Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Off Season Strength Training - Part One

If you’re in the northern hemisphere, chances are your triathlon season is done, or very close to being so.   Your weekly training volume should be decreasing as should the intensity of your workouts.    This lighter load in training volume is the perfect time to either increase your strength sessions, or, if you’re like the majority of triathletes I know, add it back into your routine.  

As I coach and personal trainer, I program strength work into all my athletes training plans.  I know when schedules get tight, it’s almost always the first thing to go but I cannot stress enough how important it is to maintain some kind of routine over the course of your entire season.  Done with proper technique, weight training will help keep you injury free, and will help improve strength, power and muscular endurance.  

Much like a triathlon training plan, strength work should also be periodized.  Off season is the time to start working on building strength for your following race season.  Once your build phase starts, your strength training plan should change again to allow for the additional training load.  And of course, during your race season, your plan should change again with a focus on maintenance.    I will delve into how to structure a periodized strength training plan in a future post.  For now, I’m going to focus on some of my favourite exercises.


Since running and cycling are essentially single leg exercises, it makes sense to do some of your off season training that way.    This way you work both of your legs individually and can focus on building strength equally.  When doing things like squats, you may think you’re working both your legs equally but I guarantee you that one of your legs will be working slightly harder than the other.  This is why single leg training is an integral part of a strength routine.   When I'm just getting back into the gym, I start with unilateral exercises to work on fixing any imbalances that I may have developed.  From there I will build into heavier lifting.

Form is SO important with all of these exercises.  As is mind muscle connection.   We often just go through the motion of the exercise without focusing on feeling the muscle work.   This is why I suggest doing all of these lower body exercises with body weight first so you understand the movement and can focus on feeling the muscles you are using.

There are endless possibilities when it comes to lifting weights but these exercises are my favourites for developing strength.  

Step up

These are a simple exercise that can be done on a box or a bench.    The surface should be stable and big enough for you to stand on.   You can do these laterally as well to change up your plane of movement.   I like these because they really help you focus on the push up / off.   I also like to add a knee drive on the opposite leg to mimic running stride.

Split Squat 

I used to do these with my foot elevated on a bench but was recently shown an alternate way that I find so much more effective and comfortable.  Instead of using a bench,  you use a Smith machine, lower the bar to just below knee height, grab the squat bar pad, wrap the bar and rest the top of your foot on that.  Doing that avoids the awkward twisting of your foot and toes that usually happens when you use a bench.  

Note:  Don't look at the ground when doing this, look ahead!

Lateral lunge  / Reverse lunge

Strength training provides the perfect opportunity to change up how we move.   I think it’s so important to include movement in alternate planes, especially in off season strength work, which is why I love lateral and reverse lunges.   Everything we do is done in the sagittal plane so moving in alternate planes challenges other muscles that we don't normally use.

Single leg deadlift (RDL’s) + traditional deadlift

The single leg RDL is a great exercise to work on balance and stability as well as targeting your posterior chain.  I do these without weight to start and gradually add weight as my form improves.  I would be remiss if I didn't include barbell deadlifts as well.  When done correctly, they are fantastic for working your entire posterior chain.

Single leg squat + barbell squat 

A quick search on You Tube will bring up a million different variations of single leg squats.  My suggestion is find one that you can do with proper form and do it.   The same goes for barbell squats.  Your ankle and hip mobility will dictate what you're able to do.


Swimming isn’t the only activity that requires upper body strength.  Think about how much time you’ll spend hunched over in your aerobars in an Ironman. What does your form look like at the 20 mile mark of a marathon? If you’re like the majority of the population, your shoulders are slumped over and your form has gone to shit.   This is why training your upper body is just as important as training your lower body.  

And just like your lower body, you will probably find that you have imbalances in your upper body as well so working on building strength with single arm exercises is a good way to start your strength training program.  

Again, proper form is crucial.   Always focus on good posture.   Keep your shoulders back and your chest lifted.   That way your core will also stay engaged.

Single Arm Row (cable or dumbbell)

Personally I prefer using a cable machine for these as I feel I have better control of the time under tension than with a dumbbell.

Single Arm pull down (cable)

This is a fantastic exercise for your lats.  If you do this correctly, it should mimic the pull phase of your swim stroke.  

Push Press

This is an explosive, compound movement that works both upper and lower body.  It's definitely one that should be perfected at a lighter weight before progressing to a heavier weight.   

Chest Press (single arm dumbbell) 

Doing a single arm dumbbell chest press really allows you to feel the engagement in your core because of the imbalance it creates.  It's as much about training your core as it is about training your chest.   The great thing about doing these unilaterally is that you end up working both sides of your body.   If you're pressing with your right arm, your left obliques will fire to help stabilize your torso.

Once you've managed to develop fairly equal amounts of strength on both sides of your body, you can progress to more traditional lifting like deadlifts, back / front squats & bench press.

If you're new to strength training, I would strongly suggest hiring a good personal trainer / strength and conditioning coach so you have someone watching and correcting your form.  Because if you're not doing these right, then you defeat the purpose of the exercise and, you may even get injured.

Now that you have some ideas as to what to do in the gym, stay tuned for my next post in the series:  Periodizing your strength plan.

Question:  Do you strength train throughout your race season?  If not, why?