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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Strongman for Runners? Part 1: Why I will be developing freaky gorilla strength this winter

It's never too early to start lifting heavy.

Back in my meathead days, I used to train at my local Lifetime Fitness. When I did, I made an interesting observation. The further back you looked into the corner of the gym, the more fit the people got. As you walk up into the main fitness area of any normal gym, you usually have about 30 different versions of an electronic hampster wheel. And folks of all shapes and sizes are usually acting like hampsters on a wheel. They are dittling around mindlessly for minutes at a time, usually with that same blank hampster stare. I'm surprised the floor isn't covered with cedar chips.

You move a little further into the gym and you see folks on some kind of mechanical weight contraption. Again, not much thought is being placed into what these folks are doing. You'll probably see a guy loading all of the weight on the pec fly machine and then proceed to lift that load with his back instead of his pecs. Then you'll look next to him and see a lady doing 100 reps on the hip adductor machine with one plate while reading a book and eating a salad. Although I am a fan of that machine for obvious reasons.

Then you'd look into the free weight area and it would be empty. That is unless you looked into the far back corner and find the lone power rack. At that power rack would always be a someone who had stolen all the 45lb plates in the gym, and was proceeding to squat them all simultaneously. You're probably thinking that this guy was some fatso powerlifter.

Actually it was a woman. She could deadlift about 25lbs more than me, and she weighed about 70lbs less.

This isn't the same lady I saw, but it is the same weight.

Since I was getting bored with the typical bodybuilder routine, I started occupying that back corner as well and watching folks like that woman train. I found out there were quite a few competitive powerlifting types at that gym. They were leaner and more cut than anyone else in the gym. They had crazy, freaky gorilla strength; especially for their size. And all I ever saw them do were low reps (usually between 1-5) with high weight of squats, deadlifts, and maybe bench presses or some Olympic lifts.

What does any of this have to do with running? Just wait. It'll come back around. My explanations always include circular stories. Deal with it.

Deadlifts = Speed?

The concept of applying powerlifting-style training to running isn't exactly new. Back in 2004, Barry Ross wrote a fantastic article on the topic. Barry Ross has been helping sprinters get faster for years; most notibly the U.S. Women's indoor track team that won the 2003 World Championships. He didn't have sprinters do any of the typical sport-specific drills that other coaches did. His protocol was simple. Low rep, heavy weight deadlifts followed by box jumps. Maybe an Olympic lift or two. He never had his athletes lifting until muscle failure. How about actually sprinting? Sure, occasionally. Otherwise, deadlifts and box jumps. That's....about it....

Okay fine. That's sprinting. Sprinting has more in common than jogging than you think, but that's another post. It's mostly about strength and power. Strength and power are pretty close together on the spectrum. Strength and endurance are supposed to be at opposite ends. For years I sacrificed the muscles of my former meathead days because I was convinced that you couldn't be strong and also go long. But innovators like Brian MacKenzie from Crossfit Endurance taught me that it doesn't have to be that way. I could make gains in my strength training without sacrificing my running. In fact, the two could go hand in hand! I could be what I always wanted to be...a meathead runner!

I love hand tats. Though if I got one it would probably say "BOOBIES!"

How can you lift heavy and go long? Well if you ask the everyday Crossfitter why he can do just about anything, he'll regurgetate something about "increased work capacity across broad time and modial domains." He also has no idea what that means. That's just the robotic, cultish answer that Greg Glassman told him to say. But he probably thinks that he gets his abilities from doing burpees as fast as he can until he pukes.

And I agree with him to a certain extent. Not the puking part. That's gross. But the high-intensity aspect of Crossfit training, i.e. going balls-out every workout is part of the equation. Crossfit Endurance seeks to replace volume with intensity. There are countless studies out now showing that interval training is more effective than traditional aerobic exercise. That Crossfit-style high-intensity style strength training allows people to maintain higher-levels of effort for longer periods of time (you don't have to take my word for it, you can read this study. The strength training itself is also highly aerobic (a good book on that topic is "Body by Science" by Doug McGuff). Training that way has lots of different applications (thus the "broad time and modial domains"). The result in an endurance event though is the ability to go longer, faster.

Deadlifts = Endurance?

