How to Choose What Strength Exercises Are Best for You

There are hundreds of different exercises, but which ones are right for your weaknesses?

Photo: Getty Images

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There are literally hundreds of different exercises, not all of them right for a triathlete. With so many exercises to choose from, completing all of them in a single training session just isn’t possible. Evaluating your personal strengths and weaknesses during and after training will lead you to the best exercises to improve your performances. The tables below present a strength training needs analysis to help you discover what areas your strength program should concentrate on. Use those answers to guide you to specific exercises for each muscle group and event.

Chart with symptoms, causes, and solutions to issues in swimming

To figure out your areas of weakness, look at each portion of your triathlon training individually (swim, bike, and run), then in pairs (swim-bike and bike-run), and then as a complete set. Analyzing your fatigue, aches and pains, or weakness during and after each event will help you understand which muscles need more work, which will then point you in the direction of the best exercises to include in your program. For each individual event, ask yourself which muscle groups feel the most fatigued or feel weaker than the others, or if a particular area of your body or muscle group becomes noticeably sore during or immediately after training or remains sore for longer than others. Focus your strength training on these areas.

Chart with symptoms, causes, and solutions to issues in cycling

When you complete endurance training in bricks, or pairs (swim-bike or bike-run), analyze how each muscle group feels during the second event, after it has already been worked during the first event. For example, how do your legs feel during the bike after your swim compared to how they feel during the bike when you don’t swim first? If there is a big difference, you may need to spend more time training your legs to be stronger during the swim so they won’t be so fatigued during the ride. Or, if your upper body is significantly more tired while running when you bike first, try working more on upper-body exercises for the bike.

Chart with symptoms, causes, and solutions to running issues

Finally, analyze how your body feels after completing a triathlon, focusing on which muscles are the most fatigued and which are the sorest in the days following the competition. It is a common mistake to think that the legs are automatically the most fatigued because they are used the most during the last two events. If your shoulders are the most fatigued and sore, they need more work.

Another way to look at this is to evaluate when during a race you start feeling fatigued. For instance, you may feel really strong during the swim, but after the bike you slow down and lose power, so when it comes time to run, that is the most difficult. This indicates that you need to focus your strength training initially on improving your ability to swim and bike so that you aren’t so fatigued when they are done. Then you will have more left for the run.

Ideally there will be time in your schedule to train every muscle group equally, but focusing on your weaknesses first is very important. If you start out by training everything, both your strong and your weak muscles will become stronger, but there will still be an imbalance; the strong become stronger while the weak just become strong. You should choose exercises that address your weaknesses and bring those muscles up to par with the rest of your body. Then you can start training everything.

In some cases, you may not be able to identify a particular weakness or training need. In this case, simply design your program to cover a little bit of everything: upper- and lower-body exercises for each event. Over time, every program should reach this point, so if you are there already, great—but there is always room for improvement, and you should remain open to identifying specific weaknesses or needs as your training progresses.

There are many ways to choose which groups of exercises you need to do, and your focus will change as you make improvements, so reevaluation is essential. However, don’t constantly change your program in an effort to find the right exercises. You have to let your body adapt before altering the program again. A good rule of thumb is to give yourself six to eight weeks before rearranging your exercises so that you can really tell whether your body is responding. Also remember that change is going to take place on the inside, so don’t judge your results by what you see in the mirror. Listen to and feel your body as you train. If you are not as fatigued as before, everything is probably working fine, so don’t try to change it right away. Find the exercises that stimulate your body to change positively and keep them in your program.

A word of caution: Any exercise that may cause a previous injury to flare up again should be avoided. For instance, if you have had an ACL injury, the leg extension exercise will place too much stress on your knee, so you should leave it out of your program. It is always a good idea to consult with a sports medicine physician if you are not sure whether an exercise could be problematic for you.

