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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ask MGBG: Crosstraining, Part II

In Part One, I talked about some basics of a good strength training program...i.e. why those one-size fits all strength programs won't work for every runner. In this post I thought I would elaborate on how you go about identifying a program that will work for you, or how you can develop your own.

What does a strength workout look like?

It's generally accepted that a workout to develop absolute strength is one using heavier weights in a rep range of 1-8. In my opinion, you get the best results if you stick with the 1-5 rep range. The exercises performed are compound movements, i.e. exercises that incorporate multiple muscle groups. You don't build strength by doing reverse EZ-bar bicep curls while standing with one foot on a bosu ball. You do it with the big guns; squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and overhead presses. Exercises that make you grunt a lot and turn various shades of red and purple.

A typical strength workout will start out with one or more of those exercises. Your protocol would involve performing 3-5 sets of 5 reps of each of these exercises and resting between 2-5 minutes. Doesn't seem like much of a workout with all that rest? Trust me, you'll be plenty fried. And you need to rest that long in order to move maximum load during each set.

After compound movements, folks usually add accessory movements that address different aspects of each main lift. The accessory exercise is usually chosen to hit a weak area or a sticking point in your lifts. For example, if you don't have the back strength to lock out your deadlift, you might do something like good mornings to target your lower back muscles.

Here's an example of a typical strength workout:

5x5 Deadlift
5x8 Walking Lunges
5x8 Good Mornings

There are tons of these programs around if you don't want to create your own (although it's pretty easy). Wendler 5/3/1, Power to the People, and Westside for Skinny Bastards are some of the better ones. I'd do the last one just for the name!

What does a high-intensity interval training workout look like?

One of the reasons programs like Crossfit are so popular is because of the variety. You could be doing Olympic lifts one day, and then gymnastic-inspired bodyweight exercises the next. Sometimes it seems like these exercises are thrown in together at random. That's not completely off the mark. But there are some guiding principles to designing these workouts.

First is the type of exercises used. There are generally three types of exercises found in a typical HIIT workout: compound or Olympic lifts, bodyweight exercises, and aerobic exercises. Compound lifts are the ones we talked about before; squats, deadlifts, overhead presses and the like. Olympic lifts are dynamic and explosive exercises with semi-pornographic names like clean and jerk or snatch. Bodyweight exercises are...well, exercises using bodyweight only. And the aerobic exercises used are usually things that you can easily transition into and out of like running or rowing.

HIIT workouts can incorporate just one of these types of exercises, or several. Workouts that only involve one type are called singlets. Workouts with two are couplets. Workouts with three are triplets. Here are some examples of each.

5 pull-ups
10 push-ups
15 air squats
Repeat for 20 minutes

Run 400m
15 Overhead Squat
Repeat 5 times

30 squat cleans
30 pullups
1000m row
Repeat 3 times

People normally associate HIIT immediately with Crossfit, as it's the most popular. There are also several offshoots of the program for various specialities, including Crossfit Endurance, Sealfit, and Crossfit Football (my personal favorite). But they aren't the only game in town. Gym Jones is another popular option; though access to their workouts requires a membership. You could also hit up the workouts from my friend, and evil genius, Pete Kemme at Kemme Fitness.

Programming these workouts yourself gets a little tricky, as this kind of workout planning is somewhat of an art. If you decide to give it a try, I recommend you keep it simple and follow these tips from Crossfit Football guru John Welbourn.

Shouldn't I just do 3 sets of 12 reps of light leg extensions like everyone else at the gym?

No. Just....no.

If a workout program suggests that you do exercises with light weights in the 12 rep range, you need to walk away quickly. Most people in the gym are doing these sorts of routines in hopes of "toning" or "sculpting" their muscles, or working on their "endurance". They are probably also using those little weights in the corner of the gym with fluorescent color schemes.

Here's the deal. You can't tone or sculpt a muscle. Your muscle grows or gets smaller...end of story. Muscles grow when you use progressive overload; i.e. you use weights that are actually challenging and progressively increase them over time. Using light weights for lots of reps is like watching a Pauly Shore movie. You're wasting time you'll never get back. And at the end, you're probably dumber.

If this is the only kind of weight program you want to do, you might as well not lift. There are even studies out there showing that you will receive absolutely no benefit from a workout plan like that (here's a good overview of them).

Using heavier weights in the same rep range is slightly better, but still not helpful to most runners. Workouts emphasizing reps in the 8-12 rep range are best for maximizing hypertrophy (aka muscle size).  Note that muscle size doesn't necessarily mean muscle strength.  What you'll develop doing this sort of work is big, useless meat balloons attached to your skeleton.  Folks who prefer these workouts also enjoy spray tanning, and hanging out in man-thongs. While you may enjoy those things too (I hear thongs are pretty comfortable), you shouldn't if you're a runner. You'll put on a lot of unwanted size and weight, as well as lose flexibility.

