Podcast, Strength training

Matt Pendola | EP#387

 April 24, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Matt Pendola - That Triathlon Show

Matt Pendola is a strength coach who has worked and is working with world-class triathletes such as Flora Duffy, Gwen Jorgensen, Ben Kanute and Kevin McDowell. In addition to strength training, he is also heavily involved in coaching and teaching running form, often in collaboration with Bobby McGee.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Assessing and improving mobility
  • Basic strength training principles
  • Periodisation and progression of strength training
  • Using tests to determine strength training focus areas
  • The importance of focusing on breathing when doing strength training
  • Common strength training mistakes to avoid
  • Specific recommendations for busy amateur athletes

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Matt's background

03:05 -

  • I have been in this profession for over 21 years, and I am now 50 years old.
  • I enjoy sharing my experiences with athletes and coaching coaches.
  • My current focus is on educating and sharing my knowledge with other coaches.
  • I recently worked with Shannon Clausen, who is passionate about serving Paralympic athletes.
  • We reviewed her questions and concepts to serve better the athletes she works with.
  • Working with coaches excites me as it allows me to impact many athletes.
  • I am a strength and conditioning coach.
  • I was a competitive runner in high school, sub 15 for a 5K at 15.
  • I made traditional mistakes, suffered many injuries during my running career, and had to stop running at 21 due to some injuries.
  • After serving in the army, I joined the National Civilian Community Corps and led the disaster relief fire division, which required a lot of physical training.
  • I got back into running during his time in the disaster relief fire division but had to learn what he needed to do for himself to avoid injuries.
  • I joined the hotshot division in wildland fire for five years, working as a sawyer cutting down trees that were creating spot fires.
  • I suffered a severe injury to my spine during one of my jobs in the hotshot division and was out of commission for a couple of years.
  • During my recovery, I decided to learn everything I could about rehab and worked with physical therapists like John Hodges.
  • I did courses through the Athletes Performance Institute for four years to learn more about strength training.
  • I started coaching court sports athletes initially and had some All-American athletes who went on to represent the US in volleyball.
  • I later realized my true passion was in endurance sports, so I started coaching at the high school level and worked with triathletes.
  • I met Bobby McGee, a well-known coach, and worked with him to develop athletes.
  • I attended Bobby's camp and got to work with Alan Webb and other athletes, and I have worked with Bobby for close to 10 years.

Motivation to become a coach

10:50 -

  • I had opportunities to work in structural roles, such as being an EMT paramedic, but I realized it wasn't my passion or career path.
  • I wanted to get back to running after being told by doctors that I couldn't run again. It took me two years to run pain-free, and it was a process of learning about myself.
  • For the past 24 years, I have learned to use these principles to help others.
  • Everyone has different backgrounds, stories, and mechanics, so it's more challenging than applying what worked for me to everyone else.

Process of working with an athlete

12:41 -

  • I follow the Miyagi method of starting with the basics and keeping it simple.
  • I use a movement improvement assessment to determine what movements to focus on for each athlete.
  • The assessment includes ten main movements for endurance athletes.
  • I developed the assessment process with a physical therapist and a sports doctor over ten years.
  • The assessment is free and provides a personalized protocol for each athlete.
  • The protocol includes movements to focus on based on the athlete's test results.
  • As a prehab, I look at upstream and downstream areas when addressing an injury, such as ankle mobility.
  • Unlocking performance potential can come from improving ankle mobility and other areas.
  • The joint theory is based on stacking joints, starting from the big toe and working up.
  • Progressions focus on the central part of the system, starting with the hub, the athlete's centre.
  • Many athletes move their limbs ahead of their centre, which affects steering.
  • Bodyweight movements and isometrics focus on the hub and improve steering.
  • Even elite athletes like Ben Kanute start with isometrics to work on their centre.


16:53 -

  • Isometrics involves holding a movement, such as a bridge position.
  • People may tilt their spine to one side when performing isometrics, which we can correct with good breathing patterns and intentional technique.
  • Video feedback and a performance partner can help identify and correct issues with isometric movements.
  • Good breathing patterns involve nasal breathing and longer exhales to activate deep core muscles like the transverse abdominis.
  • Planks can improve with intentional technique and tension, and athletes should strive to make them more difficult rather than just holding for a set time.
  • Correct plank technique involves maintaining strong and centred alignment from head to heel.
  • Once we have an excellent isometric technique, athletes can progress to more active movements, such as reaching one arm out from a plank position.
  • Only a few athletes demonstrate proper central movement in isometrics without correction.
  • Isometrics can be a helpful tool for improving technique and body alignment in various movements.
  • Traditionally, I have noticed that people tend to move peripherally before moving centrally.
  • During a recent camp I taught, only two out of 40 people were moving centrally first, while the rest needed to work on it.

