By Nenad Rodic
posted 04/05

On this page we'll say a few words about weight training its benefits to triathlon training as well as to the overall health.

Warning: I tried to present the most efficient way to improve certain aspects of strength and flexibility. My recommendation may not necessarily be the safest . I hope you will exercise caution when applying these advices to your routine.

On several pages I have mentioned that pure power means very little to a triathlete. This does not mean that weight training has no merit, but the benefits of weight training, in my opinion, are limited to the general health aspect of a triathlete's life and do not play an important role in a triathlete's performance. Why lift then? Simply put, lifting can and will keep you healthy and injury free if you do it right (read: not overdo it).

People who have been exposed to resistance training since an early age show a healthier disposition and higher resilience to injuries. When done correctly, weight training will stimulate the creation of stronger bones, joints, and tendons. On the other hand, weight lifting can cause a huge disproportion in the strength of muscles and the strength of tendons and lead to serious injury, especially in the cyclic movement sports like swimming, cycling and running. That said, let's review how to keep ourselves healthy.

Weight lifting routine for a triathlete should emphasize work on those areas that are neglected in the core sports (swimming, cycling and running). The leading cause of injury in repetitive sports is muscle imbalance, which results from overuse and overdevelopment of certain muscle groups as well as neglect and underdevelopment of others. I need to say right now that triathlon is possibly the most balanced sport in this regard, considering that it consists of three different sports that nicely complement one another. This, however does not mean that injuries cannot happen. After all, triathlon is an extreme sport with the highest annual volume of any sport, and hence very dangerous to health at a high level. Before I start with the recommended exercises and a training sample, I'd like to mention my strong disagreement with the modern philosophy of amateur personal training regarding the range of motion. From what I've seen in gyms, it is obvious that the prevalent opinion in working with "normal" people is not to engage in a full range of motion. I find this approach to be illogical since it is at the full range where tendons are stressed the most and therefore strengthened. It is true that this is the easiest way to injure them as well, but it is easy to control the weight-lifting environment so that an athlete can be mindful of every move at all times. If done carefully, full range of motion exercise can strengthen your weak areas much better than the use of half range exercises. I strongly believe in less weight and more range versus more weight and less range. Besides, full range of motion will also increase your flexibility, a far more important aspect of one's health and triathlon performance than power. Back to top


There are two ways you can do your weight training, the first of which is with relative resistance training (using your own body weight) and the othe is weight training with actual weight. The obvious advantage of the relative resistance training is that you can do it almost anywhere. The most notable disadvantage is that sometimes it is necessary to do very long sets to achieve an overload. Another advantage is that injuries are rare and most exercises are fairly complex meaning that they work more than one muscle or one muscle group. Considering the weight demands of our sport (a triathlete needs to be light) I recommend relative resistance weight training, since it is less likely that you will bulk up with this approach. To engage fast twitch (FT) fibers with this type of exercise, an athlete needs to concentrate on the explosiveness of the movement rather than the load. After all, the most powerful people on this planet are sprint runners and all they carry is their own weight. Back to top

Depending on what your goal is, I would recommend the following weight lifting routines:


A person who's never swam competitively is unlikely to have the upper body musculature necessary for swimming. Accordingly, the weight lifting program should concentrate on developing the muscles needed for swimming. Below is just a sample program designed to be brief (45 minute session) and beneficial. You and your coach may want to develop a more elaborate routine if there is a need and time to do it. These two workouts should be performed  every week during base and power phase (season planning) with 3 to 4 days rest between them.

Workout 1:

Circuit Number of times repeated Exercises / Weight (% of a maximal lift*)/ Number of reps
Upper body

3 times with a 5 minute stretch of all
muscles worked into the circuit

-Pull ups as many as you can immediately followed by 12-18*Lat pulldowns 50-60%(super set)**
-Straight arm pullover 10-12 75% immediately followed by triceps extensions from the forehead 10-12 50% (super set)
-Shoulder press 6-10 80% immediately followed by lateral raise as many as possible 30-40% (super set)
-Stretch cordz 30"-1'
-Leg lifts/sit up combination as hard as possible in duration of not less than 1 minute
-Back curl as many as possible with little or no weight
Lower body 2 times with a 5 minute stretch of all
muscles worked into the circuit

Leg extensions 12-20 60% immediately followed by leg curl 12-16 50-60%
Calf raises as many as possible 60%

-Circuit is a sequence of exercises that are done in succession in a specific order with no rest in between them or with rest that is less than 90 seconds.

