At some point in their careers, almost all triathletes feel compelled to venture into the weight room. Curiously, no weight lifter has ever felt the slightest bit compelled to venture anywhere near the start of a triathlon. This is unfortunate, because it would be rather entertaining to see several enormous weightlifters charging into the surf at the start of a race, screaming their unique weightlifter scream . . . only to sink immediately like rocks to the bottom of the pond. This is why you will most likely never in your lifetime see the Gold’s Gym Olympic Distance Triathlon.
It is not entirely clear to me where this weightlifting compulsion comes from. Often, it’s the result of stumbling on an article in a triathlon magazine about the importance of lifting in a complete triathlon training program. Of course, the reality is that this article was written not so much because of the author’s firm belief in the importance of the weightlifting, but rather because she’d already written her fingers to the bone about swimming, biking and running, and desperately needed a new topic – which, by the way, is pretty much the same motivation for the column you’re reading right now.
The truth is that when you think about all the elements involved in triathlon, there really isn’t all that much heavy lifting involved. Unless, of course, you count the gear bag, which can easily reach several hundred thousand pounds, even more if you choose to weigh it in kilograms, as weightlifters often do. In fact, if the weight training community really wanted to offer something useful to us triathletes, they should take a whole bunch of old duffel bags, stuff them full of weights, and stick them in a corner of the gym near a treadmill. That way, we could prepare for the half-mile walk from the parking lot to the transition area, and really get something useful out of our weight-room experience.
But despite its marginal relevance, sooner or later most triathletes will find themselves in the weight room, and it can be an intimidating place. The weight room is usually populated with a number of extremely large people who seem rather unhappy that you have invaded their space. In fact, they seem rather unhappy in general. It's usually easy to spot the triathlete in the weight room, because he’s the one wearing cycling gloves, with two five-pound weights on the bench press bar, doing a set of 1000 repetitions while the real weightlifters stand to the side, waiting to finish their set. Generally, weightlifters greet endurance athletes with a mixture of hostility and confusion, and it is easy to get the idea that they are contemplating snapping off one of your limbs to use as a curl bar. I am always comforted by the fact that, if worst ever came to worst, hopefully I can outrun them.
As a result of my extensive research into the world of weightlifting I can report that there are basically two different kinds of weights that you can lift: so-called "free" weights, the traditional-looking plates and barbells that we recognize from high-school gym class and (ironically, in light of their name) prison movies; and incarcerated weights, which are weights trapped in bizarre, futuristic-looking weight training machines. Most serious weightlifters prefer the free weights, which is why you should almost always opt for the machines, which offer several very important advantages.
The first advantage is that most of these machines are so complex that you can devote most of your workout simply to figuring out how they work. Think of these machines as a cross between a Rubic’s Cube and an exercise device. Often you will have to circle the machine warily for several minutes, like a wrestler at the beginning of a match, trying to imagine the possible ways of attacking it. These machines usually have helpful instructions attached to them, such as: "Place your forearms on the horizontal flexor bar mid-way between the apex of the radial cap, and pronate downward." I was on a machine the other day, and I swear I am not making this up, that instructed me to "pinch my shoulder blades together" during an exercise. Clearly, this particular machine was destined for another species on a distant planet, and was misdelivered here to Earth.
The second advantage is that the machines are rigged to create the illusion that you’re lifting far more weight than you actually are. In this respect they’re a lot like your favorite treadmill at the gym, which will insist that you’re moving along at a 6:00 pace, even though you’re actually walking on the thing and eating a tuna salad sandwich. The weight machines have so many pulleys and levers and other contraptions that the manufacturers have absolutely no idea how much actual weight you’re lifting, so they just paint random numbers on the little plates, figuring that as long as the numbers are high, no one will complain. As a result, there is a machine in the gym in my office that will swear to you that I can curl 175 lbs. with one arm. This is extremely doubtful, given the fact this very same arm is already tired just from writing this column. In fact, I think I need to take a break.