Moving centrally first

20:32 -

  • Swimmers tend to have excessive arching in their lower back.
  • Plank positions help swimmers learn to get more spinal flexion.
  • This can help correct cyclic patterns that happen from swimming.
  • Bracing is essential for holding a position on a bike, especially in aerodynamic positions.
  • Back pain on a bike may be due to a lack of movement improvement.
  • A daily protocol can help with hip co-contraction and internal and external hip rotation.
  • Cyclists may benefit from movements with internal rotation of the hip post-bike.
  • These movements help to connect the dots within the hip and centralize it.
  • It, in turn, reduces torque on the lower back.
  • External and internal obliques help to stabilize the body on the bike.
  • Lateral lines from the armpit to the hip must be strong to hold a brace.
  • Concentric pedalling on the bike requires a stable spine.
  • Inner obliques also do a lot of work in this regard.
  • Strong lateral lines and inner obliques can help reduce back pain on the bike.
  • Dynamic trunk control is essential for running.
  • Maintaining proper hip positioning while running is crucial for generating force.
  • Keeping the hips forward and down helps set up the knee and bring force down to the ground.
  • Proper hip positioning and dynamic trunk control are imperative for all three triathlon sports (swimming, cycling, and running).

Breathing patterns

24:29 -

  • The initial focus of an athlete's protocol is nasal breathing, but tongue-in-cheek breathing is also acceptable for those with a deviated septum.
  • Tongue-in-cheek breathing provides resistance and prevents dropping the jaw open.
  • Breathing patterns during the protocol should be slow, not fast, momentum.
  • Breathing out should be longer than breathing in.
  • A goal for breathing patterns during the protocol is a seven-count for breathing out, then breathing back in through the nose only for five repetitions.
  • People will breathe out slower as confidence and control over breathing patterns improve.
  • A suitable protocol starts with good breathing, leading to better joint movement.
  • Moving out of position to get a better range of motion is not ideal.
  • Internal rotation of the ribs allows the sternum to go down and the joint in the shoulder to move and rotate up.
  • Breathing pattern mastery is crucial before starting more dynamic patterns or loading more weight.
  • Mastering the basics and understanding how it should feel is necessary before loading more weight.
  • There's no courage in defeated mechanics, meaning that lifting more weight or doing more complicated movements requires a skill set that starts with breathing.
  • Explosive work requires more visceral breathing.
  • During the protocol and warm-up, breathing should be cognitive.
  • Breathing becomes more visceral during explosive work.
  • The sides naturally get wide and support the spine during a hip hinge like a deadlift.
  • We use breathing as a mulligan for better joint movement.
  • Better breathing leads to better joint movement.
  • Nasal breathing is difficult for some people with a deviated septum.
  • Tongue-in-cheek breathing provides resistance.
  • Slow breathing patterns are necessary during the protocol.
  • Breathing out should be longer than breathing in.
  • Mastery of breathing patterns is necessary before moving to more dynamic patterns or loading more weight.
  • There's no courage in defeated mechanics.
  • Breathing is crucial for better joint movement and lifting heavier weights.

Steps after the isometric part of the training

28:54 -

  • We focus on moving peripherals and anti-rotation positions during training.
  • Most people rotate through their hips rather than controlling the movement when doing renegade rows.
  • We should move one limb at a time, starting with slow and controlled movements.
  • The slow movements should take around five seconds and include holding for a few seconds.
  • Once athletes master slow movements, we move on to more dynamic patterns.
  • Dynamic patterns include moving weights faster or adding more weight.
  • Strength should come before power.
  • We focus on the speed of the bar and how quickly one can overcome the load.
  • The approach involves progressing from isometric to quasi-isometric to dynamic patterns.
  • Breathing is a crucial part of the movement patterns throughout the different stages of training.

