Your Strength Questions Answered
With an abundance of information available to us now, it can be hard to know what’s right and wrong when it comes to exercises, technique and scheduling your training around other sessions. I want to take this opportunity to share and answer a few questions I am commonly asked.
Q. I find it hard to squat properly, it feels uncomfortable, and I can’t keep my heels on the ground?
A. First of all, patience is key. Finding a comfortable, full range squat takes time. If it’s a position and range of motion that your body isn’t used to being in, then it’s going to take time to “remind” your body that it can and should be moving that way.
If you find that your heels rise it’s likely that you have a lot of tightness throughout your lower legs, with your ankles probably lacking mobility and your calves and hamstrings being super tight. However, the tightness could be anywhere in the chain, lifting your heels is just your body compensation to try and achieve the desired movement. This isn’t ideal, as this only forces the load (your bodyweight) through your knees and onto your toes, hence why so many people say it hurts their knees when they squat. What we want is to load your hips and your backside.
Initially, we need to release the tension off your hips, so widen your stance until you can achieve a squat that is comfortable.
A cue I always use with the squat is making sure that your hips are the first part of your body to move. You should be pushing your butt back first rather than bending your knees.
Your focus now is not on strength but mobility. So, remove any additional load and spend time working on your squat mobility – at the bottom of the squat position. Once here you can start to work on improving the range of motion of your musculature in and around your ankles, knees and hips. The more time you spend working on this, the more comfortable your body is going to be finding these positions. It is important to remember squatting is the most natural and innate movement that we all should be able to do, no question. But as a society, we spend more time sitting in chairs than using our bodies for support and therefore squatting has become further and further away from the norm.
Q. I’ve been going to a class at my gym for the last six months to do some cross training and build strength for my triathlon. It’s a high-intensity circuit, including burpees, box jumps and push-ups etc. I love it, but I’m not sure whether it’s what I need to be doing to support my training?
A. First up, it’s great to see that you have a regular class and time, which you set aside for strength training, so don’t change this. However, the question I will ask is: “Are you exercising or are your training? What is your priority?”
Your strength training should be treated with as much respect as your swim, bike and run training. It should have structure, be progressive in design and every exercise should have a purpose. Unfortunately, high intensity gym classes are often random in design; they are often just a selection of exercises that are put together in a circuit or combined fashion to get your heart rate high and the sweat pouring! Unfortunately, more often than not, the trainer has little understanding of the demands of your sport and your individual limitations, and will program complex movements like the burpee or box jump in high volume and intensity. This will only fast-track your chance of injury.
The first thing to consider is that you are already training your cardiovascular system 20+hours a week in your swim, bike and run sessions, so you do not need to flog yourself anymore in the gym,
it’s just not necessary.
Instead, your strength work should look to identify and work on improving any weaknesses and imbalances.
You should be targeting three key areas:
- Mobility – getting more comfortable in your own body
- Activation – priming and working areas that are currently underutilised but are essential for good physical health and performance, e.g. Glutes and upper back muscles
- Strength – with focused technique to ensure efficiency and effective movement
So, have a look at the sessions you are doing and ask yourself whether they involve these three key points.
Q. What are the best core exercises for triathletes?
A. We all want ‘washboard abs’. Now, whether they are made in the kitchen, in the gym or are a genetic gift, having a “six pack” doesn’t always mean we have a strong, unbreakable core. It is a matter that goes much deeper.
The core work that will provide you with the best results for your swim, bike and run (not to mention everyday injury prevention), are exercises that involve full body trunk activation. These exercises get you utilising your core through large ranges of motion.
If the sum of all your core work is lying on the ground, you are still very much at the foundation level. When does lying on the ground relate back to sporting performance?
Isolated exercises such as sit-ups and crunches simply won’t achieve the strength, stability and control that you require when in the pool, on the bike or holding your form on the run.
Core work needs to include multiple planes of motion, e.g. flexion, extension, rotation, anti-rotation and connect your lower and upper body. Full body exercises such as the squat, deadlift, arabesque and pull-up are great examples of exercises that develop your core strength through functional movement. Core specific exercises such as cable or resistance band rotations, Pallof presses and glute/lower back extensions are also fantastic at developing an all-round strong core.
Q. Should I be doing my strength sessions before or after a run session?
A. It depends on where your priorities lie. If your aim from the strength session is to gain strength, develop your weaknesses and improve power, then you can only achieve this with a fresh mind and body.
The benefits of strength training are drastically reduced when fatigued. So no matter whether you have been running long and slow or have been smashing out some hard intervals you will be mentally and psychologically ‘spent’, your technique and focus will be compromised, and any possible strength gains significantly reduced, not to mention the increased
risk of injury.
So, in an ideal world, a separate 30-45 minute strength session at least three hours apart from your swim, bike or run session is optimal. However, working with so many ‘time-poor’ athletes, I know this is often not possible. One way we can perform strength work before a run is shortening the session like in our Strength Units. These mini-sessions program one to three key exercises directly before a swim, bike or run session and focus on mobility, activation and strength. They are an effective, time-efficient way to prepare your body and mind for the session to come.