Top 5 strength training exercises for endurance athletes

Strength training exercises for endurance athletes

In order to find out which aspects of strength training exercises for endurance athletes were really important to the masses, I recently polled the @UKrunchat and @UKtrichat followers on twitter.

The results came out just in favour of exercise selection with 45% of the vote. 40% wanted to know most about frequency/timing and 15% about sets and reps.

I polled @ukrunchat and @uktrichat to find out what aspects of strength training endurance athletes most wanted to know about
I polled @ukrunchat and @uktrichat to find out what aspects of strength training endurance athletes most wanted to know about

Exercise Categories

When it comes to exercise selection for endurance athletes I like to keep things simple and advise each time they strength train, to select one squat, one hinge, one push, one pull and one exercise from the 'everything else’ (hopefully self-explanatory) category.


There are many reasons for advising just 5 exercise variations, but primarily it is because I want cover the basic human movements, I want the session to be simple, understandable and adaptable, and because time is of the essence. If I come across an endurance athlete who is willing to dedicate some time to spend in the gym I (and they) need big bang for their buck if they are going to be incentivised to keep returning. Lots and lots of people I come across often make the mistake of confusing simplicity with ease. Don’t. Yes, its just 5 exercises. You’d be amazed how much impact they can have with a good dose of consistency.

There is a place for sport specificity, but at first, time is always best spent developing global movement competency before getting fancy. Most endurance athletes have terrific aerobic engines, but can only move with borderline embarassing levels of dysfunction. I often quip to that triathletes should focus on developing one type of athleticism before attempting to master three! Global and compound exercises completed with good form will create a globally stronger athlete and will increase their capacity for and resilience to greater exercise workloads. This aspect of training, in my opinion must take priority above any attempts to enhance sport performance. While it might seem a more direct and appealing manner in which to train, for almost everyone other than professional athletes, (and even many of those) specificity generally offers less rewards than the more ‘indirect' and generalised exercises.

My top 5 strength training exercises for endurance athletes

So, what 5 strength training exercises do I recommend endurance athletes include in their training and why? Taking one from each category they would be as follows. Caveat: I've added videos of each for illustration, but these are not necessarily how I would coach them, nor do they necessarily represent good form in all aspects, nor do I agree with everything those on the videos say. Always always always, get a qualified coach to show you through these exercise to make sure you can execute them with good form.

Squat - Goblet Squat

For those new to strength training, or those with horrible form, I find there are very few people I can’t get into a good position relatively quickly with a goblet squat. Front loading the squat pattern teaches the athlete to maintain good postural control and awareness, and generally stops them folding like an accordion when you ask them to squat down. If the athlete is advanced and can handle more weight, I’ll move this onto a front squat, but even this can come with complications. There is something remarkably healing about goblet squats, you just feel better after them. Once you can do 3 sets of 5-8 reps with the heaviest dumbbell in your gym, then we can talk about moving on!

Hinge - Single-leg deadlift

This can be a tricky one to teach initially, especially for those with poor body awareness, but it is WELL worth the time invested. Due to bilateral deficit, you’ll find that once your skill level is you can make great gains from adding load. I also know of few other exercises more effective at teaching the athlete to coordinate their body in a number of different ways simultaneously. Its a great stability, anti-rotation, hingeing, strength and rehabilitative exercise all in one. For any athlete with knee/ITB issues this is a go to, as it teaches them to stabilise their knee from the hip/glutes (as they should largely be), not via their ITB/TFL.

Push - Arnold Press

Again, a nice compound exercise that will help improve shoulder mobility and stability as well as teaching the athlete trunk control/core strength. It can be slow to progress, but gets us lifting a weight over our head, which really is a must-have for any exercise routine.

Pull - TRX Row

A simple, scalable and effective exercise to straighten out some of those hugely quasimodo like positions we get ourselves into hunched over our desks all day. Good strength and control through full range of motion here will really help teach the athlete to extend through their thoracic area and open out those shoulders. A vital exercise for the triathletes out there who spend time tucked in a TT position and trying to get their shoulders to touch through almost exclusively swimming front crawl. Good thoracic control is also a vital component of staying tall and having an efficient action during running. As humans, for a lot of reasons, we tend to prioritise the push over the pull, we shouldn’t.

