‍Strength for Triathletes with body composition improvement

For some triathletes knowing where to start in formulating a purposeful off-season strength plan can be challenging, let alone adding a body composition focus to the equation. In this article, I will cover the following elements:

1. The benefits of using a resistance training (RT) program.

2. Structuring an RT program

3. Foundational vs Specific Strength

4. How to maximise benefits from an RT program

5. Progressive Overload Principle

6. Finishers - a nice twist.

Benefits of resistance training

Increasing strength through resistance training (RT) with a  focus from the hips down, has been shown to improve key performance areas such as exercise economy, through less energy expended at sub-max intensities and power output, and increase in wattage for the same metabolic expenditure as previous.  Adding RT to your program will see Improvements in body composition, reducing body fat and losing some overall body weight. Maintaining or improving your lean muscle mass, we know will help you get around the course more efficiently, especially if there is a resultant drop in overall body weight. Having a higher ratio of lean muscle mass provides the body with a more functional system for enhanced efficiency, oxygen delivery, and work capacity for the exercising muscles.

The research and science tell us body composition changes are optimal when a strength & conditioning package has a combination of both RT and cardiovascular training, such as moderate-intensity continuous training, through to high-intensity training - HIITs, and metabolic conditioning.

1. Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) – calories you burn to just stay alive. Accounts for 60-75%

- RT key, but it’s a medium to long game.

- Increasing lean muscle mass directly increases RMR.

2. Thermic Effect of Activity (TEA) – daily activity & exercise. Accounts for 15-30%

- Predominantly exercise:  swim, bike, run, through training & competing.

- Moderate to high intensity.

- Planned strength training.

The puzzle is how to package an optimal strength plus conditioning plan, within an existing high cardio volume schedule.


Where to start……

Once you and your coach have mapped out your season calendar, and identified your off-season window for working on both strengths, you now have your training period to work back from. 
I mention triathlon coach as this is a team effort and involves some give and take on both strength coach and triathlon coach, on playing nicely for time management and session priority, as all parties are striving for what’s best for the athlete and optimize improvements.
Now you know how many weeks your strength period will be - most athletes will be around 12 weeks, you can work out the number of ‘strength’ training blocks, the focus of these blocks, and the length of these strength blocks. Then you can add the meat to the bones with session purpose, exercise selection, loading patterns, and how the session flows.


A 12-week period will allow for three distinct blocks:

1. Preparation: 2 weeks

2. Foundational strength: 4 weeks   

X. Unload: 1 week

3. Specific strength: 4 weeks

4. Strength-speed (power): 2 weeks, dependent on individual needs/training age.


Breaking it down


- 2 x Total Body sessions per week.

- Short high intensity ‘finisher’ at the back end of the session e.g. HIIT, Met-cons.

- Moderate loads ~8-15 repetitions.

- Targeted movement patterns are similar to foundation strength blocks.

This block is for priming your body for the foundational strength block where you will be lifting heavier loads and training with higher intensities. Loads will be moderate with higher reps to build muscular endurance, triple and super sets, and importantly the movements will be similar to those in the foundational strength block such as squatting & hinging variations. The length of this block can be dependent on how long the layoff was from the last formal strength block, and strength training age or competency.


Foundational strength

- 3 x Sessions per week.

- Split sessions: Lower body, upper body bias, total body.

- Finisher at the back end of two sessions.

- Higher loads for key lifts ~5-3 repetitions, and more sets.

- Key lifts are compound lifts, large muscle groups, and bi-lateral focus.

This is the key strength block. This block is when you lay a good strength base, which you can draw and build on for both the specific strength block and all in-season strength blocks. This block is about keeping it simple - lifting heavier with your key lifts, and training with higher effort. No fluff. This phase should have a bias toward lower strength – hips down, with the big bilateral compound, lifts such as squats, Romanian deadlifts, rows, etc. Hips and lower limb strength are where your sport performance improvements are built from – the ground up. The upper body won’t be neglected but will not be a priority. 

Specific strength

- 3 x Sessions per week.

- Split sessions: Lower body, 2 x total body.

