Despite current research that points to the positive role that strength training can play in the preparation of endurance athletes, there is still a misconception among triathletes – and runners and cyclists – that traditional strength training does not address the needs of these athletes. 

The belief that strength training somehow doesn’t work for triathletes is due to body buildings’ undue influence on what passes for athletic preparation.  Any good personal trainer or strength coach can show you how to improve performance and design an appropriate strength training regimen.

Body building became a popular cultural phenomenon over 30 years ago thanks to the dynamic persona of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the movie “Pumping Iron.”  Arnold was – and still is – such a powerful figure that his reign as champion is the reason that body building became synonymous with everything related to fitness, including strength training and athletic preparation. 

By the way, to get an idea for the kind of impact the governor of California still has on the fitness world, Google “Arnold” and see what you get. 

Anyway… As time has passed and people have studied the role of different forms of weight lifting and strength training as it pertains to athletes, it is clear that body building programs are inferior when it comes to preparation for athletic endeavors, and that personal trainers need to expand their knowledge base. 

Endurance athletes intuitively knew that the body building-based version of strength training, that featured emphasis on form over function, quantity over quality and increased muscle growth at all costs, wasn’t for them. A lot has changed since the days when body building was considered a legitimate form of training for athletes.  Today the best strength coaches and personal trainers don’t view body building as a method of strength training.

Today – actually for the past 20+ years – the best strength coaches and personal trainers have incorporated a functional style of strength training for all athletes.  This functional training can be adapted to all athletes, including triathletes and other endurance athletes. Functional training differs depending on the activity that a person is training for, as you have to look at the specific demands of the activity when designing an effective program.  

While the demands placed on endurance athletes can vary depending on a bunch of variables, it’s safe to say that all triathletes need to train certain movements and not get hung up on the idea of training specific muscles. Triathletes – all athletes – need to have a strong core. And by core I mean the muscles that attach to the pelvis and are located between the sternum and the knees. 

The common misconception is that the core is limited to the muscles of the abdomen and lower back, but as you can see, this above definition of the core includes many more muscles and muscle groups.  Performing crunches on a balance ball is not core training and cannot be considered a serious exercise for athletes. A strong core is vital to being able to swim properly, as the core and the ability to rotate properly are responsible for producing movement in the water. 

Remember that swimming is not a ground-based activity and therefore requires the muscles of the body to work differently than they do while walking, biking and running.  And speaking of biking and running, these events require significant rotational strength and range of motion, and are single-leg activities. In addition to having a strong core and being able to handle the physical demand of producing movement through powerful rotational movements, swimming, running and biking are activities that require balance and stability as well. 

Performing exercises on machines – sitting or standing – simply will not cut it. Strength training for triathletes needs to incorporate dynamic movements that allow the body to create powerful movements while stabilizing the body in a 360-degree manner. Exercises used in a triathletes’ strength training program must train the nervous system to communicate with the rest of the body and improve balance and stability. 

You can probably figure out that balance drills and one-legged exercises are a big part of a triathletes strength training program. Strength training programs for athletes need to be specific, in that the training needs to mimic the activity that you’re training for.  Remember that you are training movements and not muscles. 

The exercises used in this kind of strength training program should be pulled from the pages of Muscle and Fitness, and shouldn’t be done sitting down or in a machine.  Any machine. Functional training will help triathletes and all endurance athletes – hell all people, athletic or not – get the most out of their program while improving their performance.


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