Strong means different things to different athletes. The strongest among us are usually described in terms of their knockout rate, explosive dead-lift strength, or that rare football player that is said to “produce the most locomotive force of any human on the planet” – the label given Houston Texans’ defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in 2014. But strong, no matter the sport, seems to have at least one thing in common. Hard work.
Weight lifters hold a unique perspective on the pursuit of strong. The strength coaches of some of the most seriously strong of these athletes discussed what they believe separates the strong from the weak (10 Things the Strongest Athletes in the Weight Room Have in Common). They say the attributes of the strongest athletes include perseverance, consistency, having a plan, and working toward a goal. Very few athletes – even the ones who are gifted – are particularly strong from the get-go. They work at it for a long time.
I can vouch that it is possible to be a fairly good runner for some period of time with barely an ounce of true strength. A couple of years had passed after my first marathon before I discovered the plank or felt any need whatsoever to do one. Eventally I suffered through an endless list of injuries.
Writing a series on the anatomy of a runner has taught me that one of the major causes of injuries is muscle imbalance. Muscle balance is considered to be the harmonious action where muscles that surround a joint work together with normal opposing force to keep the bones involved with that joint centered. An imbalance occurs when an opposing muscle is incapable of contributing its share of the load, which may cause joint inflammation, tissue damage, pain, or abnormal muscle movement. Strength training is a simple remedy for the imbalances caused by the repetitiveness of our sport. Perhaps our individual rate of injury coincides with the time it takes our muscles to fall out of balance, and you need not be a runner or even an athlete to suffer these ill effects.
The strengthening program I’ve used for several years comes from Coach Jay Johnson. His Core H and Better Myrtl are a series of mostly 1-minute exercises specifically for runners that definitely create a burn.
Maybe they look easy enough. No kidding, they’re tough. The thing is that at the height of marathon training I don’t always have the energy (or the commitment) for tough. This year I decided there must be a fix for those few weeks of the most intense running of the year that would maintain strength without zapping me mentally or physically – a minimalist approach of sorts. Turns out I wasn’t the only one thinking this way.
Strength coaches tell us that when we don’t hold onto the strength we’ve built in the off-season, it takes a long time to build back up to where we were. “In-season training doesn’t need to be hard and heavy—just enough to maintain and pick up where you left off” – Tony Bonvechio, strength coach and co-founder of The Strength House.
Brad Stulberg writes Outside’s Science of Performance column (and author of the new book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success). Last month he wrote “The Minimalist’s Strength Workout: Five exercises that will guarantee you have the strength to adventure all weekend, well into your eighties.”
The article came out at the peak of my last marathon training program, and I immediately added the minimalist’s five to my weekly routine. I saved them for late afternoon 2-3 times each week rather than following a run, and it made all the difference in the world.
Having fully recovered from my latest marathon, I’ve reverted back to the Core H and a Better Myrtl program (Coach Johnson has since updated the Better Myrtl with a Strength & Mobility version) although the minimalist exercises still have a spot in my routine. I’ve come to appreciate their simplicity and their added-value, and finally I’ve been able to pick up where I left off in the last off-season.
Following is a brief guide to each of the five exercises, but it’s worth reading Stulberg’s full article here.
Grip the bar with your palms facing out and hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Pull yourself up so your chin is above the bar. Hold for one second. Then extend all the way down so your arms are straight and elbows are locked. Throughout the movement, focus on keeping your core taut. You’ll know you’re achieving this because your legs won’t be swinging around. 3 sets x 6 reps.
Stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, feet pointing slightly out. Hold a kettlebell by the horns, or a dumbbell with palms facing up, close to your chest. Squat down, keeping your heels on the ground. At the lowest point, your butt should be parallel to or just below your knees. Then push up to a standing positioning, locking your knees at the top. 3 sets x 8 reps.
Begin with your chest down and palms pressing into the ground, thumbs at or a little outside of your nipples. Press up, locking your elbows at the top. Lower your back all the way down, so your chest hovers just a centimeter or two off the ground. Press up. Repeat. Be sure to tuck in your stomach and keep your core tight throughout the movement so you have minimal arch in your spine. 3 sets x 16 reps.
Stand straight, toes pointing forward, feet about six inches apart. If you’re using dumbbells to increase the challenge, hold an equal weight in each hand at your sides, arms straight. Step forward with either foot so your knee is above your ankle. Push through the heel of the forward leg to return to an upright standing positioning. Repeat, this time stepping down with the opposite leg. 3 sets x 8 reps.
Stand on one leg, keeping your knee slightly bent. If you’re using dumbbells, hold them on the same side as the leg you’re standing on. Bend forward at the hip, extending your free leg straight behind you for balance. Continue lowering until your chest is parallel with the ground, dumbbell almost touching the floor. Then press back to an upright position. 3 sets x 8 reps.