Strength Training

Pre-Season Strength Training in 12-15 weeks

Bare bones summary:

  • strength work can be done twice a week on average
  • warm up with aerobic activity, core work, and light upper body exercises
  • focus on compound movements (i.e. those that use multiple, large muscle groups and joints)
    • squats, dead-lifts, leg presses, lunges, planks, push-ups, rowing exercises, chin-ups, lateral pull-downs, rows, etc.
  • start easy for at least a few weeks to build up tolerance to strength work
  • slowly increase weight with moderate reps for at least a month
  • after a basic progression of general strength and conditioning, lift heavy weights to increase maximal muscle recruitment
  • sometimes lift light to moderate weight for high reps to work on stregnth endurance
  • do your best not to hurt yourself

More in depth:

It’s good to include a strength training program during the off season, and it can be started early if you like. You may or may not be doing heavy aerobic training, but increasing strength and overall conditioning is worth focusing on as soon as you have motivation and interest, and as soon as you can make time for it. For many people, they may start any time from September to early November, depending on how long their season is, what the weather is like, what their motivation and time constraints are. Probably starting in late September or October is pretty common for a lot of endurance athletes who finish their main competitive season in August or the beginning of September. The first several trips to the gym should be nothing more than just getting back into it and getting a feel for non sport-specific activity. You may even want to start at home with some body weight exercises or some simple dumbbells and resistance bands before moving into the gym. Either way, just work with and pay attention to your body. The aim is to get stronger, correct any imbalances you may have, maintain or increase flexibility, and lay the foundations for good health and good fitness down the road.

Pro tip: There’s no such thing as being too strong. If you’re an endurance athlete, there is usually an interest in keeping body mass down, but increasing strength does not necessarily require or imply an increase in body mass. If you are weak, then your performance will suffer as a result. If you have muscle mass, but don’t use it, or can’t because you don’t have a good ability to recruit those muscle fibers, then you’re carrying around extra weight that is literally weighing you down and slowing you down… Make sure you can use the muscle you have by using it at a high level of intensity at least infrequently. If you’re concurrently engaged in both endurance and resistance training, you will not be able to maximize either, but if you are building a foundation upon which to build better endurance strength down the line, almost every athlete will do better if they are stronger when they transition into heavier endurance and sport-specific training.

A pretty basic and sound training program will probably look something like this:

3-5 weeks, 2-3x/week of basic conditioning (foundational)

  • 2-3 workouts a week (usually 30-40m duration)
  • start easy [light weights, moderate reps (12-15), sets (3-5)]
  • Build to moderate workouts [moderate weight, moderate reps, sets].
  • The aim is to build a basic strength training foundation so that later workouts are less likely to cause injury and to start the long build of training the nervous system. This is just like building mileage. In itself it isn’t the goal, but it helps you tolerate and adapt to high quality workouts later.
  • It is okay to feel sore for a day or two after the first several workouts, but ideally it does not last more than that. If you can barely walk after a workout or are sore for 5 or 6 days, then you’re going too hard.

3-5 weeks, 2-3x/week to increase training mass and volume (build)

  • 2-3 workouts a week (max of 2 moderately hard workouts, 30-50m duration)
  • optional 3rd light workout (not meant to be hard, but like endurance training, more can be better if you are recovering well at this phase)
  • Aim to increase weight for a similar number of reps.
  • Initially increase teh weight lifted per exercise by a comfortable margin while doing fewer reps (6-12) and more sets (4-6) after your warm-up.
  • Later build to sets of 8-12 reps at a progressively heavier weight.
  • The aim of this period is to progressively build basic strength (progressively increase neural recruitment and fatigue resistance) and to prevent injury by progressing slowly.
  • By this point, ideally you should not be too sore after each individual workout, but will probably be a little sore for a couple of days after each. It should be very manageable, though.
  • Remember to include enough protein in your diet, and ideally have a little protein in a snack or drink after each workout.

3-4 weeks, 1-2x/week to increase power/mass (peak)

  • 1-2 workouts a week (1 hard 40-50m, and an optional easy/light 20-40m)
  • Aim to increase maximal strength (mass) and/or power (mass and speed).
  • For the hard workout, make things challenging, but keep all movements safe and manageable with good, controlled form.
  • Build your maximal 4-6 rep strength (always keeping good form).
  • If you are concerned about possible injury with high mass lifting, then consider doing moderate to heavy mass but doing the concentric phase of the lifts more quickly/explosively.
  • The aim of this period is to increase your maximal neural recruitment so that you can access the most muscle fiber possible in a controlled fashion.