But what's often overlooked about Crossfit is that it also has a strength component. That same high weight, low rep stuff I saw those powerlifters doing. As one Crossfit affiliate laments in this article, people are lured to the "sexy met-con" and think that's what makes you a better Crossfitter. These are the workouts that everyone thinks about when they think about Crossfit. The ones that involve ridiculous amounts of reps and bodyweight exercises. Those sorts of workouts with their high rep, low weight protocol are great for building muscular and cardiovascular endurance. But they do very little to build actual strength; i.e. the ability to move increasingly heavy loads. They also have other huge negatives, like reinforcing bad form, the very real possibility of injury, and the more likely possibility of overtraining.

So what? Aren't these met-con workouts the stuff that a runner should be doing? It seems logical that an endurance athlete should do endurance-specific strength training. And you can do it and see good results. You can't ignore the overwhelming evidence about the benefits of high-intensity interval training. But as I got deeper and deeper into Crossfit Endurance, I found myself leaning more heavily on that strength component at the expense of the met-con in order to continue my progress. Like any strength program, with Crossfit you'll make great gains in the beginning, but you'll eventually plateau. The more I did strength work, the bigger my gains it seems in both strength and endurance. I was also recovering faster and having less delayed onset muscle soreness.

In fact, I started to think that Barry Ross had it right for endurance athletes too. Maybe the most effective kind of strength training for endurance sports is the exact opposite of a typical Crossfit met-con workout. It's doing low-rep, heavy weight stuff and exercises focusing on explosive movements. So instead of doing 100 air squats for time, you'll get better results as a runner doing 5 reps back squat with a heavy weight. Or you follow Barry Ross's advice and do deadlifts.

So I did some research (i.e. I googled stuff for about five minutes) and came upon this study. In summary, it says that a combination of heavy weights and plyometrics most effectively increased speed and running economy. Low reps of heavy weight followed by box jumps? Sound familiar? I also found an article that summarizes several studies that heavy weight and low rep strength training is more effective at improving endurance than endurance training alone.  Interestingly, the article also summarizes numerous studies that say doing low resistance strength training was not effective in boosting endurance performance.  Hmmmm....

I know not to look too far into studies like this, but it's interesting that I seemed to confirm everything that I've experienced in the past couple of months in a five minute google search.  Everything old is new again! The circle of meat is now complete! I wish it hadn't taken me a decade to figure that one out!

My Plan for Freaky Gorilla Strength

How do you build crazy stupid strength? Back when I started hanging out with the strength freaks at Lifetime, I also purchased the book "Power to the People" by Pavel Tsatsouline on their suggestion. Pavel is a strength genius. He advocates a workout similar to the one that my new friends were doing. In fact, it was even more simple than the Barry Ross plan. He claims that you can make the best gains by doing 5 sets of 5 reps of only two exercises: deadlifts and one-arm overhead presses twice a week. If you're more the bodybuilder type like I was, you exchange overhead presses for bench presses for pretty pecs. And again, you never...ever...train to muscle failure. All of this sounding familiar?

In Russia, kettlebell lifts you!

I was used to worshiping the all-mighty muscle pump caused by lifting to failure. But I also wanted to be able to lift every weight in the gym. So back in the day I did the program, and increased my bench press from 250 to 300 lbs, and my deadlift from 300 to 425 lbs. After that, I didn't need any more convincing that his style of training works.

The thing I've never liked about Pavel's program though is that unless you like deadlifts (which I do) it can be dreadfully boring. So I decided to do some other things that are very much in the spirit of this style of training, but a lot more fun. It also incorporates the benefits of high intensity interval training.

But to find out what, you'll have to stay tuned for Part 2...

Strongman for Runners?  Part 2: Tire flipping?  Yes please!

Cheers to getting strong citizens


  1. Two problems with strength training for endurance:

    1. Muscle hypertrophy adds weight, which is detrimental to endurance. The more weight you carry, the more energy expended to haul your ass up and down hills. Some muscle mass is good... the trick is finding the peak of that bell curve.

    2. Without long training runs, you do not learn the details of running long. This is my criticism of CFE. There are logistical, gear, and physiological issues associated with endurance running. Experiencing them for the first time in a race is a recipe for disaster. HOWEVER, once that experience is gained, CFE is great. I use a bastardized (i.e.- Kemme Fitness-inspired) version of CFE now.

