Vail Daily column: Barbell training for the endurance athlete |

Vail Daily column: Barbell training for the endurance athlete

Last week’s article defined why barbell training isn’t necessarily dangerous and why barbells are particularly useful for gaining strength. What isn’t so clear is how they may benefit the endurance athlete where maximum strength isn’t assumed to be the limiting factor. What about the endurance athlete that needs to improve strength, yet cannot afford to gain muscle weight as this can slow the entire system down? After all, whether it’s muscle or not, the endurance athlete still has to pedal their entire body system (weight) up over the mountain pass.

The barbell fits into the endurance athletes’ training nicely as all else being equal, the stronger athlete will always be faster. In endurance sports, there aren’t many variables to consider in the outcome. The athlete and the pavement, water or dirt affect the result. Conversely in American football, agility, coordination, hand-eye dexterity, speed, size, anticipation, strength, skill, opponents, etc. become elements that can change the outcome of the score. It’s very unclear what one specific fitness quality enhancement can have on the entire system the more measures that get brought into the sport. With endurance sports, it’s a linear game in which the fastest athlete over the long haul wins. Whatever level of (endurance) sport in competition, all else being equal the stronger athlete will win. It isn’t the most talented bike handler. It isn’t the participant who has the best coordination. It’s the strongest. Of course it’s the athlete with the highest markers of aerobic fitness. Assuming those variables are already developed at their genetic limit, and their competitors have also achieved lofty standards in these measurements, ultimately it will come down to who can put more force to the pedal over and over again.

Increase strength

A reasonable approach is to increase strength with a barbell, keeping body weight as light as possible without sacrificing the important aerobic variables and not interfering with sport specific training goals. Specifically, I recommend low volume barbell training (low volume training keeps body weight down) for the lower extremity in particular two days per week. I suggest the barbell deadlift because there isn’t an eccentric muscle contraction involved (muscle lengthening under load) which is implicated in muscle weight gain. The deadlift from the ground involves a concentric only muscle contraction (muscle shortening under load) which helps keep your bodyweight down and reduces delayed onset muscle soreness.

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I suggest using sets and reps that equate to 10 total repetitions or close to. Three-times-three, two-times-five, five-times-two, 10-times-one, etc. Perform the lift two nonconsecutive days per week either before endurance work or optimally on days off. Use a light weight for several weeks to ingrain proper motor skills and to make sure your body responds to a movement that you are probably unfamiliar with. Over time, increase the weight by adding 5 pounds per week to the bar. Once the weight becomes heavy enough that it feels difficult to complete all reps and sets (yet not impossible), cut the weight by 15-20 percent and build up again. Weigh yourself regularly and adjust your diet to keep tabs on being as light as possible.

Over time, with attention to form detail and making sure your other training variables are dialed, you will be able to access higher threshold motor units. This means that you will have a higher strength output reserve when you need it — sprints to the finish, that extra gear on the climb, the extra oomph to break away from the peloton.

Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at or 970-401-0720.

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