3-4 weeks to balance power and strength endurance (taper/transition)

  • 2 workouts a week (1 endurance, 1 strength oriented)
  • Aim to maintain high neural recruitment (i.e. maximal strength) and to increase strength endurance (the total volume of mass you can lift within a given period of time).
  • For the endurance workouts, pick a weight that is challenging to lift 12-20 times and do multiple sets (4-6) trying to keep the recovery period relatively limited (1-1.5m) or alternating between exercises with opposing muscle groups in quick succession (these should be progressive, building to higher weight at the same rep count or increasing the rep count for the same weight).
  • For the strength workouts, pick a moderate to heavy weight and do a few sets of about 6-8 reps to maintain a high level of basic strength (these are maintenance workouts).

The basic structure of all of the workouts can be largely the same. Start with some light to moderate aerobic work (e.g. running, rowing, or cycling). This can be done at the gym or on the way to the gym. Then, a transition to some light to moderate upper body exercises and thorough core work can finish off a good warm-up before moving to the leg-centric part of your workout. Keep some core and upper body work throughout the program, because you want to have good core and shoulder strength and stability. After some initial progress, you do not need to keep adding weight or making the upper body workout more difficult, because you don’t need to increase muscle mass, just strength. But, the leg portion of the workout should progress from easy to moderate to alternating heavy and high-volume throughout the phases of your weight training.

Everyone benefits from good core strength at any time, so I would encourage the inclusion of at least 3-4 sets of 3-4 exercises for your trunk (abs, back, obliques) in every workout. In this case, if you have time and enjoy the training it’s fine to do more, just don’t confuse more with better. Quality trumps quantity when it comes to strength training. Often, it can be effective to include several sets of core exercises early in the workout to help with the warm-up. If you have extra time at the end, feel free to add a few extra sets of core exercises as a nice bonus.

Considering some or all of the following:

core:
front and side planks
suspended planks (with a TRX/strap type training device)
mountain climbers on a bosu ball
suspended mountain climbers
crunches on a bosu or exercise ball
incline sit ups
leg lifts (lying or hanging leg-lifts)
standing cable oblique twist or “wood choppers”
ab roll-outs
lying back-extensions
bridges with leg-extensions

shoulders and arms:
pull-ups, chin-ups, or lateral pull-downs
push-ups or presses (flat or incline, dumbbell or barbell)
seated or bent-over rows
shoulder presses
dips
curls (dumbbell or barbell)

The leg routine should focus on just a few core exercises that use large muscle groups. Usually complex movements like squats, dead-lifts, and leg-presses are the best. Start off with a few light sets to get ready, and then move to the heart of your leg workout, which will usually 3-5 sets of 3-5 exercises.

Based on research and experience, I would encourage athletes to focus on just a handful of leg exercises. Picking 1 or 2 exercises per movement or muscle group will be good. I would focus on the following:

squats
leg presses
dead-lifts
lunges
box step-ups
weighted or single-leg calf raises

single-leg, straigh-leg hops (for calves)
quad extensions
hamstring curls

Some people question the use of some exercises because of a potential risk of injury, but it really depends on the person how at risk they may be. So, as with anything, do your best to listen to your body and do your best to determine what will work for you and what may cause harm. Injury prevention and avoidance is always a key feature of good training.

To give a specific example, my normal routine will usually look something like the following:

10m

  • walk, jog, or bike to the gym
  • depending on how warmed up I am, I may add a few minutes on a treadmill or rowing machine

15m

  • moderate core and upper body exercises done in quick circuits (i.e. one exercise to the next with minimal recovery)
  • pick a handful of exercises and order them based on their proximity to each other or the availability of the relevant equipment so that you can make the most of your time
  • if you don’t have a lot of time, then just pick 2-3 core exercises and do either rows or pull-downs and presses or push-ups (you can do a lot in 15m)
  • consider circuits of the following: crunches, planks, rows, lateral pull-downs, mountain climbers on a bosu ball, standing cable twists, push-ups

15-20m

  • presumably you’re very well warmed up by this point, so you can move to leg exercises, which are the main focus of the workout
  • depending on what type of training that you’re doing, consider whether you would benefit from doing some light stretching and muscle activation, or a few warm-up sets with light weights
  • when you feel loose and ready to lift heavier, then do your main workout sets, which could look something like this
    • foundational: 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps, moderate weight (general conditioning)
    • build: 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps, moderately heavy weight (increase strength)
    • peak: 4-6 sets of 5-8 reps, heavy weight (maximal strength and power)
    • transition: alternate endurance workouts with 3-4 sets of 12-20 reps, moderate weight for strength endurance with strength/power type workouts for maximal strength/neural recruitment or do hybrid workouts that start with a few heavy sets and then a few light sets with high reps to failure or close to it
  • for each phase, choose just 3-5 key exercises like this: squats, dead-lifts, or leg-presses, lunges, calf raises, and maybe seated-quad extensions and hamstring curls

Endurance athletes benefit from good neural recruitment. This is especially true for the legs, but the core and upper body are no different. The only issue is that cyclists, runners, and triathletes benefit from increased strength and power in their upper body, but rarely benefit from increasing the mass of their upper body. So, it’s good to do a few sets of light to moderate upper body exercises to make sure that you have good balance and strength. But, lots of heavy lifting is likely going to be counter-productive, because it can use up a lot of energy during workouts and while recovering, and it will likely increase body mass more than it helps increase power. Do a few sets after your aerobic warm-up, but don’t bother doing more than that.

