Swimming, cycling, and running will inevitably take up most of your time as a triathlete, but hitting the gym and doing strength training is just as important. We chat with two professional triathletes to get the low down on how they strength train to improve their performance and get the most out of their training.
Matt Leeman - professional triathlete
Matt doesn't do strength training in the typical sense. Instead of hitting the gym and lifting weights, he uses natural factors like hills to help him improve his strength and increase his muscular endurance.
Triathlete strength training
Strength training is a big component of any sport, the common definition of strength is "the ability to exert a force against a resistance". Each sport has different demands and hence requires different classifications of strength, triathlon predominantly requires strength endurance - the ability to express force many times over.
Although I personally do not lift weights, which are commonly associated with strength training, I do triathlon-specific strength training, adapting the training of the disciplines to a strength based way of training.
There are swim specific tools that can be utilised to enhance swimming strength, the main ones I use are the pull buoy, hand paddles, and band. The muscles used in swimming are predominantly the lats (side of the back) and triceps. The pull buoy enables swimming with less kicking to maintain the body position so that the upper body can be worked more. The hand paddles create a larger surface area to increase the resistance of a stroke. The band is used to take leg kicking out of the equation and rather get propulsion from the overall movement of the body and core muscles.
The majority of the time in a triathlon is spent on the bike so having good bike strength is essential for putting together a good race, both directly, making you ride faster, and indirectly, the less the bike takes out of you, the more you’ll have left for the run. The two things that can be utilised for bike strength are the bike's gears and hills.
By doing specific intervals ‘over-gearing’ i.e. using a bigger gear than you would usually use to train your leg muscles to produce a greater force so that when we are racing we are working at a lower percentage of our overall capacity. Hills obviously give a great stimulus for developing strength, ensuring you ride on different terrain is important for developing a well rounded strong athlete.
The main ways in which I train my running strength is using hills and mixed surface terrain. I will often do a specific hill repeat session where one specific hill is targeted and run up multiple times. The beauty of hills is that it prevents you from over-striding and promotes glute engagement, which improves our ability to utilise the bigger muscles in the legs such as glutes and quads that handle fatigue better than the smaller muscles of the leg, which is very important in an endurance sport.
Claire Steels - World Champion duathlete
Claire tells us about her three favourite strength training exercises and why they are well suited to an endurance athlete.
Bulgarian Split Squat
This exercise is great for running and cycling power but also glute, hip and core stability. Unilateral exercises like the Bulgarian split squat are fantastic for developing the individual leg strength required for sports such as running and cycling, where each leg is required to produce power independently.
TRX Mountain Climbers
This exercise requires core stability and control whilst moving each leg independently. This replicates the physiological control that is required in a duathlon as a strong core is essential for efficient running and cycling.
This is a fantastic exercise for developing power through the posterior chain along the back of the body. It challenges the strength of the whole body but primarily the glutes and hamstrings. It is also a fantastic exercise for testing the cardiovascular system while also trying to produce power making it yet another great exercise for duathletes.
German Volume Training (GVT) is a popular type of weight training among those who have the goal to increase the size and strength of their muscles. It can be tough and takes a lot of work, so we look at what it is and whether it's right for you.
What is the German Volume Training method?
Esteemed late strength coach Charles R Poliquin was an expert on German Volume Training and believed it originated in Germany in the mid 1970s. It is also known as 'the 10 sets method' due to its structure and was originally used in the off-season to help weightlifters increase their muscle mass.
In the most basics terms, German Volume Training consists of doing 10 sets of 10 repetitions on a single exercise for a single muscle group. This incredible load (100 reps!) shocks the system and causes the body to react by building muscle fast. It is not uncommon for lifters to see an increase of 10lbs of muscle mass in only 6 weeks of practising GVT.
The goal is to complete all 100 reps with the same weight. In order to discover which weight is right for you to start with, test a weight that you can lift for about 20 reps to failure. For most people, this is 60% of their one rep max (1RM). For example, if your 1RM for deadlifts is 200kg (440lbs), you would use a weight of 120kg (264lbs) for German Volume Training.
Is German Volume Training effective?
German Volume Training has been used for over 50 years now and has stood the test of time. Many bodybuilders, powerlifters, and weightlifters use this training method to build muscle and have found it to be hugely effective.
