As a triathlete you spend plenty of time conditioning your body for the endurance required to complete a triathlon. But are you giving enough attention to your strength, specifically in your legs? A stronger lower body results in more force generation and for a triathlete this equates to speed. You need your legs to paddle in the swim, to drive cycle pedals, and to carry you across the finish line. Strength athletes have known for decades that the barbell squat is one of the best movements for building lower body strength but can it help a triathlete?
Reasons to Incorporate More Squats
As a competitive racer the benefits of improving your lower body strength seem obvious – strong legs = faster times. But not only that, you can also avoid injuries by strengthening the tendons around your muscles. Take the knee joint for example: Patella tendonitis is a common “overuse” injury that can sideline an athlete and requires months to rehabilitate. The injury is almost always related to a poorly tracking patella bone which is often caused by having a weak VMO (Vastus Medialis Oblique). Squats of all varieties are one of the best ways to strengthen the VMO.
Believe it or not, squatting can also help with tight body parts such as the hips and ankle joints. Regularly performing barbell squats to full depth, past parallel, may be difficult at first but in time will improve flexibility in tight areas. Squatting also helps with correcting posture and learning how to properly stabilize the core muscles. And finally, learning proper squat form can help you activate your glute muscles adding tremendous power to your swimming kick.
Squat Variations for Triathlon and Ironman Competitors
While back squats are a staple for overall strength gains your biomechanics will dictate whether you utilize more quads, hamstrings or hips to complete the movement. Because of this it is recommend that endurance athletes focus more on some of the variations of a squat including high-bar squats and front squats. These exercises focus more on strict quadricep development.
The high-bar squat, or Olympic squat as it is sometimes called, is performed just as it sounds – with the bar placed high upon the trapezius muscles. The other adjustment is that you will take a stance that is slightly narrower than shoulder width. From this position you will squat down until your hamstrings touch your calves, or as close to there as possible. Complete the lift by coming up in an explosive manner. Remember, down slow and controlled, core tight, and no bouncing to come up.
The front squat is a bit trickier. For this exercise the lifter will place the barbell across their front delts, right inline but not on top of the clavicle. You can either cross your arms over the bar to hold it in place or use an Olympic “catch” position with your hands underneath the bar and elbows driving into the air. Your stance will again be fairly narrow, inside shoulder width, and the rest of the movement is mostly the same as a back squat. This exercise will be incredible taxing on your upper back and core, which will fail long before your legs do. Because of this you’ll want to keep reps in the lower range and use heavier weight and more sets. Also, you should perform the front squat with more speed in the eccentric (downward) phase of the lift.
Wearing the Proper Shoes to Squat
A quick word on proper footwear. It may sound funny, but you need to make sure you are wearing the right shoes for squatting. Your running shoes are the worst pair of shoes you could try to squat in (well maybe your biking shoes would be worse). They are designed to cushion your foot strike which is the opposite of what you want when squatting – to be firmly planted and stable. I suggest flat, stiff sole shoes for performing your squats. If you have serious ankle flexibility issues you may opt for a pair of Olympic lifting shoes that have a raised heel. This will allow you to achieve depth easier in the squat.
How to Train
Unlike a bodybuilder whose aim is to gain size, which equals a heavier body weight, you will train to gain strength only. The difference in training will come down to the number of repetitions and total sets you will perform.
Science has proven over and over again that the 1-5 rep range is ideal for gaining strength without hypertrophy (muscle breakdown). We want to avoid hypertrophy because this will cause the muscles to become larger, which is not our goal. So for your squat sessions I recommend 4-5 set of 3-5 reps followed by 2 sets of 15-20 reps as a finisher. Because of how taxing they can be, make sure you perform your squats as the first lift in your training session. You can finish “leg day” off with some leg press and isolation exercises.
This post was written by Wreckshop Rob, a strength coach, power lifter and general fitness nerd from the great state of Texas. When he isn’t working out with world class strength athletes he is either flexing, eating, cooking or working on his online projects. Be sure to check out his Facebook and Google+ for laughs, obscenities and the occasional useful tip.