Just say no!

So how do I incorporate these elements into my week?

If you've run for any significant period of time, you know that you can't just go out and run long every day. Your body needs time to rest and heal from the stress caused by going long. So in order to provide that rest, you do all sorts of programming gymastics. You alternate long runs with short runs. You take full days off. You vary your workout intensity.

The same thing goes for strength training. Your muscles don't grow and strengthen during a workout. They grow after a workout so long as they are properly rested. And you do that in a similar way: by resting as well as varying the intensity of your workout.

There are a million different ways to program your week to ensure proper rest. Crossfitters do a two-on, one-off protocol. Bodybuilders train every day, but train a different bodypart each time, thus resting each muscle for a week. Some powerlifters exercise the same body part several times a week, but at different intensities and/or speeds.

It all depends on the type of strength training you are doing. High intensity interval training often requires participants to work until muscle failure. Your muscles will require a significant period of rest to recover from such an intense workout. On the other hand, strength workouts do not require as much recovery though you're lifting heavier weight. I wouldn't recommend doing more than 2 HIIT workouts in a row before taking a day off. But you could do a strength workout every day if you wanted to (some powerlifters squat every day).

I want to be just like MGBG. What does your training schedule look like?

It's natural to want to be as awesome as me. So I'll talk a little bit about what kind of program I'm using right now. This will also give you a good idea of how to put everything I just ranted about into practice.

Here's how I chose my program. I've been a runner for several years at the marathon/ultra marathon distance. So I'm pretty well and good when it comes to aerobic capacity and muscular endurance. I know that my weaknesses are both speed and strength on hills. If you've been paying attention, that means I need to focus on strength, strength, and more strength.

Now I could have just done a traditional long-slow distance plan with a couple of days of heavy lifting thrown in, as Mark's Daily Apple recommends. But weight training shouldn't just be about results. It should also be fun. And I have fun doing HIIT and strongman-style event training. Sometimes more than I enjoy running. So I skip accessory movements in favor of some high intensity ass kicking. That's fine, because HIIT has a lot of carry-over to my running.

So my weight workouts generally look a lot like those on Crossfit Football (and lately...I've been lazy and uncreative, so I've just been following CFFB). That is, they are HIIT workouts with a strength focus. I'll start out with some sort of strength exercise like 5x5 back squats. Then I'll move on to a short 8-12 minute HIIT workout that compliments my strength exercise.

I do those workouts approximately 4 times a week. Then 3 times a week I do some sort of running workout; either an interval training session or a long-slow run. How did I decide to do 4 days instead of 5 or 2? I listened to my body and found a routine that works for me. If I did 5 workouts per week I didn't progress in my lifts, so I knew I was on the path to overtraining. If I did 2 workouts per week I had so much pent up energy I felt like a crack head.

Here's what a normal week looks like:

Monday: 3x5 back squats, 3x5 overhead press, 10 minute HIIT workout
Tuesday: 5x5 deadlifts, 10-12 200-400m intervals, core craziness
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: 3x5 back squats, 3x5 bench press, 10 minute HIIT and/or 800m intervals
Friday: 5x3 olympic lift, 10 minute HIIT
Saturday: Long-slow distance, 6-20 miles
Sunday: Rest

I hope this helps illuminate the world of strength training to all you runners out there. If you have questions, or want help setting up your own plan, shoot me an email at mgbarefootguy@gmail.com. We'll work something out.

Cheers to getting buff citizens!


  1. For complete newbies, http://www.exrx.net might be a good resource for training program development and exercise selection. Check out their Beginner's Page. They have a very broad range of exercises with written instructions and mini-videos of demos.

    But they don't have any pre-set training plans for runners, so you do have to figure some of that out yourself using MGBG's excellent guidelines.

  2. Thanks for the resource Brian! Although I don't want to empower people that much. Then they won't email me ;)

  3. What's best for burning fat? I need to shed about 15 pounds before summer.

  4. Just curious MGBG: are you pyramiding your lifts or do you do a set weight for all sets?

  5. Garrett, P90X is specifically designed to be a weight loss system. Though any weight training combined with good nutrition will help you dump a ton of weight.

    Erik, I do a linear progression with my heavy lifts. So I start my weights at around 75% of my 5 rep max, and add 5-10lbs onto it each week until I max out. Then I do it again. Pyramiding up can be good also, but you have to be careful not to lift too much or you can hinder future gains.

  6. This exercise is the same as the plank, except that you are in a pushup position. The pushup plank works the core workout, chest and biceps. This is a great exercise to end your with; it will fully fatigue almost every muscle in your upper body.

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