Some people think that the weight seems too light for the first couple of sets and question the effectiveness of the method. However, it's important to remember that you're going to be lifting this weight for a total of 100 reps and so cumulative fatigue will soon set in. Make sure you stay strict with your rest intervals and use a stopwatch to time rest periods of no longer than 60 seconds. It can be tempting to increase rest when it starts to get tough in the last couple of sets, but don't let this happen.
In order for German Volume Training to be effective, it's also important to perform the right exercises. Compound exercises such as bench press, squat, and deadlift are the best exercises to use for German Volume Training as they use the maximum amount of muscle. Isolating exercises such as tricep kickbacks and leg extensions are definitely a no-go. If you want to supplement a smaller muscle group like triceps and biceps, go ahead and do regular training afterwards.
What are the benefits of German Volume Training?
German Volume Training has many benefits and is a tried and tested method of increasing muscle mass. Due to the sheer amount of repetitions and workload, the body is forced to react and so you're pretty much guaranteed to build muscle following this method. However, be warned that it isn't easy and should be left to experienced lifters. You should also only follow this training method for less than 8 weeks due to the strain it puts on the body. Most lifters find that 6 weeks once or twice a year is optimal.
GVT is mainly used for bulking as it increases muscle and so will make you both bigger and stronger. If you're looking to cut, this isn't the right training programme for you.
Does German Volume Training burn fat?
Yes, German Volume Training certainly burns fat. A lot of people don't think of weight training as fat-burning, instead visualising running on a treadmill for hours on end and sweating buckets as the ultimate way to burn fat. However, lifting weights is proven to be very effective at burning calories, especially as it really raises your heart rate and gets your metabolism fired up.
The sheer volume of reps undertaken when practising German Volume Training means it is a fat-burning programme and the fact it takes so long also increases your calorie-burn. Additionally, because German Volume Training increases your lean muscle mass, this in turn causes your body to burn more fat at rest.
Muay Thai fighters are some of the fittest and strongest athletes in the world, wouldn’t it be great if you could find out what their workout secrets were? Luckily, they are quite well documented. Here’s a list of 5 tried and trusted Muay Thai exercises guaranteed to get you in fighting shape.
There’s a reason why basically every fighter you see will devote large periods of their training to skipping. It just works. Jumping rope is hands down the easiest way to work up a serious sweat and build that long-term endurance that sets the elite apart from the rest of us.
The best thing about it is that it only requires a skipping rope and your willingness to push through the pain barrier.
Try skipping for 10-15 minutes following a workout and watch how much difference it makes to your performance and physique.
2. Press ups
Press ups have been around basically since the dawn of time itself, meaning Muay Thai fighters have been implementing these since day dot. Push ups work all the pushing muscles of the body – chest, triceps, shoulders – and even your core as you have to maintain a straight body throughout the exercise.
Press ups can also help to build explosive punching power, a stronger resilience in fights and to top it off they make you look good too. That’s a winning combo if ever I heard one.
Try doing 75 press ups at the end of a push workout to really burn out the muscles. Once you can do that in 3 sets (25, 25 & 25), try adding a weighted vest.
Probably the hardest form of cardio and muscle building there is. But what an exercise! Burpees require you to sprawl to the floor from a standing position, then quickly shoot back and jump into the air.
They have been a staple in Thailand’s fight camps for decades, and they work the entire body at once which is brilliant for building functional strength, unbeatable cardiovascular fitness and enviable aesthetics.
Try doing 30 burpees every morning just after you get up. Doing this is a great way to get your heart pumping blood around the body, wake yourself up, and build that fight-ready fitness.
4. Bicycle crunches
It is common knowledge amongst Muay Thai fighters that a strong core may be what separates the good from the great. Having a bulletproof set of abs helps to generate extra power on your punches and kicks, it helps to brace when taking blows from an opponent and can even help your endurance.
Bicycle kicks are a fantastic way of building your abs and core as they are a functional exercise that keeps the body moving. It is perfect when compared to something like a plank where the body is stationary and it is also a cardio workout if you do them intensely enough and at a high enough volume.
If you want to challenge a fighters’ workload, do 150 of these back-to-back with a set of 50 burpees on a cardio day to really give yourself a test.
5. Body weight squats
Yes, heavy weighted squats can be good for building leg mass and power, but Muay Thai fighters want power and speed.
Heavy squats can slow fighters down with too much muscle which is why they opt for lighter weights and higher reps. This still builds that power but with it comes speed and endurance – perfect for long bouts were you need to be able to throw kick after kick, round after round.
