The latest research says there’s no best way to nail strength training. The important thing is that you're doing it.

The latest research says there’s no best way to nail strength training.

We probably don’t have to tell you that strength work is an essential part of every triathlete’s training regimen. The benefits are huge, from enhanced running economy and improved strength (obviously), to reducing injury risk. The tricky part is identifying what exactly you should be doing—in particular, determining sets, reps, weight and resistance. Fortunately, recent research sheds light on the issue.

Published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Canadian researchers took a group of athletes experienced in strength training and had them do 12 weeks of full-body strength work that involved three sets of five different exercises, done four times per week.

To determine the best approach to strength, the researchers split the volunteers into two groups, one of whom lifted lighter weight for 20 to 25 reps per set and the other who lifted heavier weight for 8 to 12 reps per set. In the end, it turned out that strength gains were nearly identical between the two groups for almost all of the exercises.

This suggests that whatever you’re doing—lighter weight/resistance and higher reps or vice versa—as long as you’re lifting until you’re somewhat tired, you’re getting stronger.

This is great news for triathletes looking to buff up during a tri training break. But in-season, says Jen Rulon, a 10-time Ironman, Level 1 USA Triathlon coach, and certified strength and conditioning specialist, you shouldn’t be pushing to the point that you feel like you could only eek out one more rep. Mostly because, as a triathlete, you’re doing more than just strength work.

“Strength training isn’t the primary workout for triathletes—you have to look at your other workouts to see if fatigue is setting in, along with whether you’re well rested or not,” she says. “For example, if you do a hard bike on Tuesday and within 24 hours attempt to do squats with a heavy weight, you may not be fully recovered, and fatigue wouldn’t be a good indicator of how much you should lift.”

For the sake of time management and efficiency, she generally prefers the heavier weight/fewer reps approach for triathletes, done on a periodized plan. “I am a big advocate of building your weight lifting regimen on a four- to five-week schedule,” she says, like the progression she shares at left.

Choose your own exercises, like squats, deadlifts, overhead and bench presses, based on your strengths and weaknesses. (Need help picking? The National Strength and Conditioning Association has a coach-finder tool on its website, Nsca.com.) Next, choose a weight that feels challenging yet allows you to complete all the sets and reps. From one week to the next, that weight should increase as you get stronger. Finally, start out by doing your strength routine two to three times each week, with at least one to two days rest in between each workout.

Week 1

3 sets x 7 reps

This is your chance to find your baseline and get comfortable under the weights.

Week 2

3 sets x 7 reps

Do the same series as last week, but add a bit of weight to each lift.

Week 3

4 sets x 6 reps

Increase the number of sets and decrease the reps. If you’re feeling strong, add a small amount of weight to each lift.

Week 4

5 sets x 5 reps

Increase the number of sets, but decrease the reps. You can hold steady or add a small amount of weight this week.