How to Start Lifting Weights (the right way)

Have you ever started something new and made yourself feel silly? I wore basketball shoes to cross country practice, so I know the feeling…

runner running

The truth is that everybody starts as a beginner. And those first few months of practice are never pretty.

During the early stages of a new sport, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. And that’s ok! If you never made any mistakes, you wouldn’t learn nearly as fast.

To kick off 2018, we’re focusing on strength training for runners. And there’s an undeniable advantage from learning the fundamentals before you start lifting weights:

Progress is faster (you get better sooner!)

Risks are mitigated (far fewer injuries!)

Results are more substantial (you get stronger!)

My goal is to help you limit the early mistakes as you start lifting weights so you can enjoy all of the benefits of strength training exercises:

  • power
  • fewer injuries
  • speed
  • coordination
  • lean muscle
  • efficiency

Alas, there are quite a few problems with how runners are getting stronger. These training errors are robbing runners of speed and building only a small amount of strength.

I don’t want you to train poorly. Poor training is frustrating and wastes a lot of time.

Instead, I want you to be able to recognize these mistakes and know why they’re sub-optimal.

Then you’ll be able to train more effectively – and race faster!

We’re covering a lot more on next week’s live webinar. Don’t forget to register today!

Mistake #1: The “Grab Bag” Approach to Lifting

I love a good functional strength class. In fact, I used to take a functional core strength class in Boston that shredded my abs. It was a blast.

But it’s not how runners should get strong.

This is the “grab bag” approach to strength training:

  • “I love my Body Pump class at the gym”
  • “My P90X DVD workouts are tough”
  • “Oohhh that Runner’s World strength circuit looks fun!”
  • “CrossFit? Sure, I’ll drop in for today’s WOD”

Unfortunately, this approach is misguided. It wastes a lot of time and isn’t the best way to gain strength.

First, any strength workout that includes circuits with little rest (like most fitness classes, DVD’s, or CrossFit) is not optimally building strength.

But don’t take it from me. Randy Hauer is a USA Weightlifting National Coach and strength coach to elite runners in Boulder, CO.

Randy Weight Lifting Coach

Randy and his athlete Maggie Callahan

Here’s his thoughts on these forms of strength training:

Avoid circuits of several exercises in a row and instead take 1-2 minutes of recovery after each set. Like the talk test in running, you should be able to speak in complete sentences before you begin your next set.

We aren’t doing CrossFit, glycolytic, sweat puddles, and lactic acid bath stuff here. We’re doing real training.

I love this brand of honesty.

So not only are these circuits counterproductive but they’re too hard! Yes, all that huffing and puffing from lifting weights is needlessly challenging.

A more effective option is to include more rest so the workout is less aerobically demanding.

But why don’t you want your strength workouts to be cardiovascularly difficult?

Simple: lifting weights doesn’t have the same physiological purpose as running.

That’s why we don’t focus on endurance when we lift. Randy told me:

Sports specific training is your running. Strength training is a type of general physical preparedness. It supplements and supports sports specific practice.

If you get your hips, postural musculature and legs generally stronger and more explosive, your running mechanics will sort out and use these improvements.

Don’t fall into the “specificity” trap of trying to simulate running motions (ankle weights, dumbbell “running hands,” etc.) with weights. Weighting these movements will interfere with the subtle coordination of your stride, arm swing and posture and are likely to cause injury.

Compound bilateral movements like squats and deadlifts are proven to carry over well to running, even though it may not be obvious just from looking at the exercises.

The good news is that if you’re attending challenging CrossFit or strength classes, you can stop!

These gym workouts are too aerobically difficult, don’t prioritize strength as much as they should, and can wreak havoc on your running.

But another big weight lifting mistake is to go in the opposite direction and lift like a body builder…

Mistake #2: Lifting Weights like a Bodybuilder

How to Start Lifting Weights

Bodybuilders have one goal: to build muscle (hypertrophy).

They spend 5-6 days per week in the gym lifting weights for several hours at a time. It’s a big time investment!

Thankfully, runners don’t need to lift this often – and our strength sessions can be a lot shorter.

But there’s another way that runners often mimic bodybuilders in the gym: we focus on specific muscles with isolation exercises.

Here are a few examples:

  • The exercise selection includes hamstring curls, quadriceps extensions, bicep curls, and other muscle-specific exercises
  • The speed of the lifts is slow (runners sometimes need a forceful lift!)
  • There are distinct days for distinct muscles like “bis and tris day” or “legs day”

Runners aren’t building runner-specific strength and power if they lift like a bodybuilder.

I asked Randy about this common approach to lifting and he told me:

Focus on compound, “larger” standing movements (running is done standing, right?).

Don’t lift distinct body parts on certain days (like chest day or back day, etc.). As a runner, you don’t care about “bis and tris.” You care about how strong you are.

The body isn’t a cobbled together bunch of parts that work separately, but rather it functions as a unit. Athletes should train it as a unit.

Randy reveals that runners need to train their entire body – and it doesn’t take hours in the gym.

This simple approach has a few advantages:

  • We spend fewer days (and less time per workout) in the gym
  • Our entire body is challenged – not individual muscle groups – with our exercise selections
  • Every gym session also focuses on the whole body, rather than individual days for individual muscles

The other huge benefit to lifting weights properly is that you’ll get a stronger neuromuscular stimulus – the communication between your brain and muscles – helping you produce force more quickly.

Since bodybuilders don’t perform power exercises they don’t get this benefit from their lifting.

But runners who lift properly certainly do!

Mistake #3: Stability Training vs. Lifting Weights

Over the last decade, balance and wobble boards have surged in popularity as athletes attempt to build “functional stability.”

Exercises on swiss balls or other unstable surfaces can certainly be beneficial – particularly when you’re treating an injury. But they fail to deliver the most important goal of lifting weights: strength.

