Heavy vs. Light Weight Strength Training for Triathletes

In the triathlon world, the stronger you are, the more efficient you will be. Exerting less energy every stroke and stride translates to a faster finish time. While the internet, social media and popular magazines are flooded with a wealth of strength training programs, it is easy to get lost in the data. When it comes to strength training, most triathletes who do not have a personal trainer rely heavily on these articles—sometimes doing more harm than good.

So what is the best way to strength train as a triathlete? Is using heavy or light weights better? Here's my answer for each.

Light Weights

Many triathletes and runners follow a higher rep range when lifting—usually completing eight to 12 reps with lighter weights because this closely resembles the specificity of the sport.

This is logical thinking, but training in a higher rep scheme isn't enough to increase your ability to improve force production over the long haul. When you lift lighter weights you are doing it in a sub-maximal effort (40 to 55 percent of your single rep max).

Clearly, lifting light weights is better than not doing anything, but it is not optimal to make strength gains.

Heavy Weights

Don't be afraid to lift heavy. To increase your strength, you will be better served lifting weights at 75 to 90 percent of your single rep max. Consider doing three sets of four to six reps, using compound exercises like squats, deadlifts and shoulder presses. This is the sweet spot in terms of reps, sets and exercises that will give you strength gains and improve your performance.

Remember, don't go to the gym on your first day and try to figure out your single rep max—we use these numbers to illustrate a point, nothing more. Lifting too much, too soon, can cause serious injury.

You should spend your first day in the gym using light weights as you learn the proper techniques of these exercises. As you feel more comfortable with the motor pattern of each exercise, gradually increase the weight systemically. Add two to five pounds each week until you feel you have adequate strength for triathlons.

If you have a race coming up, lift light weights two weeks before the race to ensure your body is fresh for race day. Always use common sense in the gym—do not get greedy with loads you are not prepared for.

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