4 Key Strength Exercises for Endurance Athletes
I love when people assume that when it comes to training people it’s always a straight apples-to-apples comparison. For instance, we’ve all heard that being stronger as an athlete will make you better, right? But are we talking from the same reference point?
Let’s imagine two fighters, one very experienced yet weak, the other unskilled but strong as an ox. You know who wins that fight, don’t you? It’s the skilled guy. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen an overweight guy who gets out of breath putting his shoes on choke the lights out of a new guy who looks like he’s been carved from stone.
But what happens if we take our skilled yet weak fighter and make him stronger? (And please note I said stronger, not strong). Likely we turn him from good into a monster, effectively giving him more firepower to use in a fight.
And this is where people get confused with endurance racing. A good friend, and clever trainer, Danny Sawaya of Evolution Fitness in Tucson, Arizona, recently told me that, based on some advice he was given, he had one of his endurance athlete clients using barbell front squats. After gaining strength, his athlete is setting personal records all over the place.
But the thing is this: when he started that guy’s front squat was 70lbs. No kidding that if you can only handle 70lbs for front squats that gaining some strength will make you faster. But at what point do those gains stop? Sooner or later if you continue chasing more strength – the thinking being that if some strength makes you faster then more strength will make you faster again – you’re going to need to spend more and more time training for that strength as well as recovering from those sessions.
The question you then need to ask yourself is, are you an athlete who plays (insert name of sport here) or a lifter who does some (insert name of sport here). Either answer is acceptable as long as you know which one you are. The real issue comes when people are lifters dabbling with a sport and they look to improve sports performance by spending more time in the gym. The only way to improve sports performance is to practice the key skills of that sport. So unless your sport is lifting you will not benefit from more time lifting in place of more time working at your sport.
So, long story short, as you need to spend more and more time developing endurance to go faster and faster you’ll need to refine your strength plan to the bare minimum. Here are my four go-to exercises.
I shouldn’t have to explain why but if you need some more background please read this. The extra benefit that get ups have over many other upper body movements is they seem to prevent you from adding too much extra muscle bulk. Ultimately you want to be as strong and as light as possible. Every extra kilogram you weigh costs you 1.25% (approximately 5W) on a bike. Every 5kg is similarly worth an extra 100,000kg of force you need to absorb while running 5km. I alternate days of heavy singles and days of get up drills using a lighter weight, focusing on form and movement. They both have a purpose and it would be impossible to me to say only do one or the other.
Kettlebell Clean and Jerks
This has become my number one exercise with endurance people. The studies show the jerk is as powerful a tool to build power as the swing, contains the same elements of relaxed tension needed in all cyclic sports, and has plenty of Russian research to back up its effectiveness. Gems such as Shevtsova’s 1993 study show that athletes who regularly performed kettlebell clean and jerks had a resting heart rate averaging 56bpm and returned to resting faster than their non-kettlebell training counterparts. That’s a winner for endurance athletes. Plus, they hit every muscle in the body and save the fragile shoulder joint from the stresses of pressing while saving them for swimming. I generally use three to five sets of five to ten reps.
Barbell Front Squats
If you’re looking for an exercise that loads the anterior core, hits the quads hard to benefit riding and allows a safer posture than back squatting, this is it. I’m not disagreeing that many need to work their posterior chain more but, in all honesty, after years and years of swings and deadlifts my posterior chain is now far stronger than my anterior. Asymmetry – either left to right, or front to back – is a good indicator of potential injury. When I don’t front squat I feel like I lack oomph on the bike. The thing is to not get carried away with a good thing and risk your legs from too much squatting. Three sets of two to four reps seems the magic number here.
Kettlebell Swings or Snatches
I have one day per week where I swing heavy using a variety of formats such as dead swings, two hand swings, hand to hand swings, or one hand swings and another day where I snatch. There’s no denying the benefits of the swing, which have been documented many times – from power to back health to fat loss. The swing really does seem to be a one size fits all answer. However, as a neophyte triathlete I am spending a lot of time bent over on my bike and I would advise being careful trying to do too many swings. A typical swing workout would be around one hundred reps, with a bell that is challenging, for sets of ten in whatever format I picked. For snatches the number would be more likely sixty done in sets of five to ten on each hand.
Spend your spare time stretching, bridging and outside getting your sports work in. If your goal is to be a strong runner, rider, or triathlete make sure you dedicate the majority of your time to those skills. More strength will make you faster, however I’d suggest that a little will go a long way and there’s no need to chase a double bodyweight anything.