Nothing fancy here, 5 bread and butter Muay Thai exercise that will boost your performance and have you looking like a pro fighter in no time - all you have to do is build the skill to back it up!
About the author: Darren Mitchell is a Muay Thai enthusiast and writer for the BestMuayThai blog. Darren has trained Muay Thai for several years at gyms all over the world alongside some world-renowned fighters and coaches.
Try this upper body arm workout for women to blast your arms and get results! Including exercises for biceps, triceps, and shoulders. Perfect for toning and sculpting your arms and bingo wings.
Cable Tricep Pull Downs
This exercise is for isolating the triceps.
How to perform the tricep pull down
Using either a straight bar or rope attachment, attach to a cable machine in the high position. Standing with your feet shoulder width apart, pull the bar down and keep your elbows tucked in. Push the bar down, fully extending your arms, then slowly raise the bar up back to the start position. Keep the movement control and feel the burn in the back of your arms!
Key exercise tips:
- Keep the elbows tucked in
- Fully extend the arms
- Exhale as you press down and inhale on the way up
- Too much movement of the arms – taking the elbows away from the body
- Shrugging the shoulders and using the trap muscles
- Going too heavy and using momentum
This is a great cardiovascular exercise that will trim and tone the arms whilst simultaneously working the core and blasting the shoulders.
How to use the battle ropes
Hold the ends of the rope at arm's length in front of your hips with your hands shoulder-width apart. Brace your core, soften your knees, and begin alternately raising and lowering each arm explosively. Keep alternating arms for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, instead of making waves, start slamming the rope into the ground. Make sure to keep breathing and don't hold your breath!
Key exercise tips:
- Tense your abs tightly during performance
- Concentrate on keeping your speed fast
- Don't hold your breath
- Sacrificing technique with fatigue
- Performing the exercise for too long
Dumbbell Bicep Curls
This is an isolation exercise for the biceps using a pair of dumbbells.
How to perform the dumbbell curl
In a standing position, holding a dumbbell in your hand and keeping your elbow pinned to your waist, curl your arm up to your chest, flexing your elbow then slowly extend it back down again. Repeat on each arm for 10-12 reps.
Key exercise tips:
- Keep your elbow in a fixed position
- Fully extend your arm at the bottom of the movement
- Moving the elbow out of alignment
- Going too heavy and sacrificing technique
- Swinging the body with the movement
Tricep Bench Dips
This is a body weight exercise that you can do virtually anywhere. It’s a compound exercise, which means it will hit all three of your tricep muscles as well as your shoulders and chest muscles.
How to perform the tricep bench dip
Position your hands at shoulder width apart on a bench with your hands facing forward. Extend your legs out, taking your bum off the bench balancing on your hands.
Lower your body down towards the floor taking your arms into a 90 degrees bend. Press your body upwards, extending out your arms back into the start position.
Key exercise tips:
- Keep your core tight to maintain an upright position
- Make sure your elbows track in line with your hand
- Breathe in as you lower and breathe out as you press up
- If you find it difficult to perform the tricep dip with straight legs then bend your knees placing your feet flat on the floor
- Rounding/curving back
- Not going low enough
- Hyperextending the elbows
The squat is one of the biggest exercises in fitness. It is a huge compound movement that can help to improve your fitness and strength in a number of ways. But what if you can't squat properly? How can you improve your squat?
Why can't I squat properly?
Squatting is a natural, functional movement that humans have been doing since the dawn of time. When we were young we would squat perfectly and naturally without even thinking about it. Just take a look at a child playing around, they'll drop into a squat and get back up again without a second thought. As we age, we get less and less good at it as we lose mobility and become sedentary in our lifestyle.
If you can't squat properly, it could be due to lifestyle or it could be due to your personal physiology. If you haven't done a squat since you were a child, you can't expect to do one perfectly first time you try. Like everything, exercises take practice, and you should ask an expert or fitness professional to give you guidance the first time you try to squat.
Some people have more reduced mobility than others, which may also affect your squat capabilities. If you have stiff or weak ankles, you will struggle to squat. Again, practice makes perfect, and with the right physio training, you'll be able to do a full, proper squat in no time.
Squats are a compound movement, meaning they use multiple joints and muscles to happen. A simple body weight squat utilises almost every muscle in the body and arguably once weights are added, no muscle gets left behind. It's a good idea to get well acquainted with the body weight squat before you add weight, so that you can be sure you have good form.