Everything else - Turkish Get up

I just love these. If nothing else its a great assessment tool - if there is something you can’t do, or control, you’ll get found out pretty fast. If you make this look good, and controlled, you can fairly safely bet you are on the right tracks. Its basically everything other than a pulling motion, all rolled into one. At the end of a workout, I find it really locks in all the movements you’ve been working on as you have to coordinate them under control and load. Conversely, its great in the warm up to break off the rust and get you moving like you should.

So there you go. Just 5 exercises, but they’re all big hitters for endurance athletes. Master them and train them regularly, and you will become more injury resistant and I’d wager your capacity to absorb workload will be significantly improved. A total of 15-25 reps of each exercise completed across a session at a challenging load, will take no longer than 45 mins. 2-3x a week. Do it for 4-6 weeks and let me know how you get on, I’d love to hear. Tweet me @acbcoaching or email me ( Good luck!

Bilateral Deficit – what is it and how can I use it?

Bilateral Deficit?

So first of all, what is the Bilateral deficit? This is basically the phenomenon whereby the sum of forces produced unilaterally (on a single leg) can exceed the amount of force you can produce bilaterally (on two legs).
Another term that is important to understand in relation to this is Super-Incumbent load - This is the (body) weight above the joint that is being used to lift a weight.
So lets compare a theoretical bilateral (two-legged) back squat and compare it to its unilateral cousin, the single leg squat. For the sake of argument, lets use the example of an individual perhaps your everyday endurance athlete, uhhh, Dave, that weights 75kg.
Lets say Dave can do a nice set of 8x single leg squats while holding just 10kg of added weight. Nice one Dave.
Image of someone performing a rear foot elevated split squat
Not quite the same as a single leg squat, but a rear foot elevated split squat (RFESS) or a Bulgarian split squat can be a great way to make the best of the bilateral deficit. This is not Dave.
The super-incumbent load of this athlete is 65kg. That is, if we chopped his leg off just below the knee, his bloodied stump of a shin, ankle and foot conveniently weights exactly 10kg. We don’t want to count the weight of his shin, ankle and foot because he’s not lifting it, so 75kg-10kg = 65kg.   Add that (65kg) to his 10kg dumbbell and we have 75kg of weight being lifted on each rep, on that leg. So for his set of 8 reps - he’s lifted 600kg on that one leg. WAY. TO. GO. DAVE.
Now, lets say look at Dave’s back squat. The key question is:
How much weight do we have to slap on his back to get through the same amount of work as his 1 set of 8 rep single leg squats with 10kg?

Because he’s on two legs, his super-incumbent load is now only 55kg as we have 2x10kg metaphorically bloodied stumps not being lifted and supporting him (75-(2x10kg stumps) = 55kg). Remember, we still need to achieve 600kg in just 8 reps. But this is also PER leg. So assuming both legs do the same amount of work, we need to hit 1200kg across 8 reps. He’s still lifting his super-incumbent load of 55kg for 8 reps, so thats 440kg done and dusted, but we need to find the remaining 760kg  (1200 - 440 = 760kg) in 8 reps. 760 divided by 8 = 95kg.

Don't fall foul of the bilateral deficit. Sometimes there is an easier way
Don't fall foul of the bilateral deficit. Sometimes there is an easier way. This is also not Dave.
Now for an endurance athlete like Dave - this is a no brainer. It will be much faster, safer and easier to get him to work up to a set of 8 single leg squats with 10kg than 95kg for 8 back squat. For example I don’t know many endurance that at around 75kg bodyweight can squat their bodyweight well for 1 rep, much less 1.26x body weight for a set of 8.This would put their 1RM at nearly 120kg or 1.6x their bodyweight.  To be fair, I don’t actually know many endurance athletes that can single leg squat for 1 rep, but with a bit of coaching and practice, this is still a far more sensible and achievable prospect (especially in the short term) than getting a 75kg athlete to 95kg for 8 reps. For a start, it requires much less equipment, no gym membership and can be more easily practiced at home.
While there are other benefits to a single leg work, especially as an endurance athlete, I’ll leave it there for now. Now you know about the bilateral deficit, you can use it to your advantage. If you want to find out more or have any questions, please get in touch with me either via twitter, facebook or my contact page.

