Strength is the cornerstone of any athlete’s physical development. Nobody in a competition ever says ‘throw weaker’ or ‘run easier’. Instead, it is always about pushing harder and stronger. But even considering that, many athletes neglect to include strength building workouts in their training plan.

Some argue that they have no time, others fear they will gain too much muscle. And the rest simply become disappointed after not feeling the desired benefit from their efforts.

In reality, though, well-executed and relevant strength training has tons of benefits. Many elite athletes admit it has even become their secret weapon since they started to include it in their training process. Even endurance athletes who appear as if they have minimum muscles at all.

Scroll down for the why’s and the how’s of effective strength training. I’ll also share the best strength building workouts for athletes to focus on.

What is strength training?

First things first. By strength training I mean a structured process of performing various exercises designed to increase the body’s ability to generate force.

These exercises can be very different, hence the variety of strength building workouts in this post. Ranging from bodyweight exercises and using resistance bands to dumbbells and barbells – anyone can find whatever they fancy.

The main principle behind strength training is to overcome a certain resistance that over time increases (progressive overload), as the body grows stronger.

Overcoming resistance triggers certain adaptations – among others – in the nervous system and muscle tissue. In response to such stress the body supercompensates by getting more resilient and able to generate more force. Just like in aerobic training.

strength building workouts
Bodybuilder-style strength training using additional weight is just one of the types of strength training.

Strength impacts performance in any sport. It allows to execute more powerful and controlled movements, hold the form for longer, achieve greater speed or even endure more.

And not only that. Commitment to strength training also benefits our general health and well-being as well.

Benefits of strength training

Strength training has the potential to not only enhance sport-specific performance, but also manage weight, improve the ability to do everyday activities, navigate chronic diseases and even improve thinking.

There is a myriad of benefits of strength training that can intrigue anyone – even office workers or people struggling with depression. Some of the main benefits of strength training include:

  • Increased strength and power. Stronger (and sometimes bigger) muscles can generate more force. That, essentially, translates to more speed, power and muscular endurance.
  • Improved economy. Strong and efficient muscles use less of their capacity, so use energy more efficiently. Also, neurological adaptation that happens as a result of strength training improves agility and ensures better movement control.
  • Injury prevention. Strength training builds supporting muscles, addresses imbalance and strengthens joints & ligaments. All of that helps to prevent injuries and improve training consistency.
  • Improved bone density. Strength training leads to structural modifications in the bone density making them more resilient. It can prevent many injuries and reduce the risk of osteoporosis for older people.
  • Hormonal health. Strength training triggers the release of anabolic hormones (testosterone and growth hormone). Ironically, that helps to speed up recovery process of endurance athletes (to compensate high training load). It also improves the well-being of people over 40, whose anabolic hormone levels are typically lower.

Strength training has an effect on regular people’s health as well. For instance, hormones that are released after an intense strength building workout can give a much better mental boost than a cup of coffee.

Types of strength training – muscle strength or muscle size?

Most of us imagine bodybuilders and lifting weights when thinking about strength training. But that is just a part of it and not really relevant for the majority of athletes due to the amount of recovery required.

Strength is an interesting concept. There are many dimensions to it – maximum force, power, muscular endurance and so on. So, increasing muscle size and building strength is not necessarily the same thing.

Effective strength training does not always result in muscle building.

A well-planned strength training program for athletes focuses on preventing injuries, improving overall fitness, improving quality, power & explosiveness of movements. All of that significantly improves results in the sport they practice.

While there are many strength building workouts out there, all of them have one of the 3 effects on our body:

  • Building neural pathways and improving mind-muscle connection. This helps to optimize how the body moves and uses existing muscles, which results in improved overall strength and prevents injuries.
  • Building myofibrils in the muscle tissue. This increases the size of muscle, as well as its strength and ability to maintain high output for longer.
  • Growing mitochondria in the muscle tissue. This makes fast-twitch muscle fibers more effective, resulting in better speed and muscle economy.
strength building workouts for athletes
Any athlete will benefit from a consistent strength training program. It does not necessarily mean adding more muscles.

