Training With Weights for a Spartan Race? Don’t Make These 6 Mistakes

By SGX Coach Mark Barroso, NSCA-CPT, Spartan SGX

There is no specific training modality for a Spartan Race course. Yes, there are qualified Spartan SGX Coaches that hold Spartan SGX classes (like myself) but what makes Spartan Race different from other athletic competitions is that there can be huge variations in the body type and training styles of elite athletes. And for non-elite athletes, the flexibility of training styles is what makes Spartans intriguing.

(Just check out Joe Crupi’s Panda Fit Camp.)

Spartans have a knack for unorthodox, quirky workouts that build functional strength, aerobic capacity, and mimic the mental state one might experience on a Spartan Race course. That being said, people make a lot of errors in and out of the gym while training for a Spartan Race that keep them from getting the most out of their training.

Avoid these six weightlifting mistakes to ensure you maximize training time, prevent injury and prepare in the most efficient way possible for a Spartan Race.

Mistake #1. Training for Absolute Strength

“Absolute strength” is when you lift the most possible weight for one repetition. Specifically, training for absolute strength is commonly associated with attempting a 1-repetition maximum on the barbell squat, bench press, and deadlift as these are the three exercises that are in official powerlifting competitions. Spartans are strong, and I believe strength is the basis for achieving success in all aspects of life, but adhering to a strict powerlifting regimen to train for a Spartan Race is not ideal.

Many beginner strength training programs incorporate 5 sets of 5 reps for compound barbell lifts (or even sets of 1-3 reps) and don’t leave much room for interval training or cardio throughout the week. While this may get you bigger and ready to compete in powerlifting, it also comes with some extra body weight. This might not bode well while hiking up a 3,000-foot tall mountain.

While it’s good to increase your load, it’s not the only thing you should vary. Attempting a 1RM every few weeks isn’t going to make or break your Spartan performance, but following a 12-week powerlifting plan that uses only a barbell and a pull-up bar isn’t going to transfer to the best possible results on the course.

Mistake #2. Skipping Leg Day

Don’t be a “Charms” lifter. That is, a weightlifter who mainly trains chest and arms in the gym. Even if you run and train upper body, you still need to train legs. Resistance training improves running mechanics and increases muscular endurance while running. Barbell squats, dumbbell sumo squats, kettlebell goblet squats, barbell/sandbag good mornings, walking lunges, glute bridges, seated calf raises, and standing sandbag calf raises are just a few exercises to help strengthen the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, hips and calves—all of which take the brunt of the beating during a Spartan Race.

For improved muscular endurance, I suggests a rep range between 15-20 reps with 30-45 seconds rest between sets. A lack of lower body training may result in an increased risk of injury (such as a strained muscle) on technical terrain from multiple hours of stepping, jumping and crawling.

3. Neglecting High-Intensity Interval training

When training for a Spartan Race, it's important not to neglect HIIT.

High intensity interval training (HIIT) involves brief bouts of high-intensity exercise with intermittent recovery periods. Working at such a high heart rate and percentage of VO2max (above 90% for several minutes) in short bursts results in improved oxidative muscle fiber adaptation and increased VO2max, anaerobic thresholds, time to exhaustion and overall speed—according to a review from the American College of Sports Medicine. Muscle fibers that adapt to training are able to use oxygen more efficiently and thus produce more force. Increased VO2max (maximal oxygen consumption) has been correlated to improved performance in aerobic endurance events (according to NSCA Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning).

HIIT isn’t necessarily superior to long, slow endurance training; it’s just more efficient and represents what actually happens on a Spartan Race course—which is work (complete an obstacle) then rest (jog towards next obstacle or stop at water station). Besides, interval training has been shown to increase fitness just as much as long, slow-distance cardio—but in much less time.

A 2006 study published in the Journal of Physiology divided men into two groups: one that did sprint interval training (4-6 bouts of 30-second sprints) and another that did 90-120 minutes of cycling. Both groups did this six times a week for two weeks. Both the HIIT and long, slow distance cardio group reported similar muscle buffering capacity and glycogen storages, suggesting that the metabolic changes to muscles are the same yet HIIT takes far less time.

4. Doing Power Exercises Late in a Workout

Strong woman lifting barbell at the gym

The more similar the training activity is to the actual sport movement, the greater the likelihood that there will be a positive transfer to the sport (SAID principle). If you’re training with weights, the snatch, clean, front squat, forward step lunge, stepup, leg extension, leg curl and toe raise are examples of weightlifting exercises that transfer to running, a major component of many Spartan Race courses. When training for a running or Spartan Race event, power exercises such as the power clean, hang clean, snatch, and push jerk should be performed first during a workout, not last or as part of a metabolic conditioning circuit (metcon). Power exercises like these are affected most by fatigue and such tiredness can make athletes prone to using poor technique, resulting in a higher injury risk.

The aforementioned power exercises develop a high rate of force development which is necessary during obstacles like the wall climb and barbed wire crawl.

5. Not Eating Enough

It seems like such a simple thing to do, yet so many people place their nutrition low on their priority lists. Weightlifters preparing for a Spartan Race should start cooking their own meals (if they don’t already) so they get an idea of how much protein, fat and carbohydrates they’re eating each day. (This doesn’t mean every meal has to be made at home, it just means that home-cooked meals are the norm and that everything else is an “add-on” or extra Calories.)

It’s possible to be a bodybuilder with a strict diet and compete at a high level in Spartan Race, but the majority of obstacle enthusiasts need not be concerned with counting calories as they will need all the calories they get during any Spartan SGX class, interval training workout, or weightlifting session.

Did you know…it doesn’t matter *when* you get your protein?

A 2012 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that the mythical 1-hour “post workout anabolic window” is just that—a myth. The researchers concluded that total protein intake per day is what matters for building muscle, not the exact time that you eat the protein, so don’t psych yourself out if you wait a few hours to have a protein shake post-workout.

6. Giving up on Mobility Training

Flexibility is a measure of range of motion, but flexibility alone isn’t responsible for normal movement. Mobility is a better term to describe what Spartans need on a course. A person can have a great “sit and reach” flexibility score but minimal balance, coordination, and perception for climbing rocks or weaving through rocky terrain.

There are two different kinds of stretching: static and dynamic. Static stretching is slow and constant, and each stretch should be held for 15-30 seconds. Dynamic stretching places an emphasis on the muscles needed for the sport being trained and include moves like high knees or lunges with rotation. Athletes should stretch in both ways following a training session or as a separate mobility session scheduled either on an active recovery or as many hours apart from a lifting/running session as possible.

Leaving out mobility training opens the body up to imbalances in flexibility or just an outright lack of flexibility which can result in training and racing injuries. The Spear Throw, Rope Climb, and Herculean Hoist are just three examples of Spartan obstacles where a lack of mobility in the shoulders can yield issues with correct obstacle completion.

Avoid these mistakes, and you should be fine.

Training for a Spartan Race should be a fun, creative process that teaches you about yourself and what it takes to move through terrain efficiently. By avoiding these six training mistakes, you’re sure to make it to the finish line.

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Follow SGX Coach Mark Barroso on Twitter @Mark_Barroso, or visit his website