How to do a squat
- Begin with feet just outside shoulder width and toes pointing very slightly outward.
- Find a point to focus on looking straight ahead, don’t look down as this will compromise your spine.
- Head up, sink your weight back into your heels and bend your knees.
- Sink your bum down as low as your hips and flexibility allow.
- Your chest should stay upright and your back remains flat, the knees should follow the toes.
- Driving off your heels, straighten back up to the start position.
How to improve your squat
Lack of Range
A lack of range in your squat is usually caused by stiffness, inflexibility or even ankle instability. If your heels lift off the ground towards the bottom of your squat it is likely that you have either tight hamstrings, ankles or both. Stretching the ankles and hamstrings will help to achieve the full squat depth.
Knees collapse inwards
Your knees caving inwards during a squat is a common sign of weak abductors and gluteus medius, although there can be many other reasons as with any imperfection. Exercises which focus on activating these muscles such as lying clamshells, banded squat walks and single leg lunging can help to activate these areas. This being said, there are olympic athletes whose knees collapse inwards as they compete, who clearly don’t suffer from ‘weak’ anything. So it is not the only cause.
Back caves forwards when squatting
A weak posterior chain can lead to bending forward as the lower back attempts to make up for the weakness and ends up pulling you forward. Strengthening the hips, glutes and hamstrings will enable them to engage better and pull your body back to the correct alignment.
An arched back when squatting can be caused by a multitude of problems, a weak chest, poor posture, a weak trunk or even simply too great a weight can cause the shoulders to arch, compromising your squat technique. Trying to establish the cause of this imbalance can often be the most difficult task, but then there are simple steps which can be implemented in order to address the issue. A weak chest can be worked on by focusing on exercises such as flyes and pullovers, whilst fully engaging the pecs by forcing the shoulders back. A weak trunk can be improved by working on core strength using exercises such as the plank and hanging leg raises.
The barbell squat
Olympic squat, weighted squats, whatever you want to call it, this is when the squat becomes a game changer and has the greatest effects not only on strength but on weight loss, fitness and body composition. Weight training has a whole article of benefits of it’s own which you can read under “strength training”.
The first battle, do I use a neck wrap or not? To barbell squat you will need an olympic bar, collars and a rack. You will not need: Chalk, lifting gloves or a neck pad for the bar. If you hold the bar correctly you don’t need to use a pad to support your back, that’s what you’ve got traps for. What’s more - wearing a neck brace can damage your proprioception, you need to be able to feel the bar properly for effective balance. Padding makes the bar thicker, moving it upwards which causes a more forward lean and emphasises lower back stress. As your weight lifting gets serious and your strength increases a bar pad won’t be any help anyway. Heavy weights hurt.
Setting up to barbell squat
This is another common trait many will miss, despite the fact they’re in the gym, we can still call these people lazy, as they’re the ones who don’t want to faff with moving the rack to fit them properly, which can lead to poor technique. As someone who is 5 ft 2, I physically HAVE to set the bar up every time, as at most people’s height, I’d be trying to lift it over my head! The bar should be set at a height somewhere between your breast and collar bone. It needs to be low enough that when you stand with knees locked, the bar lifts off the rack, without you going on tip toes. It’s a squat not a calf raise.
Once you’ve set the bar up, it’s time to step under it, place the bar across your shoulders and select your grip. This is another vital piece of the puzzle. Follow these steps:
Step up to bar. Duck under bar. Make sure head is central. For a high placement, the bar sits across the neck, resting on your traps, for heavier weights the bar is usually placed slightly further down, so the weight is more central and therefore less likely to cause damage to the lower back. Keep your hands as close as possible without causing strain, which will flex the upper back and provide “cushioning”. Point your elbows down, straighten your wrists and keep your elbows in.
That’s the setup, so this is the moment where you have a stern word with yourself, big yourself up and then go for it. You should be able to straighten and un-wrack in just two steps, if you have to lift the bar any further out you could put yourself at risk.
The squat technique itself is almost identical to a body weight squat, except now you’ve got a weight on your back. The main factor here is to make sure you keep your head facing forwards rather than looking up, as this will cause compression at the top of your spine.
Once you have the basic squat perfected, the possibilities of where you can take it are endless. In our next post we will look at squat variations, so keep your eyes peeled!