Workout 2:

Circuit Number of times repeated Exercises / Weight (% of maximal lift) / Number of reps
Lower body 3 times with a 5 minute stretch

-Dead lift 6-8 @80%
-45 degree leg press immediately followed by Smith machine squat 8-10 @50-60% (super set)
-Leg extensions triple drop*** 6*90%/6*60%/6*30%
-Straight leg dead lift 8 @75% immediately followed by leg curl triple drop 6*75%/6*50%/6*30%
-Calf raises as many as possible with 60%
-Sit up/leg lift combo as hard as possible no less than 1 minute

Upper body 2 times with a five minute stretch

-Dips as many as possible followed by push ups as many as possible (super set)
-Biceps curl 10 @60% followed by wrist curls as many as possible 50%
-Lateral raise 30-40 times @30%
-Stretch cordz 1-2 min. set

*Maximal lift is the maximum amount of weight you can perform a specific exercise with.
** Super set is a set that combines two or more different exercises in succession.
***Triple drop is a set where you change the load three times without resting. It allows you to start with a very big load and work the Fast Twitch (FT) fibers in the beginning but is long enough to work the Slow Twitch fibers (ST) to exhaustion.

I don't recommend this program to people who are prone to gaining muscle. You should engage in a program like this only if core sports are not doing the job necessary for a proper muscle development.

MAINTENANCE PROGRAM (for those who don't need extra work on muscle development)

A weight lifting program I would recommend for athletes seeking to maintain their strength without spending too much time in the gym would have to involve much more endurance based circuits. I think that it is enough to do this once a week to maintain strength and local muscular endurance. I am certain that this type of lifting program will not increase your muscle mass.

Circuit Number of times repeated Exercises / Weight (%) / Number of reps
Lower body 3 times with a five minute stretch -Step ups or alternating dumbbell lunges 10 with each leg 60%
-Leg extensions triple drop as above
-Leg curl triple drop as above
-Calf raises as many as possible 60%
-Jumps from a half squat as many as possible followed by 30 seconds to one minute of sit against the wall
-Back curls as many as possible with little or no weight
-Leg lift/sit up combo no less than one minute
Upper body 2 times with a five minute stretch -Lat pulldowns 30-50 50% followed by butterfly pulls 20-30 50%
-Dips + pushups as above
-Lateral raise as many as possible 50%
-Stretch cordz 1 min. to 2 min.

Warning: I have included in this program, the muschle groups which I feel are most important. If you have need of strengthening other areas, you may want to incorporate them into your routine. Back to top

The following is the list of exercises, both relative resistance and with weights that I recommend for triathletes. On the left are start/finish position and on the right is the midpoint of every exercise.


Relative resistance exercises

Seated knee up (Abs)

Sit on a bench and grab it with your hands for better balance. Start with your legs extended, parallel to the ground. Bring your legs close to your chest and hold (one second). Extend your legs again.

1 1

V-up (Abs)

From the not fully extended position, on the floor lift your upper body and your legs simultaneously until you touch your feet with your hands. Go down to the floor immediately. Do this exercise as quickly as possible.

11 1

Hanging leg/knee lifts (Abs)

This is a complex and very difficult exercise for abdominals. Keep your legs as straight as possible and lift them without any jerking motion up to the bar.

1 1

Incline sit up (Abs)

Regular sit ups do not put enough load on your abdominal muscles. By increasing the incline, you can increase the load enough for a set to last less than a minute and still get some results. Keep your back straight.

1 1

Oblique reverse twist (Obliques)

This is a very fun exercise. Your abdominal muscles are under constant load due to static hold. Your obliques do the work to initiate, stop and change the direction of the body twist. Do not attempt this unless your back is very healthy and your abs are very strong.

1 1

Side to side legs up
twists (Obliques)

Lay flat on the floor with your arms out for balance and your legs vertical. Swing your legs from left to vertical to right to vertical keeping them few inches of the floor.

111 1

Back curl (Lower back)

Very easy to do, basic lower back exercise. Try to keep your back as straight as possible.

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Weight exercises

Dead lift (Lower back)

The mother of all exercises. Dead lift works every muscle of your body, from wrists to calves, but the body is erected by lower back muscles mainly. Keep your back straight always, and bend your legs as much as needed to insure the straight back.

1 1

Barbell oblique twists (Obliques)

Stand wide and twist from side to side. You can increase the load by increasing the speed of the twist. Start very slowly and with something smaller than the Olympic size barbell (20 kg). Very dangerous but effective exercise.

