What’s Your Strength to Weight Ratio? How I Got 50% Stronger While Losing 3% Body Weight

by Jason Fitzgerald

Ever wish you could be stronger – while weighing less? 

Strength to Weight Ratio

It’s the ideal scenario for distance runners: massive strength without any extra weight.

During the last seven weeks, I tried to improve both. I had been lifting regularly, but my routine was the same it had been for months and my performance had plateaued.

My strength program needed a complete overhaul; I had been doing the same few exercises in the same circuit:

  • dead lifts
  • chest press
  • pull ups
  • pistol squats
  • dips

I was going to the gym and rushing out after two sets and only 15 minutes because honestly, I don’t like lifting. There’s a lot of waiting around. I’d rather run for an hour than spend 30 minutes in the gym. It’s how I’m wired.

But weights are important – they can help prevent injuries, improve your finishing kick, and make you more efficient. Skipping the gym is like skipping a long run or tempo run – they’re all important ingredients in a sound training plan.

Lifting to Failure, Variety, and More Rest

I decided to follow a lifting program from the Rebel Strength Guide, designed by Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness (note: this program is no longer available. If you’re interested in runner-specific strength work, see this program instead which I also use). At first I was hesitant because I didn’t want to gain muscle mass – just strength.

But then I realized there’s no way I can gain muscle weight. It’s a common misconception (especially among women) that lifting heavy will result in “bulk” or “mass.” For the most part, it’s nonsense. There’s a few reasons why it won’t happen:

  • If you’re doing any decent amount of running or cardio exercise, it’s extremely difficult to gain muscle mass. Too much of your protein is used for recovery instead of hypertrophy.
  • Women have much less testosterone than men, so putting on “bulk” is nearly impossible for average people. Just look at Staci (and she dead lifts well over 300 pounds!).
  • To really put on muscle, your focus has to be on eating an enormous number of calories. If you eat normally, you won’t have enough fuel to gain weight.

The exercises I did from the Rebel Strength Guide are all functional, multi-joint exercises that train movements, not muscles. I believe in compound exercises for runners – no bicep curls, hamstring extensions, or calf raises. Unless I’m treating a specific imbalance (like with my ITB Rehab Routine), I don’t do isolation exercises.

Here’s what I did during my 7 weeks of the program:

  • Lunges
  • Push Press
  • Planks
  • Side Planks
  • Front Squats
  • Dead lifts
  • Pull ups
  • Bent over rows
  • Push ups

More importantly than the specific exercises I did, was how I did them. This is the most important part of the Rebel Strength Guide. My normal routine had me going through my gym exercises in a circuit with no rest. This is how I was able to get everything done in 15 minutes (I hate lifting, remember?).

But RSG does things differently: you prioritize performance over time and most of the exercises are done to failure – meaning you can’t do one more rep. You take a full 1-2 minutes of rest in between each set. The workout takes a little while longer, but you see bigger strength gains.

There’s also a warm-up to the lifting routine, something I’ve never done before. Ironically, I preach on and on about the benefits of a running warm-up but never did one before my gym workouts. With a good warm-up, I felt better prepared to lift and will definitely continue doing one. It’s a no-brainer.

How to Improve Your Lifting Routine

If you already spend a few hours in the gym every week and know what you’re doing, the Rebel Strength Guide probably isn’t for you. But if you’re new to strength exercises or if you’re like me and just do the same routine over and over again because you don’t really like the gym, then it could be helpful.

I loved the video examples of every exercise and I’d watch them as I was doing the workout (I chose the “Dumbbell Division” so I could do many of the exercises at home – there are also body weight and barbell progressions). I wanted to make sure my form was correct so the videos were really helpful.

Runners will need to amend the advice and workouts slightly if they follow along. First, the diet section leans heavily on the paleo diet, which is fine if you’re not running a lot. But if you are putting in any amount of good training, you’ll need some carbs to refuel.