From Randy:

Avoid wobble boards, bosu, or swiss balls. They have their place in rehab situations, but really don’t serve any useful function when learning to produce force.

The goal is STRENGTH – or the ability to produce a lot of force against the ground. This makes you run faster!

It makes sense when you think about it: the body can’t produce as much force on an unstable surface. Exercising on that surface doesn’t stimulate neuromuscular adaptations that boost power and speed.

Author Brad Stulberg explains this learning process in Peak Performance:

If we endure the struggle and keep working at the new skill, the connections between neurons [in our brain] strengthen.

As we work more at something… that enables electrical activity to travel more fluidly between neurons. In other words, the connections in our brain strengthen.

Over time, our former struggles become second nature.

If our goal is to produce force quickly, stability training won’t improve that ability because we’re simply not practicing it.

This form of strength work is best used during injury rehabilitation or as “accessory exercises” (easier, more sport-specific exercises) that come after your main lifts.

The Dysfunctional Merry-Go-Round

We’ve learned today that there are many forms of strength training that aren’t ideal for runners:

  • A “sampling” approach of different classes, workouts, DVD’s, and exercises from magazines or websites
  • Lifting like a bodybuilder with isolation exercises and frequent gym workouts
  • Stability training on a swiss ball or wobble board

If you start lifting weights by using these types of workouts, you simply won’t achieve as much progress.

Runners will get a season pass on the “Dysfunctional Merry-Go-Round” – a cycle of injury, wasted time, poor strength gains, and luckluster performance.

I’ve been there myself and it’s not a fun experience. After dabbling in many types of strength training (and never seeing any real progress) I was still getting hurt frequently.

There was no progression. There was no focus on strength and power.

And my results clearly showed that I wasn’t thriving as a runner.

How to Start Lifting Weights (like a real runner)

As your virtual coach, I refuse to allow you to follow poor training. I want better for you: more strength, fewer injuries, and much faster race performances.

It’s not some pipe dream. And you don’t need to be a grunting power lifter in the gym all day…

I want to make you a simple promise:

You can lift twice per week – 60 minutes or less per workout – and get ALL the benefits of lifting:

  • Enhanced neuromuscular coordination for better form and running economy
  • Stronger muscles and connective tissues that will prevent injuries
  • Improved ability to generate force quickly (power) that will help you race faster

Next Wednesday I’ll be showing you exactly how to start lifting weights like a pro runner.

Strength Training Exercises for Runners

Join us for a new presentation Lift for Speed: How to Sprint Faster, Boost Efficiency, and Prevent More Injuries.

It’s on Wednesday, January 17 and 7:00PM Mountain Time.

We’re going to dive deep into the type of lifting workouts that elite runners do – and you should, too.

For the runner who’s ready to take the next step with their training and see what they’re truly capable of achieving, you won’t want to miss this live webinar.

All you need to do is register here and I’ll send you the link to join us next week.

It won’t be recorded but register anyway – I’ll know you’re interested and will send you even more helpful coaching material.

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Comments

  1. I look forward to reading the next article. I’m a little confused by part of this one. You wrote: “But there’s another way that runners often mimic bodybuilders in the gym: we focus on specific muscles with isolation exercises. Here are a few examples: …There are distinct days for distinct muscles like “bis and tris day” or “legs day.” Then you contradicted this with the quote from Randy where you wrote: “Don’t lift distinct body parts on certain days (like chest day or back day, etc.). As a runner, you don’t care about “bis and tris.” You care about how strong you are.”

    I assume the recommendation is to follow what Randy said rather than what you said is the way that runners mimic bodybuilders. Is my understanding correct?

    • Hi Cak – I don’t think that contradicts. Lifting like a bodybuilder – long workouts, isolation exercises, focusing on specific muscles – is not a good idea. The post lists mistakes – one of them is lifting like a bodybuilder, which is supported by Randy’s comment.

      • Hi Jason, thanks for your response. So I guess you were saying that while runners do mimic bodybuilders in this manner, they should not do so. I guess that is not what was clear to me.

  2. Exciting! Can’t wait for Wednesday, January 17

  3. So I’m curious what you think about some of the resistance/power stuff like sled pulls or Prowler pushing, that kind of thing. Does that give you some of the same benefits as hill work, or is that a waste of time? Living in a very flat area, my hill options are limited to running on dirty overpasses, so I’d be interested in any viable substitute.

    Also, you’ve covered crossfit/bootcamp style training and bodybuilding style training, but what about powerlifting, e.g. something like 5/3/1? Those focus on four main lifts: squat, deadlift, overhead press, and bench press, and the entire purpose of that type of program is to increase the weight you can lift (i.e., get stronger). I know you don’t recommend weights 3-4x/week like they suggest for that type of program, but otherwise it seems in line with what you’re proposing here.

    Thanks!

  4. I’m going to try to attend the webinar but it is 2am for me.
    Any chance of a link to a recording?
    Runners need sleep. 🙂

  5. I can’t make the webinar next week, because of the pesky time difference to the UK. Will you be sharing the content in a future email?

  6. I respect your opinion on this. Many people looking to lift specifically for their sport seem to think that bodybuilding workouts are the way to optimal performance in said sport, though this is seldom the case. Nice work.

    Harry

  7. If I can’t make it to the webinar, will I be able to watch it at another time?

  8. Jason— thanks so much for this!! I am so very eco red for this year’s theme. I have listened to the podcast from the beginning and have been using your site as a resource since I began running 2 years ago. This last year hearing you talk about the importance of gym work I have been like “ugh but what do I do….?!” Fearful of doing this same mistakes. One reason I took to running was not slave away in the gym so I look forward to how to build running specific strength!! Can’t wait!

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