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Relative resistance

Swiss ball push up (Chest/triceps)

Put your feet on the ball. The increased angle will put more load on your shoulder and the instability of the ball will increase the use of stabilizer muscles. Go down to the floor while keeping your elbows close to your body.

1 1

Pull up (Lats/biceps/forearm)

One of the hardest exercises. Grip a little wider than your shoulders and over the bar. Pull yourself up until the shoulder blades touch each other. Due to the hanging nature of this exercise, sets are usually limited by your forearm muscles' endurance.

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Incline pull up (Lats/biceps)

An easier version of the pull up. You can do this on a Smith machine or anywhere you can find a bar that is  lower than your chest. Lift your body up to the bar with your back straight.

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Triceps dip (Chest/triceps)

Perhaps the best chest exercise there is. Go from straight arms to slightly passed the horizontal line with your upper arm. Do not allow your body to swing.

1 1

Narrow stand push up (Triceps)

A very difficult version of a standard push up. By keeping the hands close and the elbows out, the load on the triceps is increased tremendously.

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Weight exercises

Lat pulldown (Lats, biceps)

The Mother of every swimming weight program. This exercise is similar to the pull up but with the possibility of lifting less than your body weight rendering this exercise doable for everyone. Pull the bar straight down to your chest until your shoulder blades touch in the back.

1 1

Bent over  rows (Lats)

This is a fairly difficult but effective exercise for lats. It simulates the insweep phase lat movement. Keep your knees slightly bent and your lower back straight. Pull the bar toward your lower abs.

1 1

One arm bent over rows (Lats)

Similar to the previous exercise, this one is performed with a dumbbell and with one arm on the bench to support you, decreasing the stress on the lower back. Pull the weight toward the hip and not toward the chest.

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Straight arm pullover (Lats)

This is a great way to strengthen some of those small and weak muscles used in swimming. By keeping your elbows locked and your arms straight, triceps are not able to assist the move and the lift is performed almost entirely by lats. Very effective in conditioning the muscles engaged in the downsweep phase of the stroke.

1 1

Bench press (Chest, triceps)

A classic, well known exercise for chest conditioning. Shown in the photos is a dumbbell bench press, which I find to be better since it involves more muscles as stabilizers than a standard barbell bench press would do. Lower the weight to your chest in line with the highest point of your chest (approximately two inches above the tip of the sternum)

1 1

Incline bench press (Chest, shoulder)

Similar exercise with a difference of the incline used. 45 degree bench is preferable. There is more load on the deltoid muscles and pectoralis minor.

1 1

Dumbbell shoulder press (Shoulder front and mid)

Sit straight on a chair that has some back support. From the arms fully extended above your head position go down to where the imaginary line between dumbbells touches your neck. Due to overhead nature of this exercise, the number of reps is limited, making it less than optimal for swimmers.


1 1

Dumbbell lateral raise (Shoulder mid)

Stand straight with your arms slightly bent in your elbows. Lift the weight up maintaining the arm position to the horizontal position. Keep the elbows pointing backward during the lift so the proper head of the deltoid muscle is engaged. This is a basic shoulder conditioning exercise for swimmers.

1 1

Bent over Dumbbell raise (Shoulder back)

Similar to the previous exercise but in a bent over position. Muscles in the back of the shoulder are very weak so very little weight usually does the trick. This exercise is essential for overcoming the imbalance in strength of the anterior and the posterior part of the shoulder caused by freestyle. Consequently, it is a cure for swimmers' shoulder as well.

1 1

Biceps curl (Biceps)

Almost useless for distance swimmers since the biceps are not not critical for distance. It stabilizes the arm during downsweep and the catch phases but I believe that swimming and other exercises (lat pulldown, pull ups) are enough to condition this muscle properly.

1 1

Wrist curls (Forearms)

If you are capable of putting out any power in the water, it means that your forearms will be under a lot of stress from keeping the wrist in line. There is a variety of exercises for forearms but I find this one to be the least stressful on the wrist joint. Simply hold the bar on the tips of your fingers and curl them up into a fist if possible.

1 1

Narrow grip bench press (Triceps)

Use the ez-bar for this so you can keep the wrists straight. Lower the weight to your chest with your elbows pointing to the side. it is a similar exercise to a narrow stand push up but much easier since you can control how much weight you're lifting.

1 1

Forehead triceps extensions (Triceps)

This exercise is very effective for isolating the tricep muscle. Make sure to lower the weight slowly to your forehead so it does not drop on your head. Keep the elbows as narrow as possible when doing this for a better triceps isolation. Necessary for people who really struggle with triceps strength and endurance.

