The Best Strength Exercises for Runners

Recently I polled my readers on their top struggles with running. And today I’m answering your top questions about strength exercises.

Plank Strength Exercise

I love sending you surveys – and I really appreciate you taking the time to complete them. They help me create coaching material that solves your specific problems.

This level of attention is what has set Strength Running apart over the years. And you can rest assured that every post, coaching program, and resource that I have for you is rigorously tested before you ever see it.

Today, we’re discussing the best strength exercises for runners. Take a look at some of your questions:

What kind of strength exercises must I do? When? How many times in a week?

What are the best exercises to do to stay injury free?

Strength training… how many times per week and what are the best excercises?

What strength training should I be doing? I don’t want to “bulk up” but feel I should be doing some strength training.

Should I be doing any upper body exercises or focus mainly on my core?

Should I be doing any leg work, or does running work them enough? Will any leg work just wear them out and cause an injury?

As you can see, this is a hot topic!

Thankfully, strength training for runners is one of my specialties. In fact, Runner’s World asked me to contribute this strength routine to their Body Shop series last month.

And now we’ll go over the nuts and bolts about strength exercises for runners. Let’s start with some basic Q&A.

What are the best strength exercises for runners?

The best strength exercises for runners have two characteristics:

  • They prevent injuries by focusing on the specific needs of runners (hip and glute strength)
  • They are compound, multi-joint movements like squats (the machines in the gym do NOT count)

For most runners, the largest benefit of strength training is a reduction in running injuries.

With stronger muscles, connective tissues, and more resilience to fatigue, you’ll get hurt less often. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, you can enjoy running.

Tired of getting hurt? Get our free ecourse on how to stay healthy.

Here is a list of the best strength exercises for runners:

  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Lunge
  • Push-up
  • Plank

Notice anything about these exercises? They’re simple, basic movements that all of us as runners should be able to do.

And with countless variations of each exercise, you can always keep things interesting.

Make sure to keep reading below to see the specific routines and video demonstrations I recommend.

How often should I strength train?

All day, every day! Just kidding. Who are we, body builders?

Most runners will get enormous benefits from 20 minutes, 3-5 times week. On some days, you can actually do less than 20 minutes.

A helpful strategy is what I call “sandwiching” – you “sandwich” your run between a dynamic warm-up and a strength routine.

Here’s an example of a training schedule that shows this principle in action:

Training Plan Example

Here there is one core workout (Standard Core), a gym session (Pike), and a runner-specific bodyweight workout (Stiletto).

Some of these are from Injury Prevention for Runners (learn more about that here)and others are discussed in more detail later in this post.

In a nutshell: 

  • Before every run, complete a dynamic warm-up routine (like the Mattock Warm-up)
  • After every run, complete a strength routine (choose one from below)
  • If you want to lift heavier weights in the gym, that can be done twice per week

For more nuance about strength training benefits and how to schedule these workouts, check out this interview I did with Runners Connect:

One final tip: strength workouts should complement your running, not detract from it. If you’re so sore from strength exercises that your long run or faster workout is compromised, tone down the intensity.

Should I do strength exercises for my legs, core, or upper body?

All three!

You must be a good athlete to be a good runner – and athletes are strong everywhere.

Most of the routines in this article are focused on the lower body and core. But with push-ups, chin-ups, and pull-ups you’ll get enough upper body work completed.

And you don’t need a gym, either.

With just a few simple pieces of equipment, you’ll have your own home gym. I recommend:

With these, you’ll be able to get stronger with no monthly gym fees and a total cost of less than $100.

Will strength training make me bulk up?

Strength Work

No, it won’t. Many of my female clients have this concern, but it’s actually really hard for women (and men) to put on muscle while also running.

You need to eat an enormous amount of food to fuel muscle growth. But if you’re running even just 15 miles per week, much of that energy is spent fueling your runs.

Plus, you need to lift very heavy weight to put on muscle. Bodyweight exercises and low resistance exercises with medicine balls or resistance bands make it far more difficult.

Here’s a simple way to think about bulking up while running: running is catabolic – it breaks down muscle. Strength training is anabolic – it builds muscle.

So you can see that doing both makes it very hard to build muscle since your two primary forms of exercise are at odds with one another. This is why you’ll never see body builders running when they’re building muscle.

But if distance runners lift heavy, instead of gaining muscle, they’ll just get really strong. This is exactly what we’re looking for, so keep strength training.

Do strength programs like CrossFit or P90X work for runners?

CrossFit Fail

Yes… but mostly no.

Will these types of fitness programs increase your strength? Most likely. Especially if you haven’t been doing any strength exercises (almost anything will make you stronger if you’re starting from a blank slate).

But are they too intense for endurance athletes?

Do they include other exercise (like sprints or tire flipping) that could detract from your running?

Is the injury risk significantly higher?

YES to all three!

You can read a thorough discussion of why CrossFit Endurance is not a good program for runners here, followed by part two here.

Much more detail on CrossFit (and P90X, since they’re similar in structure) can be found in those two articles than I care to rehash here.

The decision is yours, of course. If the only way you’ll lift is at a CrossFit class, then that’s better than nothing. Just understand it’s not ideal and the injury risk is higher.

And when in doubt, just listen to the wise, timeless words from Dom Mazetti.

Recommended strength training routines

Instead of focusing on strength exercises, focus on strength routines. They have a specific pattern that’s important for runners.

Strength Running is known for its runner-specific routines that help runners get stronger and prevent injuries.

You might be familiar with our three most popular strength workouts:

The Tomahawk Workout:

This is a more challenging medicine ball workout that focuses on the lower body and core. It should be completed 1-2 times per week (less if you lift in the gym).

Make sure you’re able to complete the easier routines below before doing Tomahawk – it’s more advanced, after all.

