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What strength training do you do and why?

A few people have asked me about strength training lately, what kind of program I employ, and what I generally recommend. Rather than repeating myself in a few emails with much of the same content, I thought I’d write up some ideas and put them on the site so that maybe a few other people might find some of my ideas useful.

I think that strength training, among other cross training activities, can be a great addition to any endurance athlete’s routine. Whether you do it just during the off season, periodically throughout the season, or every week of the year will depend on your goals, time availability, and interest or motivation to do so. By all means, if you enjoy going to the gym, doing it once or twice a week will definitely not hurt you as an athlete, and probably will help, potentially quite a bit.

Unless you’re pursuing mutually exclusive training goals it should help you to mix up your training. E.g. lifting weights moderately during the winter months as you’re building strength, endurance, and general aerobic conditioning will be great. Lifting heavy weights and putting on muscle mass while you’re trying to get better at climbing will certainly set you back in the long run, unless you’re losing a similar amount of body fat or increasing your power more than your body weight increases, both of which are not uncommon! Still, you can’t become a thick-muscled gym regular without eventually having an adverse affect on your power to weight ratio, which will hurt you climbing and accelerating where power to weight matters. It could still help you for things like time-trialing, though, because body weight doesn’t matter so much for long, steady efforts on flat ground so much as absolute power. Looking around at some of the best time trialists in cycling or the best cyclists in triathlon, and you’ll see that they’re almost always notably bigger than the average athlete in their sport.

For most people, including at least 3-4 months of gym work during the off season 2-3 times per week will be great. It will help with their long term improvement in their sport and will likely help with injury prevention. Personally, I try to get in 2-3 core workouts each week and 2 days of whole body or lower body strength training each week during the off-season. I encourage any of my athletes who show interest and have some equipment and time available to adapt a similar program of kind of 2-3 days per week of strength, core work, and/or other cross training.

In an ideal world, my routine and the one I recommend would be as follows:
4-6 weeks of general conditioning:
>10-20m of light aerobic activity (e.g. running, rowing, or cycling) to warm up
3-4 sets of 12-20 reps at a moderate, but challenging weights
ideally, some light stretching and foam rolling afterwards

3-5 weeks of strength building:
>10-20m of light aerobic activity to warm up
1 set of light weight, 1 set of moderate weight to further warm-up
3-5 sets of 4-8 reps at a heavy weight
maybe 5-15m light aerobic activity to cool down
some light stretching and foam rolling afterwards

maybe 2-4 weeks of power building:
the same as the strength building routine, but focused on moderate to heavy weights lifted quickly, and even explosively, but always under control

3-5 weeks of strength endurance:
>10-20m of light aerobic activity (e.g. running, rowing, or cycling) to warm up
4-6 sets of 12-20 reps at a moderate, but challenging weights
or 3-4 sets of 16-30 at a moderate weight, that is challenging towards the end of each set
ideally, some light stretching and foam rolling

Why do it this way? Finishing a season and then taking time off or easy from a few weeks up to a month or so, you probably don’t want to jump right back into strenuous training that will likely leave you very sore and limit your foundational sport specific training (i.e. foundational miles training on the road or trails, cycling or running). You should start out moderately, so that you’re training hard enough to get your body to adapt and get stronger, but not so hard that you risk injury, psychological burnout, or experience unnecessary soreness. This need for moderation will be all the more important if you stop strength training during the season, in which case, you may be starting a gym routine in October or November when you haven’t seen a gym since March.

After getting a foundation of general conditioning, you’ll no doubt be stronger all around than before, but still may be far from your maximum strength and power to weight ratio. You may, and probably should, want to take a month or two to work specifically on enhancing strength. Just like it sounds, we will want to be able to lift, push, or pull more weight than we have in the past. This doesn’t mean that you need to lift weights to failure, in fact you might not want to, because that’s one of the surest ways to induce hypertrophy (i.e. to grow more muscle mass). Doing efforts lifting a weight that’s very challenging, we’ll be training our nervous system to recruit more and more muscle fibers, hence gaining strength. This is great, because if we increase raw strength, every time we’re pushing with submaximal force, that will be a smaller proportion of our maximal strength, and will thereby generally feel easier. Regardless of anything else, if something feels easier, then it is easier for you as an athlete.

If you’re an athlete that requires burst of speed and power, then you’ll almost certainly want to include a phase oriented specifically around power (i.e. lots of strength and control, but engaged at a high speed).

For runners, research increasingly shows that strength training with a high-weight, low-rep routine will increase running speed, economy, and VO2, whereas lifting moderate weights at high-reps will not help as much or at all. Likewise for power movements like plyometric drills and power-oriented lifting (quick, controlled weight lifting) to work on strength and speed simultaneously. For cycling, strength and power are invaluable as well, but there is probably also a good value in strength-endurance work as well because that is a major source of fatigue in endurance cycling.

