A Simple Guide to Weight Training for Runners, Including Best Exercises

Learn why you need strength workouts on your training plan and how to execute them for max benefits.

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Some runners fear spending too much time weight training will lead to bulky muscles and slower times—but this is a huge misconception. In fact, strength training helps runners get stronger and faster for the road. Plus, lifting weights once or twice a week will help runners prevent injuries.

Spending time in the weight room will help runners accomplish three important goals, Jason Fitzgerald, USATF-certified running coach, founder of Strength Running in Denver, Colorado tells Runner’s World. “It prevents injuries by strengthening muscles and connective tissues; it helps you run faster by improving neuromuscular coordination and power; and it improves running economy by encouraging coordination and stride efficiency,” he says.

Still, if you’re hesitant about weight training, then remember the key takeaway is that you’re training for strength, not for massive muscle gains. Here, experts share easy-to-follow tips on weight training for runners so you can train your key running muscles with ease and confidence.

How to Approach Weight Training for Runners

The stimulus needed to put on muscle—in a way that wouldn’t be beneficial for running—is much higher than people realise, and unless you’re either lifting pretty heavy and frequently and/or eating a hypocaloric diet, you’re unlikely to put on muscle, says Joe Holder, Nike+ Run Club coach in New York City. “Just think about strength training one to two times a week, focusing on compound movement patterns, such as a lunge or squat, and shoring up the areas that could lead to increased injury if they are weak, like the hips.”

Also, keep in mind that weight training for runners doesn’t have to be intense in a way that gets the heart pumping. “Some strength workouts—like CrossFit WODs or circuit-based fitness classes—include too much of a metabolic or cardio component to be effective at prioritising the main goals for runners, which are strength and power,” Fitzgerald says. He says runners get enough cardio, so he recommends focusing on relatively heavy weight for a moderate number of repetitions with full recovery.

Don’t forget that your own body can serve as weight. So if picking up a barbell or dumbbells is a big stretch for you, ditching the weights and instead adding in bodyweight exercises can still help build strength, particularly if you’re new to strength training.

Finding the Right Weight for Your Strength Workouts

Before you add any resistance to an exercise, make sure you master perfect form with your own bodyweight. If you’re just starting out in the weight room, focus on these four things to help you choose how much weight to add:

  • Begin with a weight you know will be too easy
  • Perform 3 sets of 10 reps
  • See how you feel, and slowly add more weight from there
  • When the last few reps of the third set are really tough, start with that weight next time

