Strength Training Phases

Triathletes talk (a lot!) about swim-bike-run training. That can depend on coaching philosophy and individual training protocol. There is no one set periodization that should be followed for all individuals. A big mistake I see a lot of athletes (particularly with the bitter winters of the north east) do is scale back over the winter and arrive in April with a blank slate, scrambling to get fit for their first race in June. The problem with this is they have no foundation or groundwork to work upon to increase fitness safely without getting injured. April is too late to try and build a base to gain fitness from, work on skill development and spend time getting their race fueling protocol, bike fit, run shoes, wetsuit etc. in racing form. 

More novice triathletes are going to benefit from a solid aerobic training phase in conjunction with strength training to increase their muscular strength so they are ready to actually “train” come the spring. That being said even strength training should be periodized and vary to complement the demands of your sport specific training. This is assuming the athlete already has a foundation and background in strength training. Anyone new to a proper strength program should follow the advice of a strength coach to ensure they are executing exercises efficiently and safely in a manner that works for their individual deficiencies and imbalances.  

Hypertrophy/Max Strength Phase

This phase is recommended in early season in conjunction with base aerobic fitness, as it is the most taxing on the body. Hypertrophy is defined as an increase in skeletal muscle size and is recommended for an individual who is strength limited in the sport. Someone who needs a little more muscle in order to be powerful in the pool and on the bike. These workouts are performed at about 75% of 1RM, 8-10 repetitions with 1.5-2 minute rest. Max strength would be recommended for an individual who does not need or want to increase size but does need to increase overall strength. This is performed at about 85% of 1RM, under 6 repetitions and with about 3 minutes rest. This phase focuses on compound exercises such as front squat, back squat, deadlift, RDL, strict press, barbell row, bench press or leg press. 

Sport Specific Phase

Once overall strength has been established, the focus moves to unilateral movements which are less fatiguing. This is in part because swim-bike-run workouts shift to strength workouts in sport: low cadence, hills, paddles etc. The strength exercises are also chosen to be very specific to sport. Examples of exercises include, single arm lat pushdown with rope, bulgarian split squat, single leg extension, single arm chest press on physioball, single arm shoulder press. 


During the peaking phase in triathlon swim-bike-run workouts are at an all time high. Volume is high and intensity is high and this is where you are really getting fit in the sport with no extra energy to spend in the gym. Short and sweet power workouts will keep muscles primed and fired up without fatigue. Weight is extremely light and movement is fast, exercises are sport specific: runners’ arms, single leg box jumps, and kneeling MB woodchoopers.  To watch a video example see below:



A core/pre-hab program should be followed at all times throughout the year. It can be used during the warm-up of the earlier phases of strength training, or during recovery or taper weeks. The core refers to everything on your body minus your arms and legs. This means for triathletes a lot of scapular, rhomboid, glute, hip and pelvic stability work. Scapular pushups, lateral walk, clams, fire hydrants and marching bridges are some great staples. 

This post was written by former Coach, Milly Wade West.

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