Running requires many parts of your body to all move in a perfectly synched and timely motion. Start training your muscles the same way in the gym by simply making a few adjustments to your exercises.
One of the biggest changes you can make is swapping out exercises where only one joint or part of your body is moving in favor of compound, multi-joint exercises.
“Compound exercises refer to multi-joint exercises where multiple muscles are working to move more than one joint,” certified personal trainer Pete McCall, author of Smarter Workouts: The Science of Exercise Made Simple and host of the All About Fitness podcast, tells Runner’s World. “A seated leg extension can strengthen the quadriceps muscles along the front of the thighs, but only the knee is moving. When running, the ankle, knee, and hip—and spine and shoulders—all work together to control the body’s position as it moves through space.”
Translation? Your strength workouts need to simulate running and work your muscles in the same ways.
So, swap out a few of the old classics for the best compound exercises for runners, below.
How to use this list: Erik Fredrickson, NASM-certified personal trainer and owner of Erik Fredrickson Coaching, recommends doing 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps of each exercise below.
Pulldown → Bent-Over Row
McCall says a bent-over row is a great core exercise, specifically targeting muscles used while running. Your core—transverse abdominis, pelvic floor, diaphragm, internal obliques, and the quadratus lumborum—has to stabilise the movement to keep your spine in the proper position. “When the deep core muscles are stronger, it could help improve the force that runners can use to push off the ground while running,” McCall says. “The greater the stability of the deep core, the more force can be put into the ground to propel the body forward.”
How to do a bent-over row: Start standing, with a microbend in knees and two dumbbells in hands, palms facing in. Hinge forward at the hips so arms hang perpendicular to floor. Bend elbows to pull weights up to ribs, drawing shoulder blades back and down. Return to start. Repeat
Leg Extension → Reverse Lunge to Single-Arm Row
This compound move using a cable machine works just about every muscle used to maintain posture, McCall says. “Using the right arm and left leg together help to strengthen the muscles that connect them, which is important because while running the right arm and left leg work together.”
How to do a reverse lunge to single-arm row: Hold a cable in the right hand, take a big step back with your right leg onto the ball if your right foot—keep the heel off the ground. Bend both knees until the left thigh is parallel to the ground and the right knee is hovering just above the ground, legs forming 90-degree angles. Push through the left heel to return to standing. When returning to standing, balance on the left leg while doing a row with the right arm (bend elbow to pull cable to rib). Repeat sequence on both sides.
Seated Row → Cable Squat Row
Using a cable machine for this exercise makes your muscles work harder to stabilise your body position. “Depending on the demand and style of your running—such as long distance versus short distance—squats and their variations are a great way to improve posture, strength, and stability in one exercise,” says Fredrickson.
How to do a cable squat row: Using resistance bands or cables at chest height, begin by having just enough tension that you feel pulled forward a bit. Then, while keeping your posture and core engaged, take 4 seconds to squat down as low as you can, and then take 2 seconds to come back up. Stopping when your knees are slightly bent, begin to pull the cables or resistance bands slowly to your chest, and then slowly release them until your arms are just slightly bent in front of you. Repeat.
Stationary Lunge → Walking Lunge
Think of walking lunges as a compound exercise for your entire lower body and midsection. In this one exercise, you’ll work the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, core, and many of the smaller lower body muscles that stabilize your body. McCall says the transitions from one leg to the other require controlling for balance and posture. “Running is the process of transitioning from one foot to the next, [and] walking lunges replicate that action,” hey says. ‘This helps to improve balance and strengthen the deep muscles that help the pelvis control its position on a single leg.”
How to do a walking lunge: Start standing with a weight in each hand. Take a giant step forward (about 2 to 3 feet) with right leg, and bend both knees to drop left knee toward floor, about 6 inches. Legs should form 90-degree angles. In one motion, push off right heel and bring your left foot all the way forward so it’s about 2 to 3 feet in front of your right foot. Bend both knees, lowering your right knee toward the floor. Repeat.
Biceps Curl → Squat to Biceps Curl
Performing a squat and then biceps curl is an effective way to strengthen your muscles as a long chain of movement, just as is required in running. Christie Ward-Ritacco, Ph.D., certified exercise physiologist with the American College of Sports Medicine and associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Rhode Island, says this is a great exercise choice because it’s “allowing you to save time while working both the upper body and lower body with one activity, and [it] provides additional challenge to your balance, while building upper and lower body strength.”
How to do a squat to biceps curl: Start standing with your feet hip-width apart, a weight in each hand. Initiate the movement by sending the hips back as if you’re sitting back into an invisible chair. Bend knees to lower down as far as possible with chest lifted in a controlled movement. Keep lower back neutral. Press through heels to stand back up to starting position. Immediately upon standing, bend elbows to lift dumbbells up toward shoulders, keeping your elbows in close to your torso. Slowly lower the weights to starting position. Repeat squat to biceps curl sequence.
Traditional Crunch → Bicycle Crunch
Bicycle crunches recruit many of the muscles of your upper and lower body all in one exercise. “Bicycle crunches are a great way to work the core musculature, and this maneuver targets the rectus abdominis, the external obliques, and the rectus femoris due to the lift, rotation, and leg cycling movements required to do the bicycle crunch correctly,” Ward-Ritacco says.
How to do a bicycle crunch: Lie faceup with both hands behind head, legs bent, and feet flat on floor. Lift right shoulder off mat to bring right elbow toward left knee, while extending right leg straight. Reverse to draw left elbow to right knee as you extend left leg straight. Repeat.
Leg Curl → Deadlift
Deadlifts are a complete exercise because they recruit the muscles on the back side of your legs to work, and the muscles of the front side of your body and your core to stabilize your body. Ward-Ritacco says the deadlift is another great example of an exercise that requires “multiple large muscle groups to complete the activity.”
How to do a deadlift: With a weight in each hand, stand tall with feet hip- to shoulder-width apart, a microbend in knees, shoulders back, and chest proud. Slowly send your hips back to hinge from the hips while keeping your back straight, abs tight, and chest lifted. Engage hamstrings and glutes to resist the downward pull of gravity as the weight lowers toward to the floor. Lower as far as you can until you feel a pull along the backs of legs. Push hips forward to come back up to standing. Repeat.