Selecting a Mix of Exercises

To determine how many exercises you can finish in a single session, aim for 6 to 10 from a combination of different muscles and events. Be sure to factor in how much time you have to train. If time is a constraint, focus on the most important exercises first, and if there is time left over, move down your list to other exercises. Allow more time for single-arm and single-leg exercises.

A good rule to follow is to never do more than three exercises for any one muscle group during a single training session. You can choose three exercises from one event, or you can mix and match from two or three events, depending on what you need to accomplish. In addition, you should give a muscle time to recover after training, so never use the same exercises on two consecutive days. You can train the same muscle if you are not sore from the previous day’s training, but use different exercises. This is an advanced way of training on consecutive days, and it must be approached with caution and by paying very close attention to your body’s responses and levels of fatigue and soreness.

Exercise Program Rules

  1. Do NOT perform every exercise in a session during one workout.
  2. No more than 3 exercises for a muscle group (e.g., biceps or hamstrings).
  3. Do NOT perform the same exercises on consecutive days. You can train the same muscles, but use different exercises.
  4. Aim for 6 to 10 exercises per session.
  5. Allow 6 to 8 weeks before changing the exercise program.

Exercise Order

The order in which you complete your exercises will have a substantial impact on the effectiveness of each exercise and the workout in general. There are several approaches to exercise order, each based on sound science, but none has been shown to be significantly better than another. Try changing up the exercise order from time to time, both to add variety to your workout and to create a new stimulus. It’s a simple change, but it can provide just enough stimulus to keep your body adapting and growing stronger.

To illustrate this point, consider how the same set of exercises can be rearranged in each of the ways mentioned below. These eight exercises don’t fit every exercise order perfectly, but the program you choose may not fit each scenario perfectly either. If the order you like best doesn’t work perfectly with the exercises you have chosen, it’s okay to do a variation on a couple of orders in a single workout, too. Remember that there are no hard-and-fast rules—just find something that works well for your goals.

Goal-Oriented Order

The first exercise order places the emphasis on those areas that you feel need the most work. In this case, you will order each exercise in your workout according to how important it is to your overall program goals. For example, if you feel that during the swim your shoulders are fatiguing too fast and are therefore a weak link, the exercises focusing on shoulder development for swimming should be the first ones you do. During a training session, this allows you to work the areas of emphasis while you are fresh and full of energy. Later in the session, as you are getting tired, is not the time to try to work what you feel to be the most important area. The exercises here are ordered to first work the shoulders and chest:

Dip delts, pecs, triceps
Dumbbell Fly delts, pecs
Tubing Row biceps, delts, lats
Dumbbell Handle Push-Up delts, pecs, triceps
Moguls core
Lateral Lunge glutes, hamstrings, quads
Single-Leg Extension quads
Squat calves, glutes, hamstrings, quads

Big-Before-Small Order

The next order arranges exercises according to the size of the muscle(s) being worked. Larger muscles require more energy, so they should be trained before fatigue sets in. For example, squats would come before leg extensions, followed by the seated toe raise. This ensures that the most fatiguing exercises are done first. Those exercises that involve relatively smaller muscle groups are saved for last because they require less energy production. This style of order is based on the speed of metabolic energy depletion and restoration. During strength training, the main energy system is the ATP-PC (adenosine triphosphate–phosphocreatine) system, which supplies you with almost immediate energy to the muscles but lasts only about 10 seconds. When this is used up, the body relies on glycolysis to start converting stored glycogen to energy. This system lasts up to about two minutes. By that time you should have finished your set. Of key importance is not how fast these systems provide energy, but how fast they recover. It takes several minutes for the ATP-PC system to recover, so using it for the large muscle groups makes the most sense, as shown in this lineup of exercises:

Squat calves, glutes, hamstrings, quads
Dumbbell Handle Push-Up delts, pecs, triceps
Moguls core
Lateral Lunge glutes, hamstrings, quads
Dip delts, pecs, triceps
Tubing Row biceps, delts, lats
Dumbbell Fly delts, pecs
Single-Leg Extension quads

