Getting Stronger

Strength training for Ironman triathlon seems to have more interpretations than there are people actually training for the event. Recommendations from various renowned and self proclaimed experts have included all of the following:
  • Bodybuilding style programs focusing on working specific muscles
  • Performing high repetitions at relatively low weights
  • Using machines to avoid injury risks
  • Performing strength work only using hills on the bike and run or paddles in the pool
  • Not doing any strength training
  • So-called functional work using a variety of swiss balls, balance boards and disadvantaged leverage
  • Plyometrics
  • Focusing only on the muscles and/or movements required in triathlon
  • Just going heavy
  • Pilates

This list is by no means exhaustive. There has been much debate about whether each method is better than another, or simply if there is any benefit in strength training at all? Numerous scientific studies have attempted to evaluate this. Typically the results have been conflicting for a number of reasons including, study design, training methods, training status of the athletes and what variables are measured. I don't have the answer, but I do believe there is good reason to include strength work in the training program. The benefits of which are not just confined to triathlon itself.

The benefits I see with strength training are often difficult to quantify into significant measures in scientific studies. My observations are more empirical. I am sure I will right a post all about evidence based practice one day, just to get it off my chest. Here are the reasons I include strength training into my program:

  • To increase maximal force production which can lead to:
  • - higher peak power outputs
  • - reduced perceived exertion at submaximal loads
  • - increased power output at reduced relative intensity
  • Reduced injury risk/rate due to:
  • - increased strength and work load tolerance of connective tissue
  • - correction of muscle imbalances
  • Improved overall performance due to variation in training stimulus
  • Improved performance at work
  • Reduced injury risk at work (there is a high risk lifting component in my job)

In the past my strength training has followed a reasonably traditional approach with 2-3 sets for 8-15 repetitions of various compound and isolated exercises plus an added component of so-called functional core training which involves a lot of work on the swiss ball. Over the years I found these sessions did seem to reduce my injury rate, but significantly added to my recovery needs. I was generally sore of 1-2 days following each session, and was often flat during my sport specific training. This time I have taken a different approach.

For the 16 weeks of Ironman speficic training, I have divided my strength training into four distinct phases of approximately four weeks each:

  1. General Strength, Power techniques
  2. Maximal Strength, Power development
  3. Maximal Power, Strength maintenance
  4. Maintenance

I am currently reaching the end of Phase 2 and will save how I found it so far for a later post. For now I'll just outline each phase as follows:

1. GENERAL STRENGTH, Power Techniques

Warm up with technique drills for explosive lifts followed by some work with light weight for a series of Snatches or Clean & Press. Then the rest of the workout will be something along the lines of: Pull ups, Squats, Bench press, Bent over row, Overhead press, Glute-Hamstring raises, Calf raises, Bicep curls, Dips, Core work. All these will be performed for 3 sets as follows:

  1. 12-15 reps of a comfortable weight (about 60-70% of 2nd set)
  2. 8-12 reps
  3. 6-8 reps of the weight of set 2 +10-20%

If I could reach 10-12 reps in set 2 plus 8 reps in set 3 then the weight would be increased by 10-20 the next session.

2. MAXIMAL STRENGTH, Power Development

After a warm up the session would start with 3x5 of either Snatches or Clean & Press at a moderate weight, focusing on speed of movement. For the strength work, a couple of exercises would be dropped, but now each exercise will receive a warm-up set(s) as required followed by 3 sets of 3-6 reps, with 2-3 minutes rest. The key exercises include:

  • Squats
  • Chin Up/Pull Up
  • Bench Press
  • Overhead Press
  • Deadlift
  • Calf Raise

If 5-6 or reps can be reach in most sets, then the weight is to be increased the following session. I will also include some auxiliary work if time and fatigue permit, but will be comfortable with letting the extras go if required.

3. MAXIMAL POWER, Strength Maintenance

Now its time to strip the auxiliary work. No more curls or calf raises. The focus is on the explosive lifting using:

  • Snatches
  • Clean & Press
  • Push Press
  • Squats
  • Deadlift

Typically 3-5 sets of 2-5 reps.


The lifts as per Phase 3, but only as 1-2 sets.


  1. Very informative! I never know how I should be lifting during different times in my training, especially the peak weeks. Which usually means I'll just skip my workouts!


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