In my 30-plus years as both a triathlon and strength coach, I have learned and experimented with every possible lower body strength exercise. In this article I will share what I feel are the effective for triathletes, and the variation progressions that can help you stay injury free and attain peak performance.
Lower body exercises can be bilateral (two feet on the ground) such as back squats or deadlifts; or unilateral (one foot on the ground), such as single leg squats or one-legged deadlift. Unilateral exercises have several additional benefits for runners and cyclists.
When running and cycling, the legs work independently, so developing muscle balance between the right and left leg is important. The stabilizing muscles or the ankle, knee, hip and core are challenged in a single leg stance, similar to the way they function when running or cycling. Developing both stabilization and strength endurance leads to increased movement economy, which is free speed.
Consider Your Target Sport
Unilateral exercises can be classified based on run-specific or cycling-specific angles. Run-specific angles are exercises that are more upright with bend in the knee between 30-45 degrees. This allows for greater loads to be used, and since each running stride can equal 6-8 times bodyweight, large amounts of strength are required. Cycling-specific angles replicate the hip and knee positions when in a time trial position.
Strength and power are both joint-specific. This means that in order to transfer the strength onto the bike we need to get into similar positions safely with a much deeper angle at the hip.
How do Determine Load for Unilateral Exercises
When standing on one leg, we are supporting about 84% of our body weight. If an athlete weighs 150 pounds (84%= 126 lbs.) and is holding 25 lb. dumbbells, the load is 176 lbs. (126+50) for that exercise. This also reduces the load/ strain on the lumbar spine.
Here are three single leg exercises you should be including in your strength workouts.
Barbell Split Squat (Run-Specific)
In a split stance with the barbell behind the neck, keep the weight loaded onto the front leg with the rear leg unloaded and for maintaining balance. Begin descending toward your run angles by flexing the ankle knee and hip simultaneously. As you reach your run angles, pause for one sec and accelerate back up to the start position. Keep reps per leg in the 3-6 range.
- Increase weight and or sets
- Add bands to the barbell to add resistance and varied load
- Lift front heel slightly of floor to maximize ankle strength and simulate run push off
Reverse Deficit Lunge (Cycling-Specific)
Start standing on the floor with Dumbbells or a Kettlebell held in a goblet position. Step back and drop the back knee toward the floor with keeping all the weight loaded on the front leg. By leaning the torso slightly forward, you will begin to approach your cycling specific angles. Drive up and forward returning to the starting position. Do 3-6 reps on one leg before switching to the other leg.
- Place a 3-4-inch block under the front leg to achieve more depth at the hip.
- Increase weight and or sets
- Lift front heel off block slightly to drive force thru the ball of the foot.
Barbell Stomp Up (Between Run and Cycling Angles)
This exercise comes from Track coach Franz Bosch. Use a barbell and a 10-12-inch stable box. Higher boxes do not work as well. Do not step on box, but rather “stomp” it explosively and then drive the opposite knee upward until it is at hip level. Pause and return to the start point. This exercise requires both strength and stability. Maintaining control of the barbell requires strong lateral stabilizers such as the QL (quadratus lumborum), and muscles around the hip, which are essential for improved running economy. Complete all reps on one leg before switching to the other leg. Keep reps I the 3-6 range to maintain high quality.
- Add weight to barbell or sets
- Bands can be used with the barbell to increase load
Including these three single leg exercises onto your strength plans will increase your strength, power and economy. These single leg exercises can be combined with some bilateral exercise or variety. Doing them twice a week for a 3-4-week block before switching to the next exercise will keep your training fresh and lead to long term progress throughout the year.