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8 Golden Rules of Strength Training for Beginners

New to lifting? Let these tips guide you toward a successful workout and better performance on the run.

strength training tips for beginners
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When it comes to making strides, runners are often laser-focused on mileage. And that’s not a bad approach. More miles do make you a better runner. But they aren’t the only way to up your running game, something many novice runners don’t realize. Enter: strength training.

In general, strength training “helps with maintaining or increasing muscle tissue and improving bone density over time, as well as helping to reduce injuries and body fat,” Yusuf Jeffers, a NYC-based strength and conditioning coach, run coach, and fitness instructor explains to Runner’s World. “When specifically applied to a runner, strength training will help with increasing speed, power, and neural adaptations.”

More specifically, “because running is repetitive pounding on the ground in a certain movement, you want to have support for your joints, power to push you forward efficiently, and greater mass to shock absorb during landing,” Carly Graham, D.P.T., a physical therapist and certified running coach, tells Runner’s World. “Strengthening and supporting a pattern that you do for so many steps will help keep you stronger and healthier while completing the sport.”

Why New Runners Need Strength Training

According to Andy Speer, C.S.C.S., a Peloton tread and strength instructor, there are two big reasons why runners need strength training: injury prevention and performance. “Running demands high repetitions of the same movement in a limited range of motion,” he says. “Strength training in multiple planes of motion and greater ranges of motion (think lateral lunges and single-leg deadlifts) balances the high volume of steps runners take on a weekly basis.”

Strength training also shores up your connective tissue, tendons and ligaments. “Having strong, resilient connective tissue can help reduce risk of overuse injury,” he says.

Unfortunately, Jeffers says that time and time again he sees runners consistently neglect to do any form of strength training—until some sort of injury prevents running and rehabilitation is necessary. But the truth is, even the most casual of general strength programs can go a long way in helping to address potential muscular imbalances and keeping you running long and strong.

If you are not used to lifting, getting started can feel intimidating. So, strength and running pros let us in on the golden rules of strength training for runners—tips that build the foundation of an effective and efficient weight training program. Even if you’re new to strength training, you’ll have a basis of knowledge to get started and see progress with these key facts.

1. Start new moves using bodyweight only

You don’t need to be in such hurry to pick (heavy) things up and put them down. “Novice lifters should start without weight to learn proper technique and emphasize movement characteristics with the guidance of a professional,” says Natalie Niemczyk, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and owner of Revolution Running Physical Therapy in Long Island, New York. You also want to allow the body to go through an adjustment period, in which increased fatigue may occur and more recovery is needed—similar to what you experience when you begin a running program, Niemczyk says.

Once you’ve mastered bodyweight moves, then step it up to light weights. “The stimulus from range of motion even with light weights will be plenty at the beginning of your strength training journey,” says Speer, who notes that proper technique, balance, and range of motion are all more important than the amount of weight you lift initially.

“You want to aim for longterm progress, the same way you should approach running. Strength training will be more enjoyable and effective if you make small progressions over time,” he adds. If you’re super sore after every single workout, will you still want to come back for more? Likely not. So start light and work up.

As you get stronger, Yusuf warns that those who are just starting to incorporate weights into their routine shouldn’t be attempting to lift a one-rep max—the maximum amount of weight you can lift for one repetition—too frequently. (This is something more experienced lifters might do to hone in on strength and max out on weight in a specific movement.)

Instead, to build strength, you do want to choose weights around 85 percent of your one-rep max and go for low reps. “Higher efforts can severely depress the central nervous system, making recovery and subsequent runs and other activities difficult,” he says.

2. Incorporate holds into your routine

Most people think you need to sling around heavy weights to gain fitness benefits—but that’s not quite true. In reality, isometric exercises will also benefit runners looking to build strength and stability. These moves require contraction of a specific muscle or a group of muscles and holding that contraction in the same position for a determined period of time (think planks and hollow-body holds).

“Isometrics are a powerful training tool, especially for runners,” says Speer. “Holding positions for 30 to 60 seconds, such as lunges and single-leg balances help strengthen muscles, connective tissue (i.e. joints), and your core.”

It also may be the best way help make the body a buttress against internal and external forces, helping you maintain a stable posture during activities like running. This is an important factor considering good running posture can make you more efficient, as well as help ward off overuse injuries such as knee and IT band pain and plantar fasciitis.

3. Target your entire lower half

It’s been said that the glutes are the powerhouse of a runner, and research agrees, revealing that the more developed yours are, the more kick you have. The quads and hamstrings aren’t too far behind. But what about the rest of the leg? Unfortunately, people often neglect everything below the knee—and you shouldn’t.

