There’s a myth that strength training will bulk you up and slow you down—and maybe that’s why so many runners forgo lifting weights. But adding dumbbell exercises to your routine can help improve your endurance and form.
“Strength training, even with simple dumbbells, helps create a more durable athlete,” says Sam Tooley, a USATF-certified running coach and the owner of Alpha Performance Studio in Garwood, New Jersey. “As runners, we are constantly putting stress on our bodies by pounding the pavement and pushing our limits—the more equipped our body is to handle that stress, the more likely we are to stay healthy and injury-free.”
You can obviously benefit from bodyweight exercises, but by using actual weights, you train your body to handle an additional load. “That stress is something your body has to combat and adapt to in order to grow stronger,” says Tooley. “If you’re just doing bodyweight movements, you’re missing out on a ton of bang for your buck that you’d get with properly executed weight work.”
That extra weight also helps target issues in form and posture. “From slouched shoulders to an arched back, shortening of stride to heel-striking, these weaknesses show up when fatigue begins to set in,” says Tooley. “The stronger foundation we give ourselves, the easier maintaining our form and posture will be in those latter stages of a grueling race or workout.”
How to use this list: The exercises below are demonstrated by Runner’s World+ Coach, Jess Movold so you can learn perfect form. Perform three sets of these exercises for the amount of reps listed twice a week. For best results, hit the weight room after high-quality runs or cross-training sessions to ensure that recovery days are spent doing exactly that: recovering.
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding dumbbells in front of hips, palms facing thighs. Hinge at the hips then bend knees slightly to lower dumbbells along the front of legs, pausing when torso is parallel to the ground. Drive through the midfoot to return to stand, keeping dumbbells close to the body throughout. Fully extend hips and knees, squeezing glutes at the top. That’s one rep. Perform 10 reps. Repeat for 3 sets total.
Why it works: This move targets the hamstrings and lower back, two constant problem areas for runners, says Tooley. “A deadlift focuses on engaging the hamstrings throughout the duration of the movement,” he explains. As you slowly fold forward to actively stretch the muscle, you’re fighting the force of weight; as you explode back up to start, you contract the muscle to pull that weight back up. “Controlling this stretch and squeeze of the hamstring is incredibly beneficial for building strength in your legs for the latter stages of a race,” says Tooley.
Weighted Step-Up With Knee Drive
How to do it: Stand in front of a step or bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Step up with right foot, then drive the left knee up toward your chest so hip and knee form a 90-degree angle. Return to start. That’s one rep. Do 8 reps on each side. Repeat for 3 sets total.
Why it works: Thanks to our day jobs, most runners’ have weak hips and limited knee drive. “The step-up focuses on explosive power in the hips and quads,” says Tooley. It also mimics the running motion, but adding weights makes it more challenging. “By opening up your hips and focusing your knee drive, you’ll feel more explosive in each stride and improve the length of your stride—and longer, more efficient, and more powerful strides means faster paces.”
How to do it: Start with dumbbells racked at your shoulders, palms facing in. Press the dumbbells overhead until your arms are straight, standing tall throughout. Return to start. That’s one rep. Do 10 reps. Repeat for 3 sets total.
Why it works: “Our shoulders and arms are far more crucial to our running than most people understand,” says Tooley. A strong upper body increases your ability to maintain posture and keep propelling yourself forward when you’re tired—as you slow, pumping your arms harder can actually help you move faster. “Focusing on our ability to pull and press with force helps build that upper body strength for when we’re under stress,” he says.
How to do it: Start standing, with a micro-bend in knees and two dumbbells in hands, palms facing in. Hinge forward at the hips so arms hang perpendicular to floor. Bend elbows to pull weights up to ribs, drawing shoulder blades back and down. Return to start. That’s one rep. Do 10 reps. Repeat for 3 sets total.
Why it works: If you’re doing this move properly, everything from the hamstrings and hips to the entire back and core should be engaged, which improves your stability. “Stability under stress is crucial for an endurance athlete,” says Tooley. “Explosive movements like this teach our body to remain stable when all it wants to do is bend and fold; you’re not only increasing physical strength, but promoting proper posture and form under stress, like during a race.”
How to do it: Start in a high plank position, hands on dumbbells, wrists under shoulders, feet in a wide stance. Keeping hips steady, pull one dumbbell up to rib cage, creating a 90-degree angle with your elbow. Return dumbbell to floor and repeat on the other side. Continue alternating for 16 reps. Repeat for 3 sets total.
Why it works: “The core is our center, it controls everything that happens,” says Tooley. If you’re all wobbly in your core, you run the risk of over-rotating and wasting energy on your arm swing while you’re running. “The less energy we waste, the more our body can focus on propelling itself forward—and in running, that’s the entire goal.”
Weighted Glute Bridge
How to do it: Start lying faceup on the mat with knees bent, feet flat on floor, holding one or both dumbbells across your hips. Press through heels to lift hips up toward ceiling then slowly lower back down. That’s one rep. Do 15 reps. Repeat for 3 sets total.
Why it works: Your stride starts in your pelvis and glutes, and “hip bridges ignite your posterior chain from your hamstrings to your glutes,” says Tooley. And “if you’re lacking in posterior chain strength, your risk for injury rises.” Hip bridges without a weight are great, but becoming comfortable and confident with an additional load only increases the benefits, he adds.