Rugby Tour – Lessons learned

What a few days I have had. I'm finally on my way home after a very long week that began with a stag-do in Wales before heading straight to Switzerland to meet up with my brother and join his school's Rugby tour. It was an enjoyable if tiring week and I thought I'd use the flight home to reflect upon the experience.

Prepare (to be flexible)

I'd made several attempts in the months and weeks leading up to the tour to try to work out exactly what they wanted from me in terms of S&C.  As time progressed, it became clear that things might be subject to change. Even on arrival, as we discussed the week ahead with the helpful reps at Brown's Sport an Leisure, things were shifting. We originally had two slots in the gym, both on the same day.  We managed to secure a third, but that was the day before the double gym day, and the day after both of the sides on tour had their first game of rugby. So in addition to a lack of clarity on the exact calibre of individuals I'd be working with, there was also uncertainty around the the condition they would be in.  All that was clear was that the timetabling was far from ideal.
The ISZL Junior Varsity Rugby Team preparing for their game in Seville
The ISZL Junior Varsity Rugby Team preparing for their game in Seville

In addition to delivering the gym sessions with them, I was also in charge of getting them prepared for their games and training sessions. The first session a great time to assess what I would be working with. I think that warm ups not only serve as a great way to do this, but can provide insight into the character strengths of the group. When you set them a novel physical challenge, how do they respond? Who gives it a go no matter what, who doesn't even attempt it?  This week I used Dan John's 'get back up' warm up for part of the first warm up. It requires minimal instruction, and as well as a good laugh, when you ask 33 adolescents to do a straight arm plank with their arms behind their back, you start to see who the more determined and creative really are. Unsurprisingly, there was a real mix of physical and character-based competency in the group.

By the time we reached their third and final gym session of the week, they were all physically quite tired and mentally exhausted. It was a hot day and so I moved the session more to a theory based one. I took them through some of the considerations of a warm up, the basic movement patterns of the human body and how they might construct a workout when they next go to the gym. To test their learning, we challenged them to take their own warm up the next morning. I was pleased to say that they delivered a RAMP-based protocol that would bring a smile to the face of even the sternest UKSCA assessor.
With the information available prior to the tour, it would have been hard to plan much more than I did. In hindsight, what was useful however was condensing and integrating an ongoing assessment process into the work I was doing with the boys. Challenging them early and often. Talking to them to find out how they responding. Observing at them at breakfast and lunch and dinner to see how spritely or exhausted they might be. Most importantly being prepared to change and acting on that feedback.

Developing Strength (of character)

Like many S&C coaches, developing strength in those I work with is a high priority. Sometimes however, this might not be in a physical sense. The tour was sharing the facilities at Browns with Leicester Tigers Academy and I managed to sneak a couple of opportunities (via the medium of beer) to talk to some of the guys at Leicester. I was intrigued to know what they looked for in their academy players from a physical standpoint. While not ignoring the basic physical requirements of the game at the elite level, their coach, however referred more to the importance of strength of character as something they look for in their players. A goal of the tour was for the boys to develop as rugby players. I think many of them did. As a group of highly priveleged individuals however, several of them also had a lot to learn about independence, humility, and respect too. As a rugby team, at their level, arguably these qualities might be even more important than their physical prowess when if comes to team performance.
The ISZL Varsity rugby team completing their warm up under flood-lights
The ISZL Varsity rugby team completing their warm up under flood-lights
To me, the gym environment is as much a place to learn about these character strengths as it is one's physicality. This I think was exampled well with their first main session in the gym. I had a sit down with the boys at the beginning of the session in to find out what they did when (if) they went to the gym. As you can imagine, many of their responses were characterised by bicep curls and precious little consistency in rep schemes or attendance. When I asked them what they wanted to get out of the sessions, they said they wanted to learn how to bench. Running with it, I asked them how many pressups they thought they could do. One responded with forty, many with 15-20. Then a student came out with 'he means the ones he showed us' (i.e. proper ones). At which point many of the students revised their estimates downwards by 10-15.  I then asked them to get into a straight arm plank, cueing them as necessary to reach a good position. Once they were all in position, I stood there, just calling out small adjustments to individuals who started to deviate from good form. Within a minute more than half of them had dropped to their knees. Some of the bigger and older boys in the team were also somewhat upstaged by their significantly younger counterparts. The exercise was not meant to be humiliating for anyone involved and I don’t think it was. They were all tired, and many of them struggled. Having bonded well throughout the week, it was great to see a healthy dose of humility amongst them. I think in that moment they began to learn the principle of 'earning the right’ and what it really means to ‘leaving your ego at the door’ They certainly won’t have gained much of a physical stimulus from the session, nor would I have wanted them to considering their timetable.