“Your calves and anterior tibialis (the muscle in the front of your shin) are very important in running,” says Speer. The former is what lifts your heel and provides a lot of the power and force production required for running, while the latter helps with dorsiflexion (or toes pulling up to shin). Speer’s advice: Using a wall to balance, perform bodyweight calf raises and toe raises. Start with 2 to 3 sets of 10 reps each, increasing those reps and sets over time.

4. Focus on compound moves and running muscles

strength training tips for beginners
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When it comes to choosing what moves to actually do for your first couple strength workouts, Jeffers suggests compound exercises that complement running movement patterns versus single-joint isolation exercises. That means moves like squats (working multiple muscle groups, like quads and glutes) versus bicep curls (which just focus on the biceps).

The reason? These types of lifts recruit more muscle groups leading to a bigger response, he says. Research agrees. One study in Frontiers in Physiology revealed that multi-joint exercises provide higher gains in physical performance thanks to an uptick in both cardiorespiratory fitness and maximal strength.

You should also make sure your strength workouts focus on unilateral (or single-side) movements (psst, running is a unilateral movement), such as single-leg deadlifts and lunge variations, adds Speer. In general he says you should pick one to two sets in each workout where your muscles fatigue by the last two reps, while the rest of your session should focus on learning exercise technique and gaining range of motion.

Be careful not to overload your muscles, though. One thing you don’t want is for your strength training to affect your form or make you compensate due to soreness since that could lead to an injury or another issue, says Graham, who also recommends you consult with a physical therapist to make sure your body has the mobility to complete the motions you want and that you are loading your muscles properly. It’s also smart to hire a personal trainer who can help you learn how to perform standard moves and help address any muscle imbalances you might have that can lead to injuries.

5. Time your strength work with your run schedule

Strength training—which Niemczyk says it’s most effective when performed two to three times per week in the off-season and one to two times per week while training for a race—is meant to support your running, not make it more difficult. For example, beginning a strengthening program too close to race day can not only hinder your running performance but place you at risk for injury, says Niemczyk. She notes that in the beginning you need to allow for an adjustment period in which increased fatigue may occur and more recovery is needed, similar to what you experience when you begin a running program.

Also, “adding too much lifting volume as your running volume increases can be counterproductive,” says Speer. “If your miles per week are increasing to a challenging level, keep your lifting manageable and consistent. When you lighten your running mileage, this is a good time to push your weights.”

Runners should aim to periodize their strength training if possible, says Jeffers, just as you would do with your running. Do the “majority of lifting during speed (anaerobic) phases of training versus endurance (aerobic) phase,” he says. “Strength, speed, and power are a more similar stimuli than strength and endurance.”

Also important: Add in shorter sessions throughout the week so you don’t get too sore for the next day or fatigue your muscles too much at once, advises Graham.

6. Get your mind involved in the workout

“Make sure you are not just going through motions, but feeling the correct muscles turn on,” advises Graham. For example, you want to focus on “actually driving through your heels to use your glutes [in moves like squats, deadlifts, and lunges] or keeping your core tight during ‘ab’ work.” Being more mindful, and more specifically, focusing on the muscle you are working while contracting it (you might have heard of this as the mind-muscle connection) can result in a greater increase in muscle size and strength.

Jeffers agrees, also adding that performing each repetition with good form, focusing on quality of movement versus quantity, is key. For example, “shortening the range of motion will sometimes neglect deficiencies in strength or muscle recruitment at the end range of movement, where most people are weakest,” he says. For example, it’s okay to not squat at full depth if you’re not confident in that end range of motion yet.

7. Take rest breaks

Remember your strength day is your strength day, so resist the temptation to turn your lift session into a cardio session—if you really want to get stronger.

In other words, rest between sets and let the heart rate come down if it spikes, advises Jeffers. Proper rest “helps with being able to give appropriately intense efforts to elicit muscular adaptations.” If you rest for at least a minute between big moves like deadlifts, for example, that rest period will allow you to continue to lift a heavy weight, rather than dropping down or sacrificing form because you’re tired from insufficient recovery time.

8. Log your lifts to track your progress

You track your runs (or at least you should) because it gives you a window into not only your progress but your challenges too. Well, you should also record the moves you do and the weights you lift for those moves, Jeffers says.

Progressive overload—or gradually increasing the weight, frequency, or number of repetitions in your strength training routine—is what leads to strength increases and keeps you from hitting a plateau. To make sure you’re continuously moving forward, you have to keep track of where you’re at too. Plus, it can build confidence to see the progress you’ve made over time, especially if you started with something like bodyweight squats and now lift 40 or 50 pounds as you go.

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