After having built up your maximal strength, if you’re a cyclist or triathlete, you can then try to build up your strength endurance. If you’re a runner, then I don’t think this is necessary, and continuing with a general maintenance routine will be good, but focusing specifically on strength endurance will use up energy and probably not improve your performance. As far as it goes, part of the beauty of the gears on a bike is that they allow you to push harder and go faster, but in pushing harder, it helps to be strong and to be able to maintain that level of strength for long periods. Hence, there is a need for good strength endurance in cycling. In running on the other hand, you’re basically always operating at the same general resistance level. That is, you adjust your cadence to match your speed and the terrain you’re running on and you’re always just pushing your body weight into the air with each stride, so even though resistance varies with speed and gradient, it is a much narrower range of resistance you’re pushing against. You just can’t push twice as hard to go twice as far when you’re running, but you definitely can while you’re on a bike.

What actual workout routine do you follow? Well, I’ll usually try to fit in these workouts whenever my schedule allows. Sometimes that means that I’ll fit in a 30-45m workout before work, or sometimes on my day off before going out for a long ride. Either way, I try to work it out so that it has minimal impact in my sport specific workouts when they require any intensity. General endurance and high-aerobic work (tempo and low-threshold) can usually be done just fine after strength training, but hard threshold, VO2, or anaerobic capacity workouts are pretty much out of the question immediately before or after a gym workout.

Anyway, I don’t claim to have the perfect routine or anything like that, but I find that it seems to work for me, and I think it should address a lot of the main muscle groups you’d want to strengthen… I’ll usually do the following exercises:

back extensions
shrugs or upright rows

calve raises
quad extensions
hamstring curls
squat jumps

I will never do the upper-body exercises very hard, because I’m trying to avoid weakness in my upper body, not to build muscle. Usually 2-3 sets of a moderately easy weight for 15-20 reps seems good. I’ll usually do the upper body exercises in a circuit format, just cycling through different exercises in sequence with just enough rest to catch my breath and keep good form. That way I never get too much opportunity to work those muscles enough to grow much extra muscle, or any at all, for that matter. Still, after a few weeks or a month of just moderate lifting, I always get much stronger without adding an ounce of body mass, which indicates to me that my nervous system is recruiting more muscle to do the work I want, which is just what I want, not extra muscle mass.

After doing a few sets of upper body exercises, I find that I’m a little more warmed up than when I started, and feel comfortable getting to the legs, which I will work harder. I’ll often do 1-2 sets easy to warm up and then go at it for 3-4 sets. The leg exercises are usually done with about 1m rest between sets, and I’ll usually cycle through 2-4 exercises at a time to give alternating muscle groups rest between sets. I don’t go so quickly that it would qualify as circuit training. Most recently I’ve been doing calve raises, quad extensions, hamstring curls, some sort of ab exercise, and then repeat it. I will frequently do dumbbell squats and lunges as well, always keeping a sequence that doesn’t work out the same muscle group multiple times in a row so it gets a rest between sets.

Getting enough rest between sets is key for building strength. I already get plenty of aerobic, sport-specific work in outside the gym, so I don’t need to try to get any aerobic work inside the gym. The aerobic workout you’d get from doing circuit training will be so far beneath your capabilities as an endurance athlete that I would regard it as not worth your time, and because there would be inadequate recovery between exercises if you engage in circuit training, it will detract from the main purpose of gym work, getting stronger and more powerful. Still, as an athlete concerned with efficiency, I would point out that there is no reason to sit or stand around for 3, 4, or even 5 minutes between sets of a given exercise as you may see many people doing at most gyms. Try to get enough rest, but get back to work as soon as you feel that you’re ready (likely 1-1.5 minutes will do). Having adequate rest to work out hard, but not taking a lot of extra rest between exercises should also help encourage your body to produce more testosterone and growth hormone which will help with your adaptation to training, and can help improve body composition by burning fat and maybe growing muscle.

I’ll work out in the gym harder when I’m not doing hard bike workouts, and ease up a bit when I’m doing hard interval training or long threshold efforts and the like. Likewise, even when I’m working on strength or power, I’ll usually do just one workout each week focused on that goal, while maintaining one general conditioning workout the other day I do gym work.

Really, that’s about all I do, but it makes a big difference for me. Even though many of us may consider ourselves endurance athletes and don’t instinctively consider raw strength and power to be all that essential to our performance, it is certainly the case that for most athletes, gym work will greatly enhance their total training program.