Creating a culture and opportunities for growth

As I’ve alluded to, a big part of the tour was about creating and exposing the boys to an environment in which they could develop. I have to commend my brother and Mark Newman for bringing it all together. But as good a job as was done on this in clearly explaining what was expected of each and every one of them, outlining the tour ethos and providing ample feedback, some individuals were just not as ready as others. Everyone’s personal journey is not something that cannot be forced. I think its entirely natural for any coach to want the best for their charges, but the bottom line is, some either lack the self-awareness or confidence to take the first steps on that journey. It has made me reflect upon in my own sessions that I coach, am I doing my best to culture an environment for the development of those that I work with. I know I can do better, and it will be something I will be working on over the coming sessions, weeks and months.
Huelva rugby team wanted to take this photo to support Alberto Aláiz - a Spanish rugby player who suffered a serious spinal injury this month playing the game he loves
Huelva rugby team wanted to take this photo to support Alberto Aláiz - a Spanish rugby player who suffered a serious spinal injury this month playing the game he loves. To me this is what rugby and sport is all about.

Strength and Conditioning Coaches, Professional Boundaries & Eating Disorders

I recently came across the description of some disturbing behaviour from a young client with an eating disorder. It related to two behaviours of the strength and conditioning coach staff at their training facility. i) The S&C coaches had encouraged the athletes not to eat pudding at lunch. As far as the athlete was concerned there was also ii) the threat that should the coaches see an athlete eating pudding at lunch, they'd come and take it away from them.

image of burger and drink in red danger sign
Banning types of food is a bad idea

Its actually hard to know where to start with this. Now I'm not here to dissect what was actually said, as it doesn't really matter. The NLP presupposition 'the meaning of your communication is the response you get' its a useful one in this instance though.  I hope that the paragraph above makes you at least feel uncomfortable. Either way, I'll try to explain how, and why this sort of rhetoric can be utterly destructive to an athlete, and why it should not be a problem that occurs at all.

The weight of an athlete and performance

Undoubtedly, these comments were uttered with a positive intent. Yes, weight plays a role in athletic performance. Yes, eating less processed foods, and eating more, colourful, fresh fruits and vegetables is going to have a broadly positive impact on health, well-being, body composition and on athletic performance. Yes, the S&C coach wants to help improve many if not all of these things in their athletes.


This is a population of potentially vulnerable individuals. Of individuals with perfectionist tendencies. These people will often struggle to appropriately process and assimilate information regarding any sort of food restraint.

There is a very fine line between advice around food restraint and being a food bully. I think this falls on the wrong side of that line. Coaches must respect that their words come from a position of authority, and carry more weight. What implications might this approach have for someone with lower self esteem, or poor body image. We want to build our athletes up, not break them down.

Consider the shame and embarassment and even fear that would be created from such an statement or the environment it creates. Not exactly conducive to 'high performance'.  There is a place for almost any food (in moderation) in a healthy and balanced diet. It almost goes without saying that we don't want to be linking any food group or type to negative emotional states. The generality of this unguarded comment has clearly been misconstrued and has unfortunately resulted in almost the opposite of the intended effect.