Here are my notes from my month with the Rebel Strength Guide on how to adjust the workouts for runners:

  • Never do these workouts before you run, they’re far too difficult.
  • Take advantage of the full rest in between sets. It will feel like way too long at the beginning but too short by the end.
  • Distance runners are used to giving a max intensity over a long period of time – like a race – which is far different than a max effort with weights. Think more like a sprinter; lifting to failure is to FAILURE not just high fatigue.
  • Don’t do these workouts after a long run or hard workout. They require a high amount of energy – instead, do them after an easy run or on your day off from running.
  • Don’t start this program if you haven’t been lifting at all. The sets to failure will destroy your muscles and you’ll be sore for weeks. Get in good baseline shape with a simple gym routine first so it’s not a complete shock to your body.
  • If you feel destroyed after one or two sets to failure, it’s okay to skip the last set. You don’t want to be so sore and fatigued that you can’t get back into the gym in a few days. Remember, it’s more important to be consistent and keep progressing than to dig your fitness in a hole by trying to do too much.
  • I replaced the RSG warm-up with a modified version of the ITB Rehab Routine and some push ups. This is my personal weakness so I knew it was something I needed to work on.
  • You can cut sets or reps if you need it, but you can also add reps if you think something is too easy. In one workout, I had to do 3 sets of 8 lunges. I usually do 50 lunges (in 5 different planes of motion) in a row before every run, so this part of the workout was incredibly easy. I modified this to 30 lunges in a row in 5 planes of motion (6 for every type of lunge).
  • Prone planks will be FAR easier for runner than side planks. I had trouble doing multiple sets of side planks, but sailed through (relatively speaking) the prone planks. This weakness is typical for runners and means we have to work on our side planks.
  • If you’re training hard for a race – especially a long one like a marathon – then you shouldn’t focus on lifting. Your priority needs to be running.

The workouts will take you about 30 minutes each – short, but they’re all tough! Lifting to failure is something I rarely do and I was struggling…exactly what I was looking for in a weight program.

I chose to do the three workouts per week program, but there’s a four-day schedule for more ambitious folks who may not be running 60+ miles per week like I was.

So how’d I do? Let’s take a look.

Rebel Strength Guide Experiment

My weight was 130.0 pounds at the beginning of the experiment and 126.0 at the end – a 3% loss. I weighed myself at the same time of day for each weigh-in (in the morning before my run) and used the average of three times on the scale. The interesting thing about my weight loss is that I didn’t change my diet whatsoever during these seven weeks. I ate relatively healthy with some occasional indulgences – the only thing that changed was my lifting program and running about 10-15 more miles per week.

Even with my weight decreasing by four pounds over the month, I saw significant increases in strength across the board. While I don’t really care about upper body strength (I’m a runner and already married), it’s nice to see that I can bang out a decent set of pull ups or push ups. Based on the push up, pull up, and plank tests I improved by an average of 50% – pretty damn good!

I learned a valuable lesson during my time with the Rebel Strength Guide program: intensity matters in the gym if you want to see real strength gains. You won’t get stronger by lifting light or moderate for high repetitions. Instead, go heavy. Coincidentally it’s more effective for runners.

You train for endurance when you run. You train for strength in the gym.

Even though this program isn’t available anymore, if you’re in a rut with your strength work you might enjoy the Strength Training for Runners program. It’s a new way to structure your strength sessions and will help you prevent more injuries too!

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{ 15 comments }

LJ

This is incredibly well timed, as I was actually thinking of emailing you about this yesterday after my body weight brigade workout! I love the RSG, but I’m also working very hard this spring on speed work. I have 4 runs a week (http://mcrrc.org/programs/speed_development/SDP_White_Schedule_2012.pdf) and was doing the RSG workouts MWF. I kept finding my legs so sore before my Wednesday workout, and inevitably ditched RSG for two weeks, and then started the cycle all over, complete with DOMS mid-week because of my Tuesday track workouts and the Wednesday RSG workout. I was hoping to find out if it’s better to do less reps for now, while I focus on speed – or if I can RSG to failure at the same time as focusing on speed. So would a good compromise possibly be giving RSG my all on the M/F workouts, and being more conservative on Wednesdays to allow for recovery?