Strength training can break the monotony and counteract some of the negative effects of long hours of swimming, biking, running or doing other sports.

Strength building workouts

Now let’s get from theory to practice.

Overall, it’s not rocket science. As explained, there are only 3 effects that need to be triggered and every strength building workout should be focused on one of them to be effective. Yet, many athletes struggle with achieving that. So, below I’ve summarized the most effective strength building workouts and how to perform them to improve results.

As this post is about effective strength building workouts, I’ll avoid types of strength training for athletes that focus only on increasing muscle size. While they do result in gains in strength as well, their execution is too taxing on the body and impairs other areas of athletic performance.

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Strength building workouts for anatomical adaptation and overall strength

First stop – basic strength training. It’s named so because the purpose is to prepare the foundation for harder training that lies ahead.

At this point it’s all about developing the neural pathways and the mind-muscle connection. This lets the body use existing muscle tissues more effectively and produce maximum output during more intense and load-bearing exercises.

Which is why sessions from this group are used mostly during anatomical adaptation phase. After that these become warm ups or their explosive movements are included in the competition phase as ‘maintenance’ work.

Many amateur athletes skip these base strength building exercises, because they seem to easy. That is a big mistake.

It’s called basic strength training and adaptation phase because the focus of these sessions is not to build muscle. Instead, it is to stimulate nervous response in the brain and promote correct use and activation of muscles. In particular, basis strength training helps to ‘turn on’ small stabilizing muscles that are often inactive due to poor posture or lifestyle habits.

Related: Strength And Conditioning For Triathletes In Base Period (+Workout)

#1 Circuit strength training (not timed)

The idea behind circuit strength training is to perform many exercises at once to target the most muscle groups in a single session. Typically it’s a total body strength session and exercises are combined so that while one muscle group works another recovers.

For the purpose of building basic strength bodyweight exercises are the most effective, because besides primary muscles they engage and build strength in supporting ones as well.

How? Take 5-10 exercises and choose intensity so that you can perform ~20 repetitions with ease. When executing the session, try not to rest between the exercises and move to the next one right away. Take 2-3 minute rest between each circuit and complete 2-5 of those, depending on your fitness.

The speed of execution is slow, focusing on movement quality. This will build strength across all muscles naturally and will avoid a situation where smaller muscles are not activated due to rushing the movement.

#2 Pilates

Pilates helps to strengthen core, improve body control, increase mobility and strengthen stabilizing muscles – all through slow and controlled movements. This translates to a so-called kinaesthetic body awareness.

Pilates is a great way of building basic strength. It essentially integrates such core exercises like planks, bird dogs, dead bugs, rotations (and more) into a single routine that is easy to follow.

How? One hour-long sessions per week will do a great boost to your core, quality of movement, injury prevention and efficiency. One can go to a class or follow a YouTube video – both options are great. Alternatively, it is a great idea to do a 20min pilates session after an easy aerobic session.

#3 Yoga

Flexibility and mobility training is possibly the most forgotten misunderstood and misapplied aspect of physical preparation. It is, possibly, the first part of training to be dropped when time is tight.

Yoga, in this sense is very efficient – it does 2 things at once. First, it improves the range of motion (which often reduces the tightness in the joints and prevents injuries). Second, it builds strength and stability through static poses.

And, much like pilates, yoga integrates all poses in a simple sequence. So, it’s a great strength building workout to keep in the plan.

How? A yoga class is typically an hour long and available almost anywhere. If not, there are tons of YouTube videos to follow along. However, as yoga involves a lot of stretching, don’t do a long session more frequently than once per week. A 15 minute routine – like sun salutation – every day is a much better option.

#4 Functional strength training

Unfortunately, our lifestyle habits (sedentary living, desk job, untreated injuries, etc.) often impact our performance ability and force our body to forget how to move effectively. As a result, some of the areas in the body get tight and/or inactive.

Functional strength training (or functional movement training) is a series of small movements that help to activate and bring awareness to required muscles, which reinforces correct postures and positions of the body during movement. This allows to more effectively transfer force and power into coordinated and efficient movements.