Dynamic phase

31:16 –

  • Ben spent his first 20 days working on basic training.
  • I write things up in three-week blocks, tests, and retests to see what works and where to focus.
  • The focus is on deficits and challenges in the athlete's performance.
  • Ben took several months to build a strong base before getting into more complex patterns or progressions.
  • I use relative strength index testing to qualify athletes based on gold, silver, and bronze standards.
  • The goal is to help athletes get on the podium in all areas before worrying about more complicated or complex patterns or progressions.
  • Athletes should be engaged and excited about what they're doing.
  • Standards help athletes see where they need to improve.
  • Traditional leg lifts may not work as expected due to hip rotation.
  • The loop mead may not be recruited in the way the athlete thinks it is during a leg lift.
  • Movements should focus on how you lift, not how much, especially in the beginning.
  • For many, a lateral leg lift is a hard-strength movement and can be a progressive overload.
  • I am also an LMT, using concepts learned from manual therapy massage in his coaching.
  • I learned much more by working in a PT clinic as an LMT.
  • Athletes should be challenged to meet their goals.
  • Athletes need to hit challenges to improve.
  • Squatting can reveal shifting to one side.
  • A lateral leg lift can reveal a lack of strength on one side.
  • Athletes need to be challenged to improve.
  • Meeting challenges is an essential part of improving.
  • Lateral leg lifts can reveal obvious goals for an athlete.
  • Simple movements can still challenge an athlete.
  • Athletes need to be engaged and excited about what they're doing.
  • Standards help athletes see where they need to improve.

Relative strength index

38:25 –

  • I have been studying tests that are most relevant and transferable to sports for the past ten years.
  • I have worked with Gabby Williams, a professional basketball player and medalist in the last Olympics.
  • I tailor tests to athletes' specific sports and focus on where the athlete's goal.
  • The Copenhagen is a crucial standard for endurance athletes and helps with lateral leg lifts in reverse.
  • The Copenhagen test involves lifting the leg to the same height as the greater trochanter, and the level is specific to the athlete's mechanics and leg length.
  • The test works on the groin, medial line, and deep core musculature, and it helps pull the body up from the ground without spinning the hips back.
  • The Copenhagen test is challenging for most athletes, and isometrics help build up to the test.
  • For Triathlete Magazine, I gave a more accessible bent-knee version of the test to help beginners.
  • I worked with Annie Fuller, an athlete with several hamstring injuries due to the steeplechase. Annie started with a score of zero on the Copenhagen test, but we progressed to doing ten reps in a row.
  • We used fractionalized sets to help her reach that goal and avoid sloppy technique.
  • The goal for Annie was to maintain her ability to do 15 reps per side during the season.
  • I use the 12-hop performance test to determine an athlete's power production on each leg.
  • The lateral leg lift is another essential test for endurance athletes.
  • Working on the groin and medial line will improve the Copenhagen test.
  • Mass usage outside the leg is more prevalent in athletes than in the groin and medial line.
  • Athletes can only progress to the Copenhagen test if they can hold the position due to their groin exposure.
  • Isometrics is a functional progression to help athletes build up to the Copenhagen test.

When to do strength tests

45:35 –

  • We start with movement improvement regardless of the season.
  • Relative strength index testing may be too much for athletes in season. So, we focus on developing fundamental movement patterns with better overall connecting the dots.
  • We use the RunForm product for banded dynamics with all basic movements, where we have longer bands with various resistances to improve movement patterns.
  • The focus is on gaining strength and understanding with initial drills.
  • After, we use relative strength index testing in the off-season and allow time to build up.

Exercise Selection

47:50 –

  • Annie has built up to 15 reps of Copenhagen's per side during the season. In the off-season, we work on building strength and maintaining movement patterns. We also introduce variations to avoid getting burnt out on the exact movements.
  • For example, the lunge is an excellent movement for strength training.
  • We first do isometric lunges and quasi-isometric slow lunges during the off-season.
  • Then, we switch to Bulgarian lunges during the season to prepare for the primary races, where we add clapping Bulgarian lunges for explosive plyometric movements closer to the main races.
  • The hamstring muscle helps control the shank during running. When the lower leg gets ahead of the knee during running, it can cause injuries. The clapping Bulgarian lunge helps connect the nervous system and improve responsiveness.
  • We switch from single-leg work to bilateral work during the championship phase. Bilateral work helps reduce foot-ground contact time and allows for more explosive movements.
  • Jump rope is an excellent way to reduce impact and sharpen up for a race.
  • We aim for at least 180 jump ropes in a minute during training. Ben Kanute can do around 212.
  • Time under tension challenges dynamic trunk control. We start with 20 seconds of challenging movement and reduce it to 10 seconds before a race.
  • We "cut down a tree" and spent three hours doing it.
  • We work on concentric movements where we focus on explosiveness so that the recovery is much faster, taking the loading out as much as possible and focusing on pushing for about five to six seconds.

