What Does “Strength Training” Mean to You?

The topic for discussion at the Santa Barbara Triathlon Club March meeting, hosted by club prez Aldous Pabon, was myth busting. Aldous brought together a panel of local coaches, Matt Trost, Jason Smith, John Abrami, and nutritionist in training Chris Latham, with yours truly, to try and separate the facts from the fiction from a list of triathlon training and racing myths. The main topics covered were Nutrition, Training Plans, Strength, Intensity, Gear, Recovery/Rest, Swim, Age, and Technique.strength training

Coaches Matt and Jason were tasked with the topics of training plans and strength, and the “myth” about strength was this, Triathletes don’t need to do strength training. These are both topics worthy of hours of discussion on their own, and both coaches did a great job giving a glimpse into their training and coaching philosophies on the subjects in a short period of time.

While I was listening I wondered what strength training meant to the rest of the people in the audience, given the differences in everyone’s background. To confirm my own suspicions, one of the athletes asked Matt and I after the talk if strength training meant doing weights. I knew that she came from a swimming background so I told her it was the equivalent of what she knew as “dry land” training, but with exercises more specific to all three sports. So if you’ve ever wondered what people mean when they talk about strength training, you’re not alone.

Without an age group swimming or high school running background and you came into the sport of triathlon because you could swim, bike and run (to some degree), but without a lot of “focus” on your training, then strength training is probably something that is not included in your weekly schedule. If that’s the case then you are missing out on a key element in your training.

Depending on who you are talking to, how old they are, and how they came into the sport of triathlon, strength training will mean something different to each of us. We older athletes know strength training as going into a gym and lifting heavy weights to get stronger. It had nothing to do with endurance athletics, but was all about pure strength. If the sport we were involved in at the time benefited that was great, but getting bigger muscles was the focus at the time.

In time new methods of weight lifting came into vogue, Nautilus being one that comes to mind, that has evolved into most of the weight stack machines that we see in gyms and health clubs today. The focus still seemed to be on getting bigger and stronger, but eventually we’ve grown to know that doing lighter weights and higher repetitions is more beneficial to endurance athletes, without our muscles getting much bigger, so we get stronger but stay lean.

Having dealt with many different muscular injuries over the years myself and having seen more than a few Physical Therapists in my rehabilitation, I learned that another change in how we lift weights was more about single leg and single arm exercises, to help strengthen our weak sides, which remain hidden when we use barbells and weight stack machines where both arms and legs are pushing/pulling the weights. Many personal trainers and coaches have embraced this way of thinking, so today we have lots of options, including yoga, Pilates , body weight exercises, Foundation Training, Kettle bell workouts, P90X3, Neanderthal Fitness, etc.

A while back I asked my friend and local chiropractor Dr. James Adams for advice on what method of exercise he would prescribe for people with sore or weak backs, something I’ve dealt with for years. Jim has worked extensively with athletes at all levels, and as an avid triathlete himself I hoped he would have THE definitive answer. He said that 5-10 years ago he would have given me a list of exercises to do, but he has learned that eventually people stopped doing them when their pain went away and just went back to what they were doing before they were injured, even if that meant nothing. He suggested that the best exercises for people to do would be those that they’re familiar with and are likely to keep doing; else they’ll find themselves back in his office again.

I think this is sage advice, not trying to force someone to do a series of exercises that in time they’ll stop doing them because they’re too hard or they don’t enjoy them, versus offering up the suggestion that with all the options we have, pick one that you’ll stick with.

What my own strength training workout has morphed into is based on using the same weights and dumbbells my Mom bought me when I was 16 years old, along with a fitness ball, taking my gym/health club program into the 21st century. I do a lot of body weight exercises, focusing on strengthening my core, then my “posterior chain” (a favorite training paradigm in Foundation Training), which includes your hamstrings, glutes, hips, and low back. As these are the support muscles for our three sports, taking the time out of the pool and off the bike to make them stronger really helps me to support whatever level of training I then go out and do. Without this program my back starts to feel weak, my hamstrings tighten and I loose flexibility, and in time I’ll need professional help to get right again. But as usual, your mileage/selection of exercise routine may vary. And again, I only use this an one example of what you can do, you have to pick what works for you.

I look at the time I spend on my weekly strength training session as preventive maintenance for my body, and as a way to get stronger before I go tackle a hard swim set or hard bike ride or run. Many athletes don’t feel they have the time to set aside from their other training to add yet another thing to their schedule, and for younger people I totally get this. But for us older athletes, and I’d say even those starting in their 40’s, strength training should be something we do every week.

Back to the myth busters, while Matt and Jason were talking I asked them how long each training session should be and got two different answers. Matt said 5-15 minutes a day would be the easiest way, to tag this time to one of the workouts you just finished, as part of your cool down. Jason said he thought 15-60 minutes a couple times a week would be ideal, but agreed that it would be better to do something less if that’s all the time they had. Coach Abrami (a masters swim coach), opined that anyone that wanted to finish up in the workout room at the pool after their swim to do some pull ups or whatever they felt they could do before heading home would be a nice addition.

I hope that by now you see that there is no perfect answer to the question, what is strength training? Other than what Dr. Adams suggests, that it should be something that you’re familiar with, that maybe with the help of a personal trainer or coach you can modify to get stronger in your weak areas, while focusing on the muscle groups we all use to swim, bike, and run.

P.S.

I’m including a list of the exercises I like to do, which by no means is an end-all-be-all list, but just an example of what kind of exercises you might consider. Realize that there are many different exercises out there to strengthen your glutes and back, so experiment and find the one that works best for you.

I have built this set from my years in the gym, dropping the weight and increasing the reps, while adding the functional body weight exercises from my friend Shannon Visin, a certified personal trainer. I knew she helped her husband Kyle Visin (another local coach and elite age-group triathlete), in his training plan, so her ideas really helped me build a complete program. I try to do 10-12 exercises each time, two sets each, but some days when I’m pressed for time I focus on core and glutes, knowing those have been my weak areas on the past.

Core Legs/Glutes Upper Body
Plank Hip raises on ball Pull ups/Assisted pull ups
Side plank Leg curls with ball Dumbbell press on ball
Roman twist on ball Reverse lunges Rowing with dumbbell
Swiss ball ab crunch Single leg squats Dips
Step ups Dumbbell fly on ball
Calf raises
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