Strength Training: Practical Application, Sample Workouts

First, let's review some key components of strength training.

In my last post, I summarized the findings of a recent review from Ronnestad and Mujika. The take-home message: strength training is generally beneficial for runners and cyclists and "...there are no reports of negative impacts of concurrent training on endurance performance" ( Ronnestad & Mujika, 2013).

There are many ways to approach strength training. By varying exercise, load, volume and recovery time the athlete can change the focus of the workout. In the table below, I've tried to summarize what we know about volume and load manipulation for different adaptations.

Strength (Neural)
Low (1-6 reps)
High (≥80% 1RM)
Long (5+ minutes)
Low (3-6 reps)
Varied (30-90% 1RM)
Long (5+ minutes)
Moderate (8-12 reps)
Moderate (60-80% 1RM)
Short (1-2 minutes)
Muscular Endurance
High (12+ reps)
Low (30-50% 1 RM)
Short (1 minute)

I would like to point out that lifting heavy loads with low volume is generally done with the intent of increasing maximal strength, but as maximal strength increases, so can endurance at a given submaximal load. Some believe that there is only one way to improve muscular endurance - through high repetitions and lighter loads, but this simply isn't true.

Here's an example, using fictional athletes:

Jim has a back squat 1RM of 100kg, while Sam has a 1RM of 85 kg. Now, who can complete the most reps at 80 kg? For Jim, 80kg is 80% of his 1RM, but for Sam, 80 kg is 94% of his 1RM. Jim will likely be able to rep the load 7-8 times, while Sam may only be able to get 2-3 reps (Estimating 1RM). So we can agree, Jim is stronger and more fatigue resistant at a given submaximal load (<85kg).

Another way to look at it would be to compare total work done in a set number of reps at a given percent of 1RM. If Jim lifts 3 reps @ 90% 1RM, he completes more work than if Sam lifts 3 reps at 90% of his 1 RM. More work in the same amount of time... that's like running or riding further in a given amount of time.

This is not to bash high rep, low load training. Certainly, one can gain muscular endurance from that. But if an athlete only focuses on those sorts of exercises (like bodyweight squats or lunges), he may eventually be limited by his maximal strength. If Sam does hundreds of bodyweight squats a week for months, he will never be able to complete 10 reps at 100% of his 1RM (85kg), or be able to lift Jim's 1RM of 100kg. All he needs to do is improve his maximal strength, and to do this he has to apply the right stimulus of heavy loads (Brown, 2007).

Below I've outlined a basic routine for a distance runner and a cyclist. Yes, the programs may change depending on the athlete's experience, goals, injury history, and so on, but I want to provide a basic framework for an example. The primary goal here is to increase maximal strength through neural adaptation. These routines would be best done when overall running or cycling volume and intensity is low - perhaps pre-season or "off season," and done 2-4x per week. You can click on the exercise for a link to a demonstration.

Distance Runner
Back Squat
Step-ups OR Forward/Backward Lunges
Calf Raises OR Calf Press
Hip Thrust
Military Press

Back Squat
Leg Press
Hip Thrust
Hamstring Curl

It's that easy. Remember, we want to maximize strength and minimize hypertrophy (endurance exercise may also help limit hypertrophy), so all of these exercises would be done with high loads, low volume and long recoveries between sets. Perhaps 80-90% 1 RM with 3-6 sets of 3-6 reps. For secondary lifts, like lunges, step-ups, leg press, etc.,  I don't set 1RMs. Instead, chose a load that is difficult to complete for 6-8 reps.

These workouts could be repeated 2-4x a week or the athlete could use different variations of the lifts. For example, back squat could become front squat or box squat for the cyclist. Deadlift could become stiff-legged or single-legged. But I think the above exercises will enable the athlete to place the most load on the system; I cannot front squat as much as I can back squat, so which gives me the best stimulus for strength gains?

Now maximal strength is certainly not the only piece of the equation. Once you've developed strength, then you can shift your focus to power with jump squats, power cleans, hill sprints, etc. In addition to these strength routines, I would also suggest completing a few core specific movements - especially for the runner or multisport athlete. It's easy to tack those exercises on immediately after the main session. But that's a topic for another day.

Brown, L. E., & National Strength & Conditioning Association (U.S.). (2007). Strength training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Ronnestad, B. R., & Mujika, I. (2013). Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. Scand J Med Sci Sports.


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