Rest between sets

55:24 -

  • Matt was a local athlete who came 12th at Exterra Nationals and wanted to win.
  • Hill repeats are a common exercise for endurance athletes.
  • We started with strides on a 5 to 7% grade and worked our way up.
  • Training in reverse (walking backwards) can improve proprioception.
  • We eventually worked up to 20-second fast hill repeats on a steeper grade. I had Matt rest for three minutes and 40 seconds between each interval.
  • Endurance athletes often overlook the importance of recovery.
  • We focused on building up to 10-12 quality sets.
  • We measured how far Matt could go and ensured he hit his target for each set. We would try again if Matt missed a target, but if he missed two, we stopped. By hitting our set goals, we could cover more ground than previously.
  • This applies to strength training as well - taking rest is essential.
  • I meet with Ben for every session he does.
  • Explosive movements require more extended rest periods.

Typical strength training week for Ben Kanute

1:01:11 –

  • Ben trains three days a week on average.
  • After World Championships and Ironman Arizona, Ben took a break for two to three weeks due to the birth of his second child.
  • Ben has been training with Matt for over two years.
  • At the start of his training, Ben did one set of movements for about 20 minutes.
  • I document everything and go back a year before to see what needs to be done.
  • Ben gradually increased his session to about 40 minutes and then back to 20 minutes.
  • The front seat is not for strength training, only for about six weeks.
  • Ben does 20-minute sessions three days a week, in general.
  • Two days are focused on maintaining strength and gaining power with three to five movements.
  • The third day is focused on mobility with active mobility patterns.
  • Active mobility focuses on internal and external rotation.
  • Mobility drills are incorporated based on athlete feedback.
  • I use the check, recheck method to determine if there is a difference in movement on each side.
  • Kettlebells are used to internally and externally rotate the shoulder at 90 degrees.
  • Other drills include lifting arms in a T position, holding five-pound plates and holding for five seconds, and "no money" drills with a band.
  • The movement can be seen through rope jumping. If a person has difficulty jumping rope, it may be due to internal shoulder rotation.
  • Ben's sessions are based on his training age.
  • I use a lot of feedback from Ben to determine the best drills.
  • Active mobility is done through active stretching.
  • Strength training is not necessary for maintaining strength.
  • Mobility is essential for a full-functioning shoulder.
  • I focus on external rotation to counteract the effects of internal rotation.
  • The T-position is most comfortable for external rotation.
  • The traps should not lift when doing drills in the T-position.
  • Holding five-pound plates is hard in the T-position.
  • The "no money" drill is used to rotate the thumbs back.

Strength training for triathletes

1:08:44 –

  • I recommend working on hand-eye coordination with pure runners using a speed bag.
  • A small speed bag hangs above your head and is hit with alternating hands.
  • The speed bag requires good technique, coordination, and control, unlike a heavy bag requiring more technique and can lead to injury.
  • Jump ropes are also beneficial for runners.
  • Triathletes are more complex as they focus on swimming, biking, and running.
  • The most important session where the athlete needs to be in good form must be identified.
  • Recovery is as important as work for success with every athlete.
  • Recovery time is more critical for triathletes.
  • Athletes must pick where they need the most recovery.
  • Recovery must be structured around the priority sessions.
  • Strength training for Annie, an ITU triathlete, must be done at least 48 to 72 hours after a swim session and after good nutrition and rest.
  • Strength training for Ben, who has a strong swimming ability, is done immediately after his swim session to maximize his recovery time for running, which is his biggest priority.
  • A journal can help athletes track progress, patterns, and energy levels.
  • The two-minute journaling rule can help summarize the main things learned.
  • Understanding patterns can prevent cumulative injury cycles and promote suitable recovery protocols.

Is strength training equally important for both sports (running vs triathlon)?

1:14:45 –

  • Strength training is important for everyone.
  • Explosive work is important for triathletes, especially for shorter distances.
  • Training should shift to focus on explosiveness while maintaining a good base.
  • For 70.3 and above distances, posture and the ability to hold it for extended periods are important.
  • Strength training helps with posture and reduces fatigue.
  • Maintaining form is crucial in the last 30 minutes of a race.
  • Good intentional tension technique and torque are essential for every athlete.
  • For Ben, 20-40 second interval periods are used to challenge posture and then tested at 60 seconds for strength endurance.
  • Challenging progressions have shown that most people slow down at around 40 seconds.
  • Relative strength index testing is done for a minute per set to develop a better strength economy.
  • Ballistic work is vital for shorter distances.
  • Stronger emphasis is placed on numbers for shorter distances.
  • ITU athletes need to focus on explosive work and other variables.
  • It is essential to build up to challenging progressions.
  • Developing a better strength economy is crucial for improving numbers.