How? Choose 2-4 exercises that simulate the movement in a particular sport (or use rehab exercises, like donkey kicks, box walks, shoulder external rotations, etc.). Execute 3 sets of 10 repetitions of each exercise and do it veeery slowly.

The goal is not to fatigue muscles, but rather improve coordination and focus on controlling the movement. So, at first these exercises should be done with no additional weight. Once athlete is able to control the movement, complexity can be added – either by using the unstable platform, resistance bands or even TRX.

Another great way to make exercise more complex is to do it at the end of an easy session. It will teach to execute quality movements even when the body is tired (simulating feelings at the end of the race).

Strength building workouts for maximum strength

Once the foundation is in place, body’s muscles and joints are ready to produce and develop maximum output.

Maximum output increases absolute strength and improves the effectiveness of muscles. It engages many more muscle fibers than a regular exercise would and forces the body to release a lot of hormones. Short duration efforts promote the growth of mitochondria in hard-twitch muscle fibers which results in improved muscle economy.

While performing maximum and explosive work the most important factor to consider is the rest interval.

As the intensity is very high, we must give the muscles enough time to rest (5-10 minutes between repeats) and regenerate Creatine Phosphate (CP). The purpose is not to fatigue muscles, but instead be able to repeat the same maximum output again and again. Once it’s not possible to repeat, it’s time to end the session.

This type of strength training requires much less recovery time than power development work, but absolute strength gains are much quicker. However, this type of strength training requires more consistency and gains will diminish if not done on a regular basis.

This is a great type of session to include during transition between phases or during competition phase to stay sharp for race day.

#5 Maximum load training

Maximum load training is the weightlifting-style program that involves exercises with maximum loads.

It’s important to note that maximum load exercises should only be done for big lifts (or their variations) where many muscles are being engaged – squats, bench presses, deadlifts, etc. Trying to lift maximum loads while isolating certain muscles is very traumatic – these muscles are typically not designed for maximum loads and stabilizing muscles are not able to balance it.

How? This type of strength training is about quality, not quantity. One can’t include many exercises during this kind of session, so it’s best to pick 1-3 (two is optimal) that involve many muscles. For each exercise execute 3-9 sets of 1-2 repetitions with maximum load you can lift. Take at least 5 minutes between attempts.

#6 Plyometric training

Plyometric training is a series of jumps during which muscles produce maximum force in short amount of time. This helps to activate and build mitochondria in fast twitch muscle fibers and make them more efficient and resistant to fatigue.

This prepares the body for harder training and, essentially, allows to tolerate more training load.

Pyometric training also combines various types of muscle contractions – concentric, eccentric and isometric. Which is why it’s a great way to work out muscle imbalances and prevent injuries.

How: Choose 3-5 plyometric exercises and execute them as explosively as possible. One set is 4-8 repetitions done with good form. Athletes can complete 3-6 sets of every exercise, depending on their fitness level.

The key to plyometric training is to keep the exercise short and rest interval long to avoid muscle fatigue. Take at least 3 minutes of recovery between sets. If you start to feel fatigued either increase it to 5 minutes or stop the session.

#7 Explosive strength training

While plyometric training focuses on jumps, athletes can also add other explosive movements to their strength training. That is known as explosive strength training.

Examples of these exercises include throws, pulls, pushes, squats, and so on. More advanced athletes can even proceed to a single-side variations of exercises (like single leg squats). This approach is a great alternative to training with heavy loads, because athletes can use their body weight as training load and reduce the risk of injury.

How? The protocol is similiar to plyometric training (above). 3-5 exercises, 4-8 repetitions, 3-6 sets of each. Maximum intensity, short duration (typically under 10-15 seconds) and long rest between sets (3-5min).

Strength building workouts for power

Power (sometimes referred to as muscular endurance) is muscle’s ability to maintain high output for a certain amount of time. It’s most relevant for sports that require overcoming resistance – like kayaking, rowing or cross-country skiing – but will also benefit athletes who race distances shorter than ~10 minutes.

Training power essentially builds myofibrills in the muscles, making them larger, stronger and able to overcome higher resistance. Compared to explosive training, myofibrills respond best to longer intervals – around 40 seconds to 1 minute – and short rest. This is similar to VO2max training and provides similar cardiovascular benefit.

