When it comes to strength training, there are a handful of exercises that make up the foundation of a solid strength workout. Supplementing these foundational strength-building exercises with exercises chosen to target muscle weaknesses, technique breakdowns, and performance limiters can be a huge addition to the triathlete’s arsenal. For multisport athletes, the most common problems that can be addressed through strength training include weak glutes, dominant quads, overactive or tight adductors, tight hip flexors, and tight chest chest muscles.
The “cafeteria-style” program outlined below allows each athlete to construct a strength workout that hits all the foundations of baseline strength for triathlon while also helping you identify and target your own individual issues and needs. We’ve also included video links for each movement—even if the exercise is familiar, still watch the video as a refresher as you begin your new custom program!
*The exercise recommendations below are based on the most common strength needs for triathletes, but are not all-encompassing and do not address individual movement patterns or injury history. Understanding your underlying weaknesses and imbalances—which can be identified through a movement screen—and taking note of prior injury history can highlight exercises to be avoided and prevent potential issues while doing this program.
- 5-10 minutes of light cardio
- Dynamic stretching, such as walking quad, hamstring, and hip stretches
If your high-end run speed is limited and/or if your back hurts in aero, then your hip flexors will likely benefit from routine stretching within the Dynamic Warm-Up—as well as strengthening within the Activation section below.
Foundational Exercises (Do these no matter what!)
If you sit at a desk all day and/or you’ve had an injury with a root cause of weak glutes and/or you’ve had a lower-body overuse injury, then you likely have chronically weak glutes. This is the first of three areas that include targeted exercises or modifications to foundational exercises that will help to strengthen your glutes. Additionally, if your adductors cramp on the bike, then they are likely overactive, and you need to take the load off of them by strengthening your hip abductors. The glute muscles targeted below are also part of the abductor muscle group, so you can address two issues with one set of exercises.
Targeted Exercises For Weak Glutes
- Add: Monster walks, 2-3 sets of 10 reps in each direction
- Add: Fire hydrants, 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps on each side
If your high-end run speed is limited and/or if your back hurts in aero, then your hip flexors are likely weak as well as tight and will benefit from strengthening as well as the prior dynamic stretching.
Targeted Exercises For Weak Hip Flexors
- Add: Coach Laura’s 3 Hip Mobility Exercises, 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps of each exercise on each side
- Add: Seated Straight-Leg Raises, 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps on each side
Complete two to four sets of each exercise chosen for your custom strength workout, increasing the number of sets over time; be sure to start with two sets if you are new to strength training.
For the foundational exercises, complete all sets of each exercise before moving onto the next. For targeted exercises, create groups of 2-3 exercises and complete them as a circuit, rotating through one set of each exercise.
- Off Season: Build strength by completing 4-8 reps each set, lifting to fatigue by the end of the final set.
- In Season: Build muscular endurance by completing 12-15 reps each set, limiting your fatigue so that you could complete one additional set after your final set. (Sets of 8-12 reps build muscle size and limit improvements in strength and endurance.)
Select one lower-body exercise, one upper-body pairing, and one lateral movement for each strength workout. Vary the exercises across workouts and be sure to include a single-leg lower-body exercise at least every two to three workouts. (Also see targeted exercises below for specific notes on selecting foundational exercises.)
- Squats: front, back, Sumo, kettlebell, single-leg, split, or Bulgarian split
- Deadlifts: traditional, trap bar, Romanian, or single-leg
Upper-body exercise pairings
Lateral movement exercises
If you have chronically weak glutes—as identified within the activation exercises above—then you’ll likely benefit from being mindful in selecting foundational exercises so that the squats and deadlifts chosen emphasize glute development over quad development.
Targeted Modification For Weak Glutes
If you have trouble powering up hills on the bike, then you can benefit from the specificity of single-leg strength used for hill climbing by doing single-leg exercises that correspond to the bike pedaling motion.
Targeted Modification For Single-Leg Power
If your quads cramp or get fatigued on the run, then you are likely quad-dominant and need to improve your hamstring strength.
Targeted Exercises For Hamstring Strength
If your normal posture has a concavity to your chest and shoulder region, then your chest is likely tighter than your back and you will benefit from increasing back strength and stretching the muscles in your chest and shoulders.
Targeted Exercises For Back And Chest Strength
- Modify the foundational exercises: focus on back flies, use light weights for chest press and chest flies, and limit push-ups
- Add: Wall slides
If your shoulders hurt when swimming, then you likely need more rotator cuff stability.
Targeted Exercises For Rotator Cuff Stability
- Add: Rotator cuff stability exercises (internal and external rotation with band)
If you swim slower with paddles than without them and/or if swimming with paddles is overly tiring, then your lats are likely weak or under-utlilized and will benefit from additional strength work.
Targeted Exercises For Weak Lats
Complete two to four circuits of 15-20 reps of each exercise chosen for your custom strength program, increasing the number of sets over time; be sure to start with two circuits if you are new to core work; it is more important to effectively achieve core activation than to increase reps.
Pick one of:
- Planks: front and side, increase difficulty by adding movement and/or elevating feet
- Bird dogs
- Farmer’s carry and suitcase carry
If you have chronically weak glutes, as identified within the Activation exercises above, then you likely will benefit from additional glute strength work.
Targeted Exercises for Weak Glutes
- Add: Glute bridges
If you over-rotate your upper body when swimming and/or running, then your obliques are likely not strong enough to control your upper body rotation and will benefit from anti-rotation exercises.
Targeted Exercises for Obliques
- Add: Pallof Press
If your back hurts when swimming, then you will likely benefit from improving your contralateral core strength, when opposite sides of your core are simultaneously pulling toward your midline.
Targeted Exercises for Swimming Core Strength
About the authors: Alison Freeman and Laura Marcoux, along with Julie Dunkle, are the co-founders of NYX Endurance, a female-owned coaching group based in Boulder and San Diego. Alison is a USAT Level II-certified and Ironman University-certified coach; Laura is a USAT Level II-certified and Ironman University-certified coach as well as an NSCA Strength Coach.