The ITB Rehab Routine:

Let’s ignore the production quality of the video for now (theres an updated, HD video in Injury Prevention for Runners).

This routine should be done by every runner, at least twice per week. If you suffer from injuries more than you’d like (especially ITBS), I’d do it three times per week.

Here we focus on runner-specific strength, particularly in the glutes and hips. These muscles are critical for preventing injuries since they control your stride and provide stability.

Many running injuries – even those not associated with the hip area like runner’s knee – can be traced to weak hips.

The fix? Get to strengthening your hips with this routine!

The Standard Core Routine:

This is a “bread and butter” core workout that should be the staple of all of our core strengthening. Every runner should do this routine 1-2 times per week.

It focuses on the entire core region (not just your abs!), including the obliques, lower abs, hips, glutes, and hamstrings.

If you can do three sets of these six strength exercises for one minute per exercise, you’re stronger than most runnrs and will likely get injured far less frequently.

There are a lot more routines that I’ve developed, including:

  • Claymore – bodyweight workout focusing on full body strength
  • Standard Core (updated with new variations)
  • Ballista – runner-specific exercices that improve your ability to move in multiple planes of motion
  • Pike – gym workout focusing on full body strength
  • ITB Rehab Routine (updated with new exercises)
  • Stiletto – runner-specific glute and hip strength
  • Chakram – barefoot balance and proprioception
  • Sabre Warm-up (updated version of the Standard Warm-up)
  • Quickie Warm-up – a short dynamic stretching routine that you can do if pressed for time

Each is filmed in HD video with a narrated overview, PDF instructions that explain how to do each exercise, and step-by-step details on when to do every routine.

Strength Exercises for Runners

They’re all included in Injury Prevention for Runners, which also comes with 120+ pages of coaching lessons, training plans, more video demonstrations, and expert interviews.

Learn more about the program here.

Putting it All Together

I know this stuff can be confusing. I never knew runners should strength train until I had already been running for four years!

But starting a strength program can be VERY simple: simply “sandwich” your runs between dynamic warm-up exercises and a 10-20 minute strength routine.

For most runners, that’s all you need.

But if you’re particularly injury-prone, don’t have a background playing another sport, or you want to take your running to the next level, you can always do more.

Injury Prevention for Runners has a full suite of strength routines, as well as expert interviews, training plans for beginner or advanced runners, and HD video demonstrations.

You’ll be amazed by the variety of runners (like Rik and Aimee) that have seen enormous progress by investing in the program.

It works for the ladies out there – and the guys. Older runners. Younger runners. And even experienced runners like myself (I did Ballista this morning!).

Have any questions for me? Wondering what strength work is best for YOU individually?

Let me know how I can help! And don’t forget to join my free injury prevention group here. You’ll learn a lot 🙂

– Jason.

Was this post helpful?

Then you'll love the free email lessons I've never released here on the blog. Enter your email and you'll get:

  • The exact strength exercises that prevent injuries
  • Workouts that boost your speed (even for beginners)
  • Pacing strategies, coaching Q&A, and more

Comments

  1. Kerry Harpur says:

    How can I learn more about deadlifts for women and getting g triceps workouts to actually get rid of flabby arms. What are the best type of exercises to tighten up abs.

    • Hey Kerry,

      There are instructions about how to do deadlifts in Injury Prevention for Runners (there’s no difference in how to do this exercises for men or women). And if you want to lose some arm fat, there’s no bette way than running. You can’t lose fat in one particular area, your body burns it off globally.

  2. I was finally starting to incorporate your standard core routine (I admit it, I am lazy about strengthening routines but have really made an effort to change my mindset) and then last week I fell trail running and broke a metacarpal bone and dislocated my finger. I’m in a temp cast until I see the hand surgeon at the end of the week. Is there a good substitute for planks that doesn’t involve placing weight on my forearms/hands?

    • Hi Kristi. Lying straight leg raises from the floor or a bench are quite useful. Try to take the legs up to a 90 degree angle. You can even try holding your legs stationary six inches in the air as long as your core is strong enough to cope and the small of your back is fully flat to the floor. Good luck with that hand!

  3. Christine says:

    Hi Jason, while I agree with 99% of your strength-training advice, I will argue your recommendation of using a pull-up bar. Two years ago I was using the type of bar that braces around the moulding of any door frame. As I’m not strong enough to complete a full chin-up I was using a band under my knees, and a chair to step up and get started. For no reason on this day two years ago as I was doing my second set the bar became unlodged and I fell onto the chair, breaking two vertebrae. Luckily I had my cell phone close and called for help. One of the paramedics said he saw falls from pull-up bars ALL THE TIME. Several friends have since told me stories of family members falling and suffering injuries. I never did determine the cause for the bar falling out of the door frame, and fortunately my back has healed fine. But as beneficial as I agree the exercises are, I would not recommend the use of a pull-up bar to anyone after the paramedic’s observation to me.

    • That sound awful! I’d recommend ensuring the pull up bar is properly fitted to the door, it’s used appropriately, and it’s checked regularly for fitting and snugness. My hunch is that this is more often a case of user error (not downplaying its severity at all, but if it’s working appropriately, it should never fall. It’s just physics.)

  4. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for all of your blogs and tips.
    I’m training for my first marathon and I never take it easy always pushing. I have a problem with my IT Band. I’m very upset, I read your article on the exercises and I will do them. I’m off two days now, I will start this routine tomorrow and try to run I just can’t be sidelined, running is my life.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The best strength exercises for runners.  An extra few minutes can stave off injury…sounds like a good deal. […]

  2. […] the strength work… all the dynamic exercises… the right workout paces… proper […]

  3. […] First, I don’t think yoga is necessary for runners. It’s a “nice to have” rather than a “must have” like strength training. […]