Power-focused work is not a good return on time investment for endurance athletes, as it requires a lot of recovery.

Improving power (through building myofibrils) is a very demanding process and requires consistent (but not too frequent) practice and timely nutrition, so it’s best to take 2-3 easy days between sessions to allow proper time for muscle recovery.

Endurance athletes are better off using a specific protocol called stato-dynamic exercises (see next section) to improve power.

Related: Marathon Strength Training – 4 Sessions To Build Power And Endurance

#8 Circuit strength training (interval)

Timed circuit strength training is the same as regular circuit training (#1 in this list), but with much more intensity. Thanks to its simplicity, it’s one of the most popular training for building power and muscular endurance.

Most of the bootcamp and CrossFit training sessions are organized with this interval circuit strength training idea in mind. Intervals rarely exceed 40 seconds to 1 minute, which is perfect for building myofibrils in the muscles.

How? Select 4-12 exercises, organize them in a circuit with 1 minute of work followed by a 1 minute rest interval. Depending on the fitness ability perform 2-5 circuits (2-3 minutes rest between circuits). Speed of execution is moderate to fast.

By the end of every exercise muscles should be fatigued, but able to tolerate the next exercise after a minute of rest. Load can vary between 40% and 80% of maximum – select it with the goal to complete a full circuit.

If anatomical adaptation and maximum strength phases were executed well, the body will be able to produce quality movements and execute them effectively (without breaking form and compensating). Also, recovery in between sets will be much better, which will allow to tolerate a bigger training load.

#9 Tabata workout

Tabata is a high intensity exercise protocol created by a Japanese scientist Izumi Tabata. According to such protocol athletes complete a set of exercises (one Tabata) that consists of 8 maximum intensity 20-second efforts followed by 10-second rest intervals.

While one Tabata totals to only 4 minutes, these are probably the most intense 4 minutes of your life. Many short and high intensity sets bundled so close together produce a very high training load.

The best Tabata exercises include burpees, high knees, mountain climbers and other explosive and intense bodyweight movements.

How? There are two approaches to a Tabata workout. First is ‘one exercise = one Tabata’. It implies athletes completing eight 20-second rounds of the same exercise and move on to a different exercise for the next Tabata. Another option is to select several exercises (for example 4), vary them throughout eight 20-second rounds and repeat several such Tabatas.

Regardless of the approach you take, the most important is to stick to the protocol. 8 rounds of kill-yourself-intensity-20-second efforts followed by a 10 second rest. Recovery between one such Tabata is 2-4 minutes.

A solid Tabata workout would usually include 3-5 Tabata circuits and would last around 20-25 minutes.

#10 Calisthenics training

Calisthenics is the type of training that is perfect for those who have no access to gym or any equipment. Besides, probably the pullup or parallel bars. Calisthenics uses bodyweight as training load and allows athletes to develop supportive muscles as well.

How? For a power development session choose 1-3 bodyweight exercises and execute 4 times the appropriate maximum amount you can do in a single round in as little attempts as possible. So, if you can do 10 pullups at once, do a total of 40 consecutive pullups taking as much rest as needed, but aiming to complete them in as little attempts as possible.

At first it might take 8 attempts and look something like this: 10-8-6-6-4-3-2-1. Give the body 10 days to rest and absorb the load. Then repeat the session aiming to complete 40 pullups in less than 8 attempts.

Strength building workouts for endurance

Besides power and explosive strength training, with the right approach athletes can also improve their endurance (or muscle resilience). It will help to maintain good form throughout long distance race (for example marathon or long-distance triathlons) and improve economy.

There are two ways to do that – by building a stronger core or strengthening the slow-twitch muscle fibers.

#11 Core endurance

Core has an impact on all areas of performance. Its role is to connect the upper & lower body and provide stability to movements. A strong core allows to maintain good form, which directly impacts performance at any point of the race (especially at the end).

An effective core training session is not where an athlete holds a plank for 5 minutes and hits the shower. A much better approach is to combine exercises that engage all muscles located around the core and, preferably, do it dynamically. See a sample session below.