Hard-to-Easy Order

This exercise order is subjective, being based on psychology rather than physiology. If you start your workout with the most difficult exercises rather than leaving them for last, you will be more likely to finish everything on your list. At one time or another, everyone has found a reason to skip out on the last part of a workout. Whatever the reason, skipping the hard exercise just makes it that much more difficult the next time. The less often you do an exercise, the slower your body will improve and adapt, which delays your performance progress. Doing a hard exercise first and getting it out of the way makes it much easier to complete the simple exercises. This sample order moves from difficult to easier movements:

Squat difficult
Dip difficult
Moguls difficult
Dumbbell Handle Push-Up moderate
Dumbbell Fly moderate
Tubing Row easier
Lateral Lunge easier
Single-Leg Extension easier

Multiple-Joint-to-Single-Joint Order

Arranging your exercises based on how many joints are involved is similar to arranging them based on muscle size. The more joints that are involved, the more muscle is involved. More joints moving during an exercise also makes the exercise more complicated, and controlling technique more difficult. It takes more focus and technique to do a tubing stroke exercise, which involves three joints, than to do a triceps pushdown, which only involves a single joint. Because proper technique is key to preventing injury and getting the most out of an exercise, it follows that those exercises that involve the most complicated maneuvers should be done on the front end of a workout, as shown here:

Squat multiple joint
Moguls multiple joint
Lateral Lunge multiple joint
Tubing Row multiple joint
Dip multiple joint
Dumbbell Handle Push-Up multiple joint
Single-Leg Extension single joint
Dumbbell Fly single joint

Upper-and-Lower-Body Alternating Order

Arranging exercises so that you could allow one body part to rest while another works is accomplished by alternating upper-body and lower-body exercises. For the most part, these exercises are independent of each other. The only case in which they overlap is where the lower body supports the upper-body exercise while standing, which doesn’t add much work to the lower body unless you just finished a difficult lower-body exercise and those muscles are fatigued. Switching between upper- and lower-body exercises, as shown in this list, offers the added advantage of keeping your heart pumping blood to different areas:

Dumbbell Handle Push-Up upper
Squat lower
Dip upper
Lateral Lunge lower
Tubing Row upper
Single-Leg Extension lower
Dumbbell Fly upper
Moguls core

Push-Pull Alternating Order

Another way of alternating exercises is by doing one push, then one pull exercise. A push exercise is any action in which you are pushing a weight away from you (e.g., leg press, dumbbell shoulder press, triceps push-down). A pull exercise brings the weight closer to you (e.g., dumbbell curl, lying leg curl, bridging pullover). Not every exercise will clearly fall into a push or pull category (e.g., walking lunge, back extension, split squat), so this becomes a little fuzzy now and then. The basis for push-pull is that opposing muscle groups can be worked in order. For example, alternating a set of dumbbell curls with a set of dips works both sides of the arms, so while the biceps are resting, the triceps work. Combining push-pull in an organization of opposing muscle groups is the most effective way to work this exercise order:

Dumbbell Fly push
Tubing Row pull
Squat push
Moguls pull
Dip push
Lateral Lunge pull
Dumbbell Handle Push-Up push
Single-Leg Extension push

As mentioned earlier, your choice of exercises may not fit one or more of these exercise orders perfectly, but that’s okay; you can make up a new exercise order to fit your program and your needs. For example, you may use half of your exercises in a goal-oriented order and half in a push-pull order. Or maybe you have a couple of hard exercises you want to get done first, then finish the rest in an alternating upper- and lower-body order. Any way you design your workout, the order has to fit what you want to achieve and may not align perfectly with these examples or any other exercise order you read about. The point is to make sure that your body’s needs are put first and foremost in order to get the biggest benefit from your training.

Adapted from Strength Training for Triathletes2nd edition, by Patrick Hagerman with permission of VeloPress.

Strength Training for Triathletes, 2nd Ed.

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