Few S&C coaches are actually adequately trained and qualified to dispense appropriate nutritional advice on weight loss. Just because weight and body composition is related to athletic performance, S&C coaches MUST NOT be mistaken in thinking they can or should advise on the matter. If you do think its something worthwhile changing, engage with qualified professionals. I've said this before, but unless you understand the physiological and psychological consequences of such advice, its best to keep your mouth shut. Now I don't know if these coaches were qualified or not to dispense such advice, but I'd argue that if the individuals involved had been qualified, they probably wouldn't have delivered the 'advice' it in the way they did. Food choices, although we might not be aware, can extremely personal to us and carry or convey underlying values and meaning. Quarrel with these at your own peril.

Ultimately, the overriding issue is that the mental health of an athlete must be prioritised before performance, especially if performance is your end goal. Perhaps this is a statement that not all of you will agree with, but without this hierarchy, I believe we’ll be seeing a few more Phyrric victories than necessary. Remember, we’re people first, and everything has a cost!

Codes of Conduct

Be honest, how many of you know any of the codes of conduct of your professional organisation? Whether accredited with the UKSCA or not, I would strongly urge you to all revisit your professional or personal codes of conduct from time to time. I know at least one coach at the organisation involved in the above anecdote to be UKSCA accredited, and while this is not a whistleblowing exercise, there are arguably several points within the UKSCA codes of conduct that have been disregarded from just one seemingly innocent throwaway comment. I’ve copied out some of the most relevant ones to this situation below, but please take the time to read through the rest though, it’ll certainly be worthwhile:

  • Not to exceed my own competence, expertise and qualifications in any aspect of any services I may provide, and not to carry out work above my level, as in the Scope of Practice document.
  • To refer to an appropriate professional any matter which appears to lie or does lie within another specialist’s area of expertise.
  • To seek appropriate advice in any situation where I may lack the necessary experience or competence.
  • I agree at all times that I will act in the best interest of the athlete/client.
  • To comply with all Child Protection, Vulnerable individuals, Racial, Sexual and Disability Discrimination legislation.

The UKSCA Codes of Conduct

When it comes to eating disorders, just one comment can be the precipitant for someone developing lasting problems. So when it comes to nutrition, unless qualified, you really are best off following Kelvin Giles' advice:

In coaching you will have thousands of opportunities to keep your mouth shut. Take advantage of all of them.

Know your ethical and professional boundaries. Respect them. For adolescents and their nutrition, they are perhaps best left largely alone. If you must do something, broadly educate them on what constitutes a balanced diet, be emphatic when it comes to the serious risks of underrating or purging behaviour. Only once they are older, and when they have consistently demonstrated they have no problems with food, should a qualified and trained professional begin to approach them with more specific or targeted dietary interventions (with caution) IF necessary.

Dan John’s 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge – Day 4

So today was pull-ups as my strength movement. My back is easing off nicely and the workout time is still decreasing. I love that feeling when your body starts to adapt.

Today's workout was

10 swings

1 pull-up

15 swings

2 pull-ups

25 swings

3 pull-ups

50 swings

Rest and repeat 4 more times.

The pull-ups did work grip though, and on the 4th and 5th set after the 25 swings, my grip was in real trouble on the last of only 3 pull-ups. Not through lack of gross strength but an ability to hold the bar. Stupid endurance sport! That said, the 3 mins rest is more than enough now, so I'll drop down to 2 mins between sets from Sunday.

image of man in yellow shirt performing pull up from behind
Last one...

I've taped up my hands the last couple of times, and they have somewhat hardened after ripping them to shreds in the first two days.

image of callusts on hand
Healing slowly...

Not sure there will be many more photos to take on the next posts. Rest day tomorrow (although I'm going for a little spin on the bike) and then back to the front squats. Conceptually I'm through my first round of 4 workouts. 4 more rounds to go.

2,000 swings down, 8,000 to go.