Weight training

Why do weight training? One of the basic principles of sports science is specificity. This basically means that if you want to get good at something, you practice the thing that you want to get good at. You don’t have to lift weights in a triathlon (duathlon, multisport event etc), so why go to a gym a lift weights?

I believe weight training offers a number of benefits. These include:

  • Improved muscle balance.
  • Increased strength and technique over a greater range of motion.
  • Increased maximal power output.
  • Improved muscle activation.

Improved muscle balance:

It is not uncommon for athletes to have muscle imbalances. This can quite often lead to injury problems. For example, extremely strong quadriceps muscles can put undue stress on weak hamstrings, resulting in frequent hamstring strains. Strengthening weaker muscles can reduce these injury risks.

Improved strength over a wider range of motion:

How fast you go is largely determined by your power output. From physics, this is the force you apply times the speed you apply the force. What does that mean I hear you say? To go faster you either have to apply more force (eg push a bigger gear, or a longer stride), or do it faster (eg higher cadence, or leg turn over). Strength training helps you to apply a greater force. Weight training can use a wider range of motion than is typically used in a specific activity, such as running. Strengthening muscles over a wider range of motion may also be beneficial, particularly in producing more balanced muscles.

Increased maximal power output:

Many people believe that having a high peak power output is not important in endurance events – sustained power output is important. While this is ultimately true for a time trial situation, I believe that a number of athletes plateau as they have little “speed reserve”. They maybe able to ride for 3-5 hours at 30kph, but 34kph is a real struggle for even 10 minutes. Previously I mentioned that increasing the force you apply will make you go faster. While that is true, in endurance sport you are really limited by the energy you can supply aerobically. So by becoming stronger you are really going to increase you peak power (in an anaerobic situation), as you still need to increase you aerobic capacity and threshold to go faster. However I believe increasing peak power output it is important if you wish to improve.

Improved muscle activation:

Many opponents to weight training believe that they will bulk up if they do weight training. This is certainly not necessarily true when an appropriate program is undertaken. One of the major training effects is neurological – teaching the muscles that you already have to work “better”. This means making more muscle fibres fire at the same time. I have seen numerous athletes unable to execute proper swimming and running technique because they do not have the coordination and/or strength to fire their muscles properly. Two classic cases are calf muscles in running and triceps in swimming.

Teaching specific muscles to work in isolation maybe required, so that they can work better in conjunction with other muscles. For example, increasing your tricep strength may help you push back properly in swimming (and accelerate your hands faster), increasing your stroke length and speed significantly. If you have particularly weak triceps, you may not be able to push back properly, and may in fact be practicing bad technique all the time as a result.

Why not do sport specific strength training (running hills, riding in a big gear, paddles swimming)? This is a practical alternative, and could be part of a well structured program. However I don’t believe it gets the same results. You can develop bad habits before you gain the necessary strength. For example you may ride hills to improve your cycling strength, but as you are initially not strong enough, you “rock and bob” all over the bike, resulting in practicing bad technique. Another plus, I enjoy is the fact that in winter I can go to the relatively warm gym and lift weights for 45 minutes rather than get knocked off my bike trying to ride up a hill on icy roads for a couple of hours. A change is as good as a break!

What to do.

What you actually end up doing of course depends on what you want to achieve, and the time you have available to you. Are you looking to strengthen a muscle imbalance, increase strength and power output, or just want a change for those winter months (that will be of some use to you in the coming season)? Obviously each of these goals requires a different program.

It is not practical to go through technique in a magazine. As such, I would recommend seeing a professional instructor to ensure you get your technique correct. However, on the execution of the exercises, I would recommend: · Breath out during the exertion phase of the exercise, and you should try to move the weight quite fast. If you are lifting heavy weights, the actual movement may be quite slow, but you should “try” to move it fast. The speed of movement should be consistent with that of the exercise you are training for. If the weight is bouncing, it is probably too light – there should be a resistance through out the motion you are performing. · The return of the weight should be slow and controlled. Don’t drop the weight and try to stop it just before the end of the return. · Pause at the beginning and end of each repetition. Don’t swing the weight – you should be in control to the weight at all times. Good technique is far more important than lifting a heavier weight. · Some exercises may require a “spotter”, so that they can assist you to lift the weight if need be!

Sample program

The exercises you perform will depend highly on your individual needs. Table 1 shows a few sample exercises, more specifically aimed at triathlon. I would recommend 3-4 exercises for each upper and lower body groups (from the exercises listed). You may change the actual exercises you perform each gym session. Start with higher repetitions, and if you are looking for more absolute strength gains put in some lower repetition sessions later on (eg sets of 15, 10, and 6 rep’s).

Initially I would begin with 2 sets of 15 repetitions, for 3-4 exercises, and build that up to 3-4 sets. When I say “15 rep’s”, that means choose a weight that you can only do 15-16 repetitions with. If you REALLY had to, you might be able to get 1 more rep out. Obviously if you lift a heavier weight, you will do less repetitions. Finding out the correct weights for each exercise does take a bit of time, so allow a couple of gym session to get use to doing the exercises and finding the correct weights. Start with exercises that use more big muscles (eg leg press and bench press) and move to more muscle specific exercises (eg tricep extension and leg extension). Mid section exercises should be done at the end of a gym session. These use support muscles which are often needed in other exercises, and may not provide the required support if they are exhausted to start with!

Table 1. Sample weight training exercises.

Upper body exercises

Lower body

Mid-section

Bench Press Squat Sit-ups
Military Press Leg Press Back extensions
Pull Overs Leg Extensions Swiss ball
Bent Flys Leg Curls Crunches
Dips (assisted) Step ups Leg raises
Chin-ups (assisted) Lunges
Lat Pull-downs Calf Raises
Seated Row
Tricep extension

What to expect

If you undertake a course of weight training what can you expect? Typically you will have: · Muscle soreness. This may be quite bad initially, particularly if you don’t take the first couple of session easily. · Initially a drop in performance, primarily due to tired muscles. I would not recommend doing any intense sessions within 36 hours of weight training. · After 2-4 weeks quite rapid gains in strength. · Gains will become less marked after 10-15 weeks.

This has just brushed the surface on weight training, but I hope it was of some use to you. While weight training is not for everyone, there are benefits to be gained by supplementing your training with some off season weight training. Speak to your coach for a specific program to your needs.