    Otherwise, I agree.

  2. The good thing about the Pavel program is that it adds strength without sIgnificant size. Also, usually running acts catabolically to limit muscle growth in conjunction with a strength program.

    I agree with you criticisms of CFE though. In fact, I blame it's limitations for my injury after running my first 50k. You can't run nothing but 5k an 10k time trials and then run an ultra without doing substantial damage to your connective tissue. You need long runs not only to gain race experience, but also to get used to the wear on your body of going long.

    I am actually off of CFE and just alternating heavy weights with LSD running and find it much more effective.

  3. You mentioned you are off CFE. Are you still doing regular CF?

  4. Doesn't PTP and Body By Science contradict eachother in terms of training to failure? BBS, and HIIT in general, are about training to muscle failure. With PTP you never train to failure.

  5. Hey MGBG, very intersting post. I've always enjoyed the big lifts--dead lifts, clean and jerk, snatch--and generally avoid small muscle exercises. Anyway, you mentioned in a comment that "usually running acts catabolically to limit muscle growth in conjunction with a strength program." Lately I've been benching after my runs, and doing back stuff, including lifts, on my rowing days. Do you see any problem with this? I used to just run one day, do weights the next, but now I've incorporated rowing into my routine so I can get some aerobic exercise in 6 days a week. I don't have any specific running or weight goals--I'm just aiming for overall fitness. Also, your regimen seems to ignore the max HR stuff, which I'm fine with ignoring, because I've been ignoring it myself, but I wonder if you had any thoughts on that.

  6. I'm not doing a whole lot of CF anymore. I'm doing strongman style workouts, which I'll talk about later. They do have a touch of CF inspiration though.

    I'm not so sure I agree that HIIT is all about muscle failure. More intensity for brief time, which may lead to muscle failure. But yes, a pure PTP program is just about the polar opposite of HIIT. You can combine the two (which is what I'm doing to some extent) and reap the benefits of both though I think.

    Tune in tomorrow Nick. There's a second part to this article.

  7. Erik, personally I'd do weight stuff before you run instead of after so that you can lift more. Otherwise nothing wrong with lifting and doing aerobic exercise on the same day. I've even read something that it helps release more human growth hormone.

    As for Max HR stuff, wait for tomorrows post

  8. Thanks for your timely reply. For the time being, I'll continue to lift after running and rowing, because building up my aerobic capacity, and losing another 20-30 pounds, is the priority right now. But I like to change things up every once and while, so I'll probably take up your suggestion sometime in the futuer. Look forward to your post tomorrow. A friend gave me his old Polar HR monitor a month ago. I used it a few times and now it's gathering dust. Turns out I'm right at 85 percent of my supposed max HR when I run, and a little below that when I row. But I'm a 'listen-to-your-body' kind of guy, so quantification doesn't mean a whole lot to me. Maybe if I were training for a marathon or something ...

  9. Have you ever thought about gymnastics? http://gymnasticbodies.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8:building-an-olympic-body&catid=2:articles&Itemid=3

  10. Pavel's program is good, but I prefer Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. This book will get you stronger guaranteed, and has extensive information on performing the lifts safely and correctly.

  11. Christian. I did Pavel for a while. He is great for strength. I have a challenge for you. Can you get extreme strenght, not increase your size (you're still with me I know), but also without weight higher than 30 pounds?

    My answer after these last few years is...YES! My Slosh Tube is 30 pounds (small hands so only 3" diameter). Everything else in my home gym weights less (clubbells only about 13 pounds). Being core-centered has maintained my strength without needing a barbell or heavy weight. Just a thought (I will post on this soon - have it in queue).

    Keep it up though...preaching to those runners about rounding out their programs. I love what you do and stay safe at work my friend!!

  12. Pete, you should read Pavel's interview in T Nation (best strength blog ever). He talks about how core centric stuff like kettlebells do a ton for strength even at low weights. He also says that no one really knows why. Pretty cool stuff.

  13. It makes sense. I mean, it can't hurt to try using endurance exercises to improve performance. I always remember most of the sprinters I know lifting weights so it should definitely be something for endurance runners to utilize.


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