1 1

Back triceps extensions (Triceps)

This exercise is much more swimming-like. Your lats will serve as stabilizing muscle group and triceps will perform the movement very similar to that of the upsweep phase of freestyle.

1 1

Triceps pushdown (Triceps)

Similar to the previous exercise, this exercise will include your abdominal muscles as stabilizers. Keep the elbows close to your body, and start from the horizontal position with your forearms.

1 1

Butterfly pulldowns

This is a swimming specific exercise. On a cable crossover machine, grab a triceps pushdown bar at your shoulder width. Pull down from the straight arm position to arms fully extended while maintaining the high elbows (keep them pointing to the side).

1 1
1 1

Stretch cord pulls

Similar to the previous exercise but performed with cords instead of weights. Keep the elbows pointing to the side. The downside of this is that cords increase the resistance proportionally to how much they're stretched, meaning that the latter parts of the stroke encounter more resistance than the earlier, which is not consistent with the force distribution during swimming.

To remedy this, the pulls can be broken up into phases, so that in one set you perform only the front part of the stroke (photo 1 and 2) and in the next set you perform the back part of the stroke (photo 3 and 4).
1 1
1 1

One arm freestyle pulls

Another swimming specific exercise. Try to simulate the freestyle pull as closely as possible. Again, make sure your elbow is pointing to the side. Don't drop it.

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Relative resistance

Squats with jumps (Gluteus, quadriceps, calves)

Relative resistance leg exercises are a great way to condition your legs. They are very hard and they will get your heart rate up quickly. The key in all these exercises is to do them as quickly and as powerfully as possible. From a full or a half squat jump up as high as possible. repeat 12-20 times.

1 1

Alternating legs squats (Gluteus, quadriceps, calves)

The only difference from the previous exercise is that you will jump from a squat with one leg in front of the other. At the highest point in the jump exchange the leg that is in front. Repeat 12-20 times

1 1

Streamline half-squat jumps (Gluteus, quadriceps, calves)

This is a very difficult swimming-specific exercise. It requires balance and leg strength to absorb the shock of landing (no help from your arms). Keep your arms in a streamline position and jump up from a full, half. or quarter squat as high as possible.

1 1

Alternating lunges (Gluteus, hamstrings, quadriceps)

Shown here are lunges with a bar, but they can be a relative resistance exercise (just your body weight). Go down with one leg out bent not more than 90 degrees in the knee (the vertical line drawn from your kneecap should not go over your toes). Stand back up to and exchange the leg that lunges forward.

1 1

Step ups (Gluteus, hamstrings, quadriceps)

This is a great exercises for cycling and it could help your climbing more than any other weight lifting exercise. Find a bench that will get your leg to at least a 90 degree angle both at the hip and the knee (as shown in the photo). Step up and lift the other leg to 90-90 degree position (not mandatory, especially if you have a balance problem).

1 1

Frog jumps (Gluteus, quadriceps, calves)

This is one of my favorite leg exercises. Basically, you will perform a series of frog leaps as shown in the picture. Obviously, a weight room is not the best venue for this. Great exercise for the outdoors.

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Weight exercises

Squat / Smith machine (Gluteus, quadriceps)

Squat can be performed in the confines of the Smith Machine or with a barbell. In both cases it is important to keep the back straight and to squat with your femur past horizontal (full squat) for a full gluteus engagement. Performing half or quarter squats all the time may cause the imbalance in the strength of your quads and its tendons making you prone to injuries.

11 1

The power clean (lower back, quadriceps)

This is a very complex and effective exercise. From your knees in a slightly bent position, swing the bar up to your chest. The trick is not to use the arms at all. The whole movement should be a result of a quick and powerful leg and lower back motion. If necessary, you may need to bend your legs even further to get yourself under the bar, putting your self in a half squat or in case of real weight lifter a full squat position.

1 1

Leg extensions (Quadriceps)

This is a great way to isolate the quadriceps muscle, and since there is no load on your back it is a choice exercise for leg endurance sets.

1 11

Leg curl (Hamstrings)

This exercise is a great way to improve your pedaling efficiency and to work on the backside of the pedal stroke. To isolate the back of the thigh even more, keep your calf and tibialis anterior relaxed.

1 1

Calf raises (Calves)

One of many ways to do this exercise is seated in this machine. Let the weight extend your calves fully and lift up as high as possible contracting the calves completely. Change the angle of your feet from set to set (heel point in, straight back and out). This exercise is essential for those having Achilles tendon problems. Make sure you stretch after each set.

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By Nenad Rodic, founder of TriathlonPlace.com