- More dialled-in Finishers at the back end of one-two sessions.

- High to moderate loads for key lifts ~8-4 repetitions.

- Key lifts become a unilateral focus.

- Movement patterns & ranges are more transferable to your sport disciplines.

Triathlon is a very cyclic sport, so from a strength perspective, it’s important to pay this its due respect and look to flip the key lifts from a bilateral to a more unilateral pattern. And I can’t emphasize enough that you still need to load the muscle with sufficiently heavy loads to garner the stimulus needed to keep improving strength. The foundation strength block was 4 weeks, this is where you double down.

The specificity – joint angles, movement ranges, and muscle groupings, is the icing on the cake. I don’t mean the fluffy exercises where you are basically mirroring the exact motion to your three disciplines, as you do enough reps purely by training. I mean exercises like a heavily loaded step up with a box height that will provide a similar knee angle to the downward pedal power stroke on your bike. Non-supported bent-over rows that will isometrically build a strong hinge – posterior chain resilience as in bike position. Forefoot bias accessory work that creates ankle complex strengthening & stiffness, decreasing the ground contact time for running. All transferable to triathlon without the fluff.


Resistance training for maximum benefits

There is no magic pill to achieve maximal benefits to strength. You need to front up with the right frame of mind, roll your sleeves up, and prepare for some hard work. It’s this hard work that is actually the secret sauce - lifting with effort! Effort means exercising to the right prescribed intensity and sticking to the prescribed exercise repetition. If a Back Squat set has five work repetitions prescribed, then this means selecting a load that will allow you to perform the movement safely, with the correct range and technique for five repetitions. If you attempted a sixth repetition it would be difficult. If your load selection is too light and you could easily complete another five repetitions on top of the prescribed five, you will not attain any strength benefits.

How is effort intensity prescribed for strength ……

Depending on competency and lifting experience, intensity can be prescribed in a few ways.

1. Repetitions in reserve (RIR): This refers to the number of repetitions you feel you will have left after completing the prescribed number of repetitions. e.g. 2 RIR = two repetitions in reserve. If the program set states 6 reps then your load selection will be based on your ability to complete 8 repetitions.

2. Percentage of 1 repetition max (% 1RM): This is a common way of prescribing intensity for athletes who are very experienced in resistance training. To get the 1RM number you need to complete strength testing. If your best 1RM for a Deadlift is 100kg’s then a prescribed loading of 85% 1RM x 3 repetitions mean your loading for the Deadlift set will be 85 kg.


The progressive overload principle is the king of kings of loading paradigms.

When it comes to resistance training your body is clever. If there is not enough change in stimulus e.g. load and intensity, then improvements in strength taper off or even head ’south’. Having planned and progressive loading throughout a training block will allow for gradual adaptation and mitigate any plateauing. The identified key lifts and movement patterns in the training block are where the progressive overload principle kicks into action. Key lifts, session type, and weekly outline – which days each session fall on are repeated in sequential weeks. Whilst the loading is progressed.

e.g. Tuesday’s lower body session week one will be a similar flow to Tuesday’s lower body week two, BUT with a subtle change in loading for key exercises. Friday's total body will follow a similar path. etc.


Purpose of overloading progressively:

We are looking to accomplish adaptation = a change in your body physically or physiologically – increased strength, increased lean muscle mass, increase power, improved work capacity etc.

Stimulus  ->-> Response ->-> Adaptation.

Provide a stimulus to the body = training.

Drive a short-term stress response to your body.

Develop an adaptation, medium to long term = The goal of training.

The Progressive nature of training is essential to provide more work and get a stronger signal. If you continue to do the same thing without a progressive stimulus, you will not get the results you want because you are not driving adaptation. Conversely, if you do too much variety eg frequent random & varied training, you will not get a progressive stimulus needed to provide optimal performance. And very likely you will always pull up with muscle soreness that will carry into your triathlon training sessions. 

Ways to progressively overload…..

Most common:

- Load: increase the weight on the bar.

- Repetitions: increase = more work.

- Sets: increase = more work.