After a handful of quick sets of core and upper body work, then you can focus on leg work. Always, the top priority is to get fitter without getting hurt, so good form and reasonable weights are key. Starting a strength program with relatively light weights to get used to the stress and movements involved, is fine and even encouraged, at least for the first few workouts. Lifting a light weight to voluntary failure can be as effective for an endurance athlete as lifting a heavier weight. This is especially true if that choice means an injury may be avoided, so keep that in mind and when in doubt, considering lifting more reps and not more weight.

The first phase is focused on just building general strength so that you just get a foundation built so that later workouts are likely to cause less muscle soreness and lessen the chance of injury. The second phase will focus on increasing strength slowly but surely, with heavier weights and moderate rep counts. The third phase focused on maximal strength and power may be the most important, but is also the hardest on your body, so be deliberate and smart about your lifts. And finally, a transition can be made into maintaining high-end strength while also increasing strength endurance by doing large sets of moderate weights.

For the first phase, just lift weights, focus on getting stronger and enjoy the new activity. Each set of exercises usually shouldn’t be so hard that you struggle to finish the sets you plan to do, whether that’s 3×15 or 4×12 or whatever. For the subsequent phases when you are trying to increase your strength, power, or endurance, the weight that you are lifting or the number of times you are trying to lift it can and should be challenging at times. Maybe not on your first or second set of lifts, but probably on your third or fourth set, you may struggle to finish. That’s fine and shows you’re stressing your body in a way that will make it stronger, but what do you do when you can’t finish each set?

Well, if you’re trying to increase strength in phase two, then maybe you can lift a few sets at the goal weight, and then lower the weight by 5-10% and do the final few sets. If you’re in phase three and trying to build maximal strength and power, then try to keep the weight lifted high and just do fewer reps in each set so that you’re still requiring a very high level of neuromuscular recruitment.

When you get to the fourth phase of transitional work where you are trying to do a little maintenance work on your basic strength and power as well as transition into a bit of strength endurance work, then you may have different options. You may do every other workout as a strength/power workout and would then focus on lifting heavy weight regardless of the rep count. Or, you may focus on lifting a moderate weight a very high number of times (up to 20 or even 25). In either case, the aim would be to lift the specified weight until you can’t lift it with reasonable form.

The other approach to the fourth phase of strength training would be to do a few heavy sets followed by a few sets of moderate weights to failure. This would allow you to work on your basic maximal strength when you’re fresh and can do so most effectively, and will allow you to work on strength endurance very effectively because you will start already fatigued from the heavy lifting. For example, maybe you do your warm up, core, and upper body exercises, and then go to the squat rack or leg press machine. After a light stretch and an easy set or two, then you could do 2 or 3 sets of 4-6 reps at a heavy weight. You may even just do 6 reps, then 5 and then 4 because the weight is challenging. That’s fine. Then you could unload 30-40% of the weight on the rack and do 2 or 3 sets of 15-20. You may even unload 30% of the weight, do a set of 20, unload another 10%, do a set of 20, unload another 10%, and finish off with one last set. I personally find this to be very effective, but you should feel free to experiment a little and find what is fun and effective for you.

Quite frankly, there is a huge repertoire of different approaches to strength training and the ways in which you approach sets, reps, weight lifted, order of exercises, rest intervals, training frequency, etc. Clearly we don’t need to be too concerned about all of the complex issues facing a power lifter or bodybuilder. But maybe we should listen to what other endurance athletes and their coaches suggest for strength training? Well, there’s a lot of different approaches taken by different individuals.

I think it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of research that would suggest that training for power is probably the most effective strategy for endurance athletes. That is, training for maximal recruitment of your motor units. Normal endurance training will usually provide high neuromuscular endurance, but not necessarily maximal neural recruitment. That is, a runner or cyclist can probably fire certain motor units thousands of times with little fatigue, but they usually can improve the total number of motor units they engage and the speed with which they do so. Sprinters and power lifters have good neuromuscular recruitment, but endurance athletes usually do not, or at the very least, most have a lot of room for improvement through training. Training for maximal strength and power are stressful, though, and best preceded by at least a month of foundational strength training.

If you can develop greater raw strength and power, and your schedule allows a more comprehensive training program, then strength-endurance training is going to be the second priority of any strength training routine. Strength endurance is focused on lifting light to moderate weights a high number of reps and/or sets. Some coaches and athletes employ this kind of training as their primary or sole training, and there are successful athletes that train this way, but research would indicate it is not the most effective approach to include only this kind of training. If you can do 4-5 weeks of foundational work before moving on to strength and then power work, and you have time before any goal competitions, then alternating between power and endurance sessions can be a very effective conclusion to a thorough pre-season strength program.