Jason

That’s a tough question to answer specifically LJ, I’d have to see what you’ve been doing the last few weeks. But in general, you’ll definitely have to scale back the intensity of either your running or your lifting. It’s very difficult to have both, so determine what your focus is at this point in your training. Good luck!

Zorbs

How do you do pushups to failure? I have never done it. When my reps slow to a crawl, I stop; my sense of self-preservation kicks in before I face-plant.

And that number on Chest Press, is it 30 pounds each hand or total?

Jason

You do push ups until you can’t do a single extra rep!

30 pounds per hand – they were dumbbells.

James @reddirtrunner

Good read Jason. I have recently been sidelined with a stress fracture and on the second day of my 6 week recovery I was bummed. So I came up with a core/strength routine to be done daily in hopes that I would continue the habit of working my body consistently. The solution? Part Strength Running, part Coach Jay and part Nerd Fitness. Brilliantly simple and at the end of week 1 it looks very “do-able” for 5 more. Since I never hit the gym or weights this week and possibly next will be all body weight stuff. Then I’ll break out the dumbbells collecting dust in the garage, clean them off, and modify the workout. In a couple of weeks I can add cycling for some cardio work. I have told a couple of running buddies that come May they better be prepared for a whole new level of ass kicking. Great results on your hard work, I can only hope for the same. Thanks for sharing, it validates what my brain was telling me to do.
Cheers.

Canadian

You mentioned that people who haven’t been lifting at all shouldn’t start with Rebel Fitness but should get into baseline shape first. Can you suggest a routine for that?

Jason

If you haven’t been lifting at all, I don’t recommend you jump right into a Rebel Strength Guide routine because lifting to failure will leave you unreasonably sore. I recommend two weeks of 2-3 gym/body weight sessions per week. You can do something similar like this: http://strengthrunning.com/2010/03/gym-workouts-for-runners-functional-strength/

Canadian

Thanks!

Ben G.

Jason, how do you measure strength to weight ratio? Thanks for the article.

Jason

You’re welcome Ben. I don’t think it’s necessarily useful for most people to calculate out a specific number. More importantly, you should focus on getting to a lean racing weight that is healthy for you and then focus on getting stronger. It doesn’t have to be a specific number, just be aware of being both leaner and stronger. Does that make sense? I try to focus on big picture things that I can change, rather than the minutiae of VO2 max scores, weird ratios, etc.

Hans

What’s your take on lifting relatively heavy but at high intensity? Similar to Crossfit but more sport specific exercises like the ones you’ve mentioned here?

Jason Fitzgerald

I’d have to ask, “Why?” If you’re lifting heavy in the 4-6 rep range you’re building strength – but only if you allow enough rest. For runners, that’s the best way to go. If your goals are different however (more cardio conditioning, a stronger metabolic stimulus), then a higher intensity works for that. But for a runner, you’ll most likely be compromising your running workouts.

Christopher

Excellent article Jason.

Combining your tip here about heavier/more intense weight and lower reps equalling better strength outcomes with the ITB routine, I have a question.

In my current ITB routine I do 30 reps of side leg lifts on each side at the start of the workout and then again at the end to bring a total of 60 for each side. Now I use the resistance bands like you have shown in your video. I have been using the very light (yellow) one. Do you think I would get better strength gains in the ITB routine if I switched out the very light (yellow) tube for the light (red) tube – effectively bringing up the intensity (like you were doing with the weights), and then dropping my reps down from 30 to say 25 for example???

Jason Fitzgerald

I’d go to the red tube but keep the reps at 30. Shorter reps are best for the real “lifts” like squats, dead lifts, etc. IMO these runner-specific, focused exercises are best done with the higher reps because there’s an element of coordination that’s helpful to practice.

Chris

I do an entire bootcamp style workout actually to reach the same goal. While some exercises might not be as targeted for runners, the overall way how the body is being worked out is very good. Especially my core and my back have dramatically improved. In addition the leg work is helping to build up additional strength as well. The first few weeks of double workouts (1 hour in the morning for the bootcamp and then running in the afternoon for running) have been taxing, but it is amazing how the body starts adapting.

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