There are two questions triathletes are always asking. Should I weight train and if so, what is the best way?

Ask 5 successful triathletes and you are sure to get 5 different answers, assuming they wouldn’t try to talk you out of resistance training. But take a look at the respected scientific research over the past ten years and one thing becomes clear; weight training will improve performance. This becomes even more that case as triathletes enter their 40s, 50s and beyond.

Go out and read 10 books about the subject, you will get 10 different methods, each telling you that their’s is the best . . . and only way to do things. The fact is that any resistance training will help performance. Some are more efficacious than others. Combining all the ‘agreed upon’ resistance training literature, a pattern emerges of the most effective way to spend your limited time in the gym.

There are three main goals, or outcomes, when lifting: Muscular Endurance, Muscular Growth (Hypertrophy) and Muscular Strength. 2 of the 3 are important for our sport with endurance being the most important. Nevertheless, for effective building of endurance, all three type of training should be cycled. But we will get to that in a minute.

Let’s first talk about repetitions. Some will tell you 12-20, some will tell you 1-6. Actually, going back to the cycling idea, the number of reps should vary depending upon the period you are in. Here is how they break down:

Reps per Cycle/Period of Training
12-20 Muscular Endurance
6-12 Hypertrophy
1-6 Muscular Strength

Then we break it town to how many sets someone should do based on the period:

Sets per Cycle
2-3 Muscular Endurance
3-5 Hypertrophy
3-6 Muscular Strength

How much weight should you lift per period (as a percentage of your 1 rep max):

Weight per Cycle
50-67% Muscular Endurance
65-85% Hypertrophy
80-100% Muscular Strength

How do you break up the periods when cycling. It depends upon your distance of choice. This is the general recommendations most well-known coaches out there will tell you is:

Sprints – 6 Week Cycle (2 Endurance, 2 Hypertrophy, 2 Strength)
International/Olympic – 12 Week Cycle (6 Endurance, 4 Hypertrophy, 2 Strength)
Half/Ironman – 24 Week Cycle (14 Endurance, 6 Hypertrophy, 4 Strength)

What exercises and order? That is a question that is highly personalized. It is dependent on your weaknesses/limiters, injuries, physical limitations, time limitations and the equipment you have access to. Generally, there is a consensus that multi-joint exercises are more efficacious; they produce results faster in that they work multiple muscles per exercise. Experts have moved away from the single muscle, single joint (ie., bicep curls) for overall performance gains in endurance sports. Single joint movements are helpful if you are trying to build the size of a muscle or specific region of the body, not for overall performance increases.

Once you find the exercises you like to do, here some general patterns to guide your exercises:

Goal Oriented Order – Complete exercises that address the muscles you use the most or the muscles that tend to limit your performance. The last exercises being the muscles you use the least. For most triathletes that means addressing quads, hammies and glutes before upper body stuff, unless you have a very weak upper body that limits your overall performance.

Big to Small – Work the larger muscle groups first, smaller muscle groups later.

Hard to Easy – Do the exercises you find most difficult first. This way you will tend not to find excuses not to do them later in the workout.

Mulit-joint to Single Joint – Work the deadlift, clean and jerk, squat exercises first, then move on to stuff like the curl or tricep pushdown later.

Upper Body/Lower Body Alternating – Once exercise working the upper body. Next exercise working the lower body. Repeat.

Finally, let’s not forget to rest, both between sets and between workouts.

Here is a good pattern to follow per period:

Rest per set per Cycle
30-90 Seconds – Hypertrophy
1:30-3:00 – Muscular Strength

Between workouts, a minimum of 48 hours should be taken before you work a muscle again. This means you can lift on consecutive days, just don’t work the same muscle for a couple of days.

These are fast and dirty ‘Cliffnotes’ guidelines for putting together a resistance training plan. We hope it helps.

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