Related: 9 Common Core Training Mistakes Athletes Make And How To Avoid Them

How? This session is, essentially, circuit strength training focused entirely on core. Select 6 core exercises of your choice and execute each of them for around 20 seconds before moving on to the next one. Preferably without a break. After completing a circuit take 1-2 minutes of rest and repeat the circuit.

Start with general exercises, like planks, dead bugs, Russian twists and move on to more advanced ones (plank walkouts, windshield wipers, etc.) as you get stronger. The goal is to execute all exercises without a break (around 2 minutes) to maximize time under tension. Once you can do that start adding more circuits to the session to increase the total workout time.

#12 Stato-dynamic exercises

Compared to explosive strength training and power development, the goal of strength training for endurance athletes is to increase the strength of slow twitch muscle fibers.

Yes, it sounds strange. After all, slow twitch muscle fibers have a high concentration of mitochondria and are, by definition, resistant to fatigue. However, Victor Seluyanov – a researcher from Russia – has found a way around it by developing a concept of stato-dynamic exercises.

The idea behind stato-dynamic exercises is to keep the constant tension throughout the exercise by not executing it fully.

Think about not extending the knees while doing squats or leg presses (static part) and instead moving up and down while under tension (dynamic part).

There are two key variables in the protocol. First, exercise should last 30-60 seconds and be performed until pain is felt. This is to trigger the anabolic hormone response. Second, the rest interval should be 5 to 10 minutes between repeats. This is to minimize the amount of hydrogen ions (H+) that destroy muscles if reach a high concentration.

How? The protocol is explained above. Pick 2-5 exercises that focus on main muscle groups (i.e. squats or leg press, pushups or bench press, etc.) and execute them with partial range of motion until failure (but no longer than 60 seconds). Complete 3-9 sets with rest interval between 5 and 10 minutes. Rest should be active – exercises on other muscle groups can be done in the meantime.

Choose resistance accordingly, so that pain starts to appear at around 40 seconds. Typically resistance will be around 10% – 40% of max for upper body and 30% – 70% of max for lower body. The reason for this is that there is higher concentration of slow twitch fibers in the lower body).

Putting it all together – strength training periodization

Besides having the knowledge and the discipline to execute the sessions, athletes may face a challenge while incorporating strength building workouts into their training cycle.

The best way to optimize strength training for athletes is to consider the entire season. And then tailor strength training for every part of it. This is called strength training periodization.

For athletes a typical season will start with off-season and then include base training period, build phase, competition period and recovery. Here’s how to periodize strength training for maximum results in each of the phases:

  • Anatomical adaptation – 2-4 weeks after a training break where athletes ease back into training. Focus: mobility + overall strength.
  • Off-season – several months of training where athletes don’t actively engage in their sport (mostly due to weather). Focus: maximum strength and power.
  • Base training – time to build endurance and prepare the body for hard work later in the season. Focus: overall and maximum strength. For power-based sports (i.e. kayaking, cross-country skiing) also power development.
  • Build phase – the time of active preparation for goal race. Focus: functional and maximum strength.
  • Competition time – active season with ongoing races. Focus: overall (for warmup), functional and maximum strength.
  • Recovery – active rest after a competition or the season. Focus: mobility + overall strength.
My strength building workouts and routines

My strength training regime

I started using the theory of strength training periodization during my kayaking career after reading the book Periodization Training for Sports. My training became much more effective and in that same season I saw the biggest jump in my results. That encouraged me to continue and keep doing strength training in blocks. Just like shared above, I’d put more emphasis on power in winter months and explosive and endurance work in the summer.

Now, as endurance athlete, I focus less on power development, because it requires long recovery time. Instead, I spend more time on explosive movements and static (or stato-dynamic) exercises to be fresh for all the swimming, cycling and running I do.

However, I do include an occasional power-focused session in winter, but no often than once in 10-14 days.

Typically I try to include a type of strength training 2-3 times per week throughout the year. During the season one of those sessions is focused on explosive movements and two others on functional movements and/or core. During the off-season most of the sessions are focused on building basic and core strength.

What are your favorite strength building workouts? Share them in the comments below.

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