- Frequency: Training a body part more frequently during the week = stronger

- Tempo: slower movement tempo -> more time with load under tension = more work completed.

- Rest period: decreased rest period between sets increases work in less time = stronger signal.

- Range of Motion (ROM): Add deficit work to create a Larger ROM = changing signal.

- Duration: Longer session -> more work = stronger signal.


A twist to the cardio to fast start body composition change.

For those who are targeting off-season to trim some body fat (as well as increase strength) adding ‘finishers’ at the back end of a strength session are a novel and time-efficient way to program for body composition, without overly compromising strength gains within a strength bias plan. Finishers are short high intensity & calorically dense blocks of work, that are either a mix of cardio & strength exercises - metabolic conditioning (metcon), or high-intensity intervals (HIITs).  We know time management is always a constant battle with triathletes - having to fit in training for essentially three sports, and likely work thrown in the mix. A 12-minute high-intensity finisher that has a total equivalent caloric burn (session & EPOC after-burn), to a 90-minute low-intensity cardio session, these blocks become pretty desirable.  

Key essentials for designing finishers…

1. Metabolic conditioning: The combination of cardio work plus strength exercises over multiple rounds will elicit a bigger energy output, giving you the biggest bang for your buck. Lifting load mechanical stress (muscle) whilst your breathing and heart rate is compromised/elevated physiological stress (heart, lungs), is extremely hard.

2. Exercise selection: Met-con exercises should be structurally challenging and ideally involve total body movements, and multiple or large muscle groups. Think heavy dead-ball carry’s, thrusters, kettlebell swings, sled push/drags.

3. Repetition: weighted towards moderate-higher rep ranges, this adds towards maintaining elevated breathing and heart rate.

4. Finisher time: depending on time availability anywhere from 6-15min will be effective. Training effort needs to be high for these sessions also.

5. Side note, it’s important to note that when completed with the effort that these dense blocks of work are respected. They are can be metabolically taxing, more is definitely not better. For an off-season strength plan, I would only integrate these into a maximum of two strength sessions. Ideally, err on side of caution not to include finishers on days that have VO2max triathlon training sessions.

Top tips & the small wins.

1. Utilize dead-time. Save time and integrate low level injury prevention exercises & work ons, during your recovery periods between exercise sets. Low level - effort, work will not effect the energy levels needed for the main strength exercises.

2. Recovery work: choose active recovery over more static options. Adding low level unloaded cardio like easy swims, spinning, at the front end of manual body work & stretching, all add up to chipping away at daily and weekly total calorie burn.

3. New exercises burn more calories: During a training block, finishers like metcons, are a good place to play around and  implement exercise variety on a  more frequent basis. Key exercises/lifts are not.

4. Yin and Yang: identifying the key strength sessions for the week and making sure they are not compromised with triathlon training sessions. Lower Body strength session - key session, will not be affected following a swim session (upper focused). A three hour ride the morning of or day before will compromise your lower body strength.

5. Time management: by understanding the strength session flow - key exercises, the overreaching goal will help assist with where you effort should be directed IF your are cut for time. Key lifts will be at the start when fresh. Accessory type lifts in the middle. Finisher at the end. So if your goal is body composition and you're cut for time then nail the key lift - 1st exercise with very high effort, and then head straight to the finisher.

The bottom line.

When it comes to strength, there is no magic pill and nothing is gifted. Stick to the key exercises that will give you the biggest net strength gain, and attacking these lifts with high EFFORT, will yield the quickest results. Keep it simple K.I.S.S.

Thanks for reading,

Craig McFarlane aka Oscar


J Sci Med Sport. 2018 Feb;21(2):207-212. The effects of high intensity interval training on muscle size and quality in overweight and obese adults.  Mailin NM Blue, Abbie E Smith-Ryan, Eric T Trexler, Katie R Hirsch.

Sports Med Open. 2015 Jun;2:11. The effect of exercise modality and nutrition manipulations on post-exercise resting energy expenditure and respiratory exchange ratio in women: a randomized trial. Hailee L Wingfield, et al.

Craig McFarlane
May 6, 2024
Back to all articles