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Classic Triathlon Strength Moves

By Pete Williams | July 09, 2018, 1:51 p.m. (ET)

Strength training has undergone a transformation in the past 15 years — shifting from the bodybuilding-inspired exercises of the 1970s to functional, core movements that mimic the motions of sport and everyday life.

That evolution has resonated with triathletes, who care less about building showy muscles than they do about cutting time in the swim, bike and run. And with time already scarce training across three disciplines, minutes spent in the gym or weight room must produce a similar return on investment.

Fortunately, some of the most effective core training exercises go back several years. They might not have been the most popular with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the boys at Muscle Beach, but for triathletes training muscles of locomotion, they’re perfect. 

These eight classic retro moves (some with modern tweaks), will complement your current triathlon training regimen. To save time and also get an aerobic benefit, do two sets in a circuit fashion with no rest between moves.


Why: This familiar compound yoga move improves flexibility to the lumbar and cervical spine while strengthening and stabilizing the shoulders. This counteracts the tendency we all have to be flexed forward and locked down at the hips from sitting at desks all day, to say nothing of riding in the aero position and swimming.

How: Start on all fours with hands beneath your shoulders and knees on the ground. Inhale, dropping your chest as you push your hips and shoulder blades back into cow position. Lift your chin and chest and gaze forward. For cat, exhale as you draw your belly button to your spine and round your back toward the ceiling like a cat.

Prescription: 10 reps of each movement

Dowel Rod Pushups

Why: Place a broom handle or dowel rod along your spine and see how much more challenging the
traditional pushup becomes. Not only does this force you to use proper form (hips tall and back straight), but it requires you to stay focused and engaged.

How: With the broom handle or dowel rod along your spine, begin with your shoulder blades pushed away from the ground. Lower to an inch off the ground and push back up.

Prescription: 20 reps

90/90 Stretch

Why: Like Cat/Cow, this counteracts the flexed-forward effects of sitting, swimming and cycling in an aero position by stretching the muscles of your middle and upper back.

How: Lie on the ground on your left side with legs tucked into your torso at a 90-degree angle. Keep both arms straight, parallel to your knees. Keeping the knees together and on the ground, rotate your chest and right arm to the right, putting your back on the ground. Hold for two seconds and return to starting position.

Prescription: 10 reps on each side

Pullups or Chin-Ups 

Why: This is a great back exercise that also works the biceps, forearms and chest. If done properly by squeezing the shoulder blades back and down, it works the shoulders and trapezius muscles — important for many movements but especially swimming.

How: Grab the bar with an overhand grip (or underhand if you prefer chin-ups). Hanging from the bar, pull your shoulder blades back and down to lift your body up and build momentum. Finish by pulling up with your arms. 

10 reps


Why: This promotes overall core stability in the hips, torso and shoulders, the foundation from where you produce power for swimming, cycling and running.

How: Lie in a prone pushup position with forearms resting on the floor, elbows under shoulders and bent 90 degrees. Push up off the elbows, tucking your chin so your head is in line with your body. Keep head in line with spine and belly button drawn in.

Prescription: Hold for 60 seconds

Romanian Deadlift

Why: Triathletes have notoriously tight hamstrings and glutes from running and biking (not including all the sitting at a desk). This move builds strength and flexibility in your hamstrings, glutes and lower back.

How: Start with a light set of dumbbells, increasing the weight as you progress. Stand with feet hip-width apart and knees unlocked, holding dumbbells at your sides. Shift your hips back and lower the dumbbells while keeping your back flat. Return to the standing position by contracting your hamstrings and glutes. Form is especially key to getting full benefit from the RDL — don’t think of the exercise as bending forward but rather as sitting back with your torso moving forward instead of staying upright.

Prescription: 10 reps

Alternating Dumbbell Press

Why: The bench press is perhaps the most familiar move in the weight room. With this variation, we’re going to focus more on shoulder and core stability, which will give us more functional strength — especially in the water.

How: Lie face up on a bench, holding dumbbells at the edges of your shoulders, palms facing your thighs. Lift the dumbbells straight up over your chest. Keeping one arm straight, lower the other dumbbell, touching the outside of your shoulder, then push it back up.

10 reps on each side

Goblet Squat

Why: The ability to squat properly is a vital everyday move, not just in the transition area or bathroom. We lose this ability from sitting all day.

How: Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell with both hands under your chest. Squat by pushing your knees out so your elbows can move in between them. Squat as low as you can and return to starting position. The counterbalance with the weight in front of the body allows you to sit back more easily, encouraging proper form.

Prescription: 10 reps


Why: This isn’t just a move to build showy triceps — it also builds strength and stability across the core region.

How: Position yourself above and between two bars (or with your back to a bench or chair) and grab them with an overhand grip. Cross your ankles behind you. Lower yourself slowly and push back up in a controlled manner.

Prescription: 10 reps

Pete Williams is a triathlete, NASM-certified personal trainer and author or co-author of a number of fitness books, including “Core Performance.” He lives in Clearwater, Fla.