling (self myofascial release) & dynamic mobility drill warm-up

Why sit hip-flexed with rounded shoulders more than you have to? You’re far better off combating bad posture while improving joint mobility and tissue quality.  Start by foam rolling all major muscle groups in a slow, controlled, manner. This might cause discomfort, but will improve tissue quality. Make sure to spend time rolling out your IT band. You can also promote thoracic extensibility by extending your upper back over the foam roll.

“When the shoulders roll forward into protraction, and the mid-back loses mobility, shoulder impingement injuries become common with swimming,” says  Dr. Carla Cupido, a chiropractor based in Vancouver. The mobility drills are performed in a dynamic fashion, warming up your body temperature, lubricating your joints and preparing you for the workout ahead.

Here’s a sample mobility drill called the Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization. Place your right knee on a mat with your left foot in front of you. Pull your right ankle toward your butt and get tall. Squeeze your right glute, brace your abs and shift your weight forward. Feel a gentle stretch in your right quad and hip muscles. Hold for two seconds and repeat for one minute. Perform on both sides daily.

Exercise Option: Seated Groin/Outer Hip Machine

Better Option: X-Band Walk

Use this exercise to strengthen the gluteus medius, improve hip stability and combat against muscle imbalances and IT Band issues. Stand on a band and cross the ends in front of you. Brace your core and step sideways with stiff legs 10 times. Feel a slight burn in your hips and perform five sets per left/right.  Repeat every other day.

Exercise Option: Seated Leg Extension and Seated Leg Curl Machines

Better Option: Walking Overhead Lunges (Single Arm with kettlebell)

This exercise involves an eccentric landing component, which has been shown to be important at improving strength for injury prevention. It also develops single leg hip stability and challenges core and scapular stability. Scapular stability is another factor important for preventing shoulder injuries in swimmers, according to Cupido. The knee extension machine is unfavorable because it places unnecessary stresses to the soft tissues in the knee and, likewise, the leg curl machine develops non-transferable strength for triathlon because it isolates the hamstrings to flex the knee, rather than strengthening it to extend the hip.

Hold a kettlebell overhead with one arm. The offset weight will work wonders on your scapular stability. Perform 10 walking lunges, alternating legs.  Switch the kettlebell every set and do four sets.

Exercise Option: Seated Chest Press Machine

Better Option: Weighted Pushup Plus

This exercise has been shown to be more effective at stimulating joint proprioceptors and more favorable at co-activating the scapular stabilizers (serratus anterior and upper trapezius muscles).  Because the pushup is a moving plank, core stability is also developed. To increase difficulty, wear a weight vest.

Perform a pushup while pushing your shoulder blades away from each other at the top of the movement (the plus). To build strength, perform heavy sets of five reps. Do three to five sets twice a week.

Exercise Option: Leg Press Machine

Better Option: Back Squat

The squat is far superior to the leg press because it has higher levels of muscle activation in all major leg and hip muscles, the abdominals and the muscles in the lower and upper back. Full squats, where the hips are lower compared to the knees, have the greatest glute max activity compared to squatting with less depth. This increases the development of the hips, which is favorable at balancing the strength in the usually stronger quads.

Place a barbell across the top of your shoulder blades with you hands on the outside of your shoulders.  Pull your hips back and squat in between your feet.  Keep your chest up and your knees out. After reaching full depth, try to break the bar across your back as you ascend. Squeeze your glutes hard at the top and stand tall. Repeat five reps and perform three to vive sets. Perform once a week.

Exercise Option: Seated Abdominal Crunch Machine

Better Option: Half Kneeling Anti-Rotation Press

This machine will further promote the posture you’re trying to get out of – rounded upper back and abducted shoulder blades. Triathletes are far better off developing the abdominals to prevent movement rather than to create it.

Stand perpendicular to an adjustable cable machine. With the machine to your right, kneel on your right knee with your left foot in front and grab the handle and bring it to your stomach. Squeeze your right glute and brace your abs. Press the handle forward and lock your arms. Keep your chest up and shoulders down.  Don’t allow the weight to pull you to the right. Bring the handle back and repeat 12 times per side. Perform three to five sets per side and perform every other day.

Jon-Erik Kawamoto is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a Human Kinetics Grad Student at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL.  You can find out more at www.JKConditioning.com.