Applications for amateur athletes

1:18:15 –

  • Pamela is a triathlete that completed the Ironman World Championships last year after working with me and another coach, Bobby, for over two years.
  • Pamela had pain when running, which they were able to eliminate.
  • Their focus was on getting Pamela across the finish line and building her base for longevity.
  • Everyone should follow a structured plan for their workouts, not just random workouts of the day.
  • Therefore, when working with someone, I look at plans for at least two years.
  • We got Pamela pain-free, and continuing to participate in triathlons in her seventies does not seem so strange.
  • The idea of strength training on top of swimming, biking, and running may seem like an overload, but not with a plan.
  • Before running, I recommend committing to a 10-minute protocol that includes dynamic mobility drills (DMDs).
  • Doing DMDs can help an athlete run longer and stronger and are a diagnostic tool for identifying problems with an athlete's gait.
  • Bobby is an expert on run gait and can tell much about an athlete's gait from watching them do DMDs.
  • Mastering DMDs helps connect the nervous system and gets an athlete to improve over time.
  • Initially, an athlete may only do one or two DMDs before running, but eventually, they can do ten in eight to twelve minutes.
  • Athletes who stick to this plan improve over time, even if it means losing ten minutes of their run.
  • It takes time to see improvement; the first three weeks can be challenging.

Dynamic mobility drills before every time you run

1:25:13 -

  • DMDs are done before every run.
  • Movement improvement is worked on alternate days.
  • We can set a goal for the 10 minutes of movement improvement exercises.
  • DMDs are mastered over time with daily practice.
  • Even 20 minutes of strength training is better than nothing.
  • Minimal effective dosing is essential for long-term fitness.
  • Building layers of fitness over time is important.
  • Consistency is key to achieving 90% readiness.
  • Dedicate time for a 20-minute session twice a week. 60 to 90 minutes per week can help prevent injuries and improve performance.
  • Longevity is the most important factor in training.
  • Overwhelming oneself with training is unnecessary. The focus is on building layers of fitness over time. 85-90% consistency is achievable for most people. Prehab is vital to prevent injuries.
  • Longevity should be the ultimate goal of any training regimen.

Do you need a gym to do good strength training

1:29:22 –

  • No, you don't.
  • An athlete I worked with, Kevin McDowell, found travelling with bands enjoyable and effective for his training.
  • A triathlon strength program with bands or RunForm is available for those who cannot go to the gym.
  • Posture is essential, and athletes must be strong enough to express their strength through their skillset.
  • That is why has developed systems that allow athletes to train with COVID-19 restrictions for hotel room training.
  • The conversation around going heavy in strength training should be addressed. There are always ways to design a program to achieve the appropriate challenge so hormonally an individual responds.
  • There are ways to make the pull-up harder by pausing or holding positions.
  • Pull-ups are an excellent movement for the deep core.
  • A foam roll can be used to help squeeze the abdominal chain during pull-ups, making them more effective.
  • People often have defeated mechanics and tend to roll their shoulders to get further up, which results in mainly feeling in their biceps.
  • Collegiate swimmers often do pull-ups all their life, but elite athletes can struggle to do one when technique and full range are emphasized.
  • The pull-up works the lats, but deep-core musculature is also activated.

Common mistakes to avoid when it comes to strength training

1:36:55 -

  • The biggest mistake in strength and conditioning is focusing on bells and whistles instead of education.
  • Olympic lifts are great but take years to execute well, so focusing on easier movement patterns like throwing a med ball is better.
  • Endurance athletes often don't have the time to learn Olympic lifts and should focus on minimal effective movements with manageable learning curves.
  • Ironman athletes may be proficient in Olympic lifts, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
  • It's crucial to focus on basics and use movements you control rather than trying to do what others on social media are doing.
  • Athletes should be more oriented towards the basics, as most sports require fundamental movements rather than complex ones.
  • Med ball slams and other similar movements can provide the necessary benefits without the difficulty of Olympic lifts.

Rapid fire questions

1:39:50 -

What's your favourite book or resource related to endurance sports?

Bobby McGee's magical running

What's an important habit you have benefited from athletically, professionally, or personally? 


Who's somebody that you look up to or that has inspired you? 

Bobby McGee still has to be the leading giant, I must refer to. I've learned so much from him and appreciate him and his expertise.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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