And what you should do instead.
Triathlon is a time intensive sport, so make the most of your strength training hours with moves that’ll give you the most bang for your effort. If you are performing any of the three exercises below, stop and do the more effective movements instead.
Don’t: Calf Raises
This exercise won’t hurt you, but much of the strength you need in your calf can be built doing other exercises that work more muscles at once like lunges or squats. It is also important that your calves can fire rapidly and repeatedly, which helps to minimize ground contact time and makes your running more efficient. So build strength with squats and lunges, and build fast twitch muscles with other exercises, like the simple one leg hops outlined below.
Do: One-Leg Hop
To do this exercise, set up six to eight small hurdles (think PVC pipes about 3 to 5 inches off the ground) in a straight line, about two feet apart then hop through the hurdles on one leg, spending as little time on the ground as possible. Concentrate on being explosive and pushing off of your big toe. If you don’t have the space or equipment to do one leg hops, try jumping rope instead.
What do to: Twice a week, go through the hurdles one time, take a short break, then do one more rep
Make it harder: Add another trip through
Don’t: Smith Machine Squats
Any exercise done in a machine limits your range of motion. When doing squats in the Smith machine (the machine where the cross bar is fixed on a vertical plane), the bar can only move straight up and down. That limits your ability to move down and back, which is a more natural movement as you bend your knees. Doing your squats on a Smith machine also reduces the workload of the quads and hamstrings, the exact muscles you want to hit.
Do: Regular Squats
Ditch the machine and do your squats with a free bar. To be safe, use weight collars (they hold the weights on the bar), and do them in a squat rack which will stop the bar in case you are unable to perform a rep. Good squat form starts with your feet hips width apart or more and feet pointed slightly outward. Bend your hips and knees at the same time, keeping your knees in line with your feet. Keep your back in a neutral positioning with no arching or rounding. Keep your chest and head up. Lower down until your hips are slightly below your knees if possible.
What to do: Twice a week, perform two to three sets of 8 to 10 reps starting with a weight you can easily manage.
Make it harder: add weight (5 to 10 pounds).
While curls won’t hurt you, they don’t really help either. This single joint movement won’t work your bigger muscles, like your lats and shoulders, which are key muscles for swimming. If you want to look good at the beach, by all means do your curls. If you want to be a better triathlete, stick to compound moves that hit more triathlon specific muscles.
Grip the bar about shoulder width apart. You can modify the width somewhat, but know that wider grip does shorten your range of motion. Gripping the bar with palms facing towards you (chin ups) will utilize your biceps more than if you have your palms facing away (pull ups). Keep your shoulders back and head up. Start at the bottom with your elbows locked, then pull yourself up until your chin is past the bar.
What do to: Start by seeing how many pull ups you can perform with good form. Twice a week, aim for that number and look to increase your reps by a single pull up every two weeks.
If you can’t do a pull up: Simply hanging from the bar while contracting your lats and shoulders can be effective. If you have access to it, there are some machines that offer varying levels of assistance which can also help you get started.
Triathlete’s senior editor AJ Johnson has been involved in the sport of triathlon for over 20 years. He’s been a USAT Certified coach for over 15 years, working with athletes of all abilities. As an athlete, he raced the Ironman World Championship on three occasions and also raced professionally for two years.