Featured Resource for IRONMAN.COM
June 17th 2015
Strength Train Like a Girl
Taking the Superbowl commercial campaign into the weight room with 5 tailor-made moves.
by Jordan Blanco
I feel lucky to share my passion for triathlon with my spouse. We train together, compete together and share plenty of post-race celebrations together. A few weeks ago, we were at the gym doing a functional strength workout. I got a little frustrated watching him execute 10 pull-ups with ease. Meanwhile, I was struggling to make that same number of pull-ups, even with a resistance band to take some of the strain. Fast-forward a few minutes and I was in hysterics watching his finest impression of Bambi while doing single-legged deadlifts. While I didn’t display the grace of a prima donna ballerina, the single-legged exercise came much more easily to me.
It got me thinking: should I be doing the same strength routine as my husband?
The name of the game is functional strength
When it comes to triathlon, strength training is typically more about functional enhancements than building muscle and absolute strength. Functional strength is essentially "training the body for activities involved in daily life." In triathlon terms, functional strength uses exercises targeted at improving joint mobility, stability and efficient motor patterns to enhance our ability to swim, bike and run.
"Strength workouts for triathletes should be focused on injury prevention, improved body composition and enhanced race performance—or put more simply, on staying healthy, getting lean and getting faster," explains Kate Ligler, an elite strength and conditioning coach who works with a range of athletes (from eight-time IRONMAN champion, Meredith Kessler, to age-groupers looking to participate in their first triathlon).
Different strokes for different folks
But should these workouts involve the same exercises for men and women? Basic physiology is on my husband’s side when it comes to pure strength. Over 6 feet tall and 175 pounds, his larger and wider frame supports more muscle than my 5-foot-7 stature. But, as Ligler points out, "ignoring height and weight, pound for lean muscle pound, women are just as capable as men to develop the same proportional muscular force." She says that what’s more important is to realize that from a biomechanical perspective, men and women move differently.
Men tend to be taller than women and, therefore, their center of mass is typically much higher. Women usually have wider hips than men. These two tendencies combine to create a wider Q-angle in women—the angle at which the femur meets the tibia, putting women at greater risk of knee and hip issues. Ligler explains this by pointing out the natural inward plunge of a woman’s knee in the eccentric motion of a squat.
Ligler is nonetheless also quick to point out the benefits of the female physique: "Women carry about 40 percent less weight in their upper bodies relative to men, hence changing our relative center of gravity to offer a naturally more balanced lower platform." So that’s why I win the husband versus wife contest at coordination and balance-based movements!
What does this mean for women in the gym? We’ve clearly got some catching up to do on thoracic-focused (upper-body) exercises to build strength. But when it comes to the lower body, we’d do well to focus on proper knee and hip alignment to minimize injury risk.
Here are five of Ligler’s favorite exercises that are perfect for female triathletes (with seven-time IRONMAN champion Meredith Kessler as the model).
1. Dumbbell chest press into reverse double-leg V-drops
Why: This exercise hones in on the anterior chain and core, which serves as a pelvic stabilizer during athletic movement (e.g. running).
Do: Lying on the floor with feet straight up, perform a chest press with dumbbells. After the press, keep the dumbbells in the air and stabilize with the shoulders while performing a double leg drop to the floor. Return the legs first to the right wrist, before dropping them once again to the floor and back up to touch the left wrist. Repeat 10 to 12 times. Too advanced? Drop one leg at a time instead of two.
2. Single-arm TRX row
Why: This exercise combines core work with the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, lower back) to develop strength that is critical for good biking and running posture. Upper back strength will also help your swimming.
Do: Find a comfortable position a few feet from the anchor point of the TRX (the closer you are to the anchor point, the more challenging the exercise). Grab the TRX handle with one hand close to the chest. Activate your core as if holding a standing plank, lean back and extend your arm out as you move backward. Pause to re-engage the core before using your arm and lat to pull yourself back to the start position. Repeat 10 to 12 times on both sides.
3. Side plank with a gluteus medius kick
Why: This exercise focuses on the obliques and gluteus medius, which help stabilize the pelvis during running. It combines lateral band walks, hip clams and oblique plank holds into a single dynamic package to work on hip strength.
Do: Start by lying on one side. Stabilize your body with your lower arm at a 90-degree angle to your body. Lift your body into a side plank position. Raise your upper leg a few inches above the lower leg, parallel to the ground. Pull the knee of your upper leg to meet your upper elbow until they touch. Return the upper leg to be parallel to the bottom leg, maintaining it a few inches above. Repeat 10 times on each side.
4. Single-legged squat on a BOSU
Why: This exercise is a great one for lower body strength (quads, hamstrings, glutes) while also promoting better balance, coordination, and core strength. Women specifically should ensure good knee and hip alignment throughout the full range of this exercise.
Do: Place an overturned BOSU directly in front of a bench. Stand on the BOSU on a single leg and lower your butt towards the bench in a squat position, as if you were going to sit down on the bench. Place your arms in front of you for balance as required. After touching the bench with your butt, still on a single leg, use that leg and glute strength to push yourself back to standing. Repeat up to 10 times on each leg.
5. Pistol squat with TRX
Why: The single leg squat on the BOSU is an advanced exercise so beginner athletes can strengthen the same muscle group and build proficiency with this alternate exercise.
Do: Holding the TRX handles with both hands, take two to three steps away from the anchor point. Standing on one foot, point the other leg forward and lean back so you are at a slight angle. Squat down as far as you can go, using the TRX handles to stabilize you. Stand back up, pulling your body into the handles as you reach the top. Repeat 10 to 12 times on each leg.
Jordan Blanco is a multiple-time IRONMAN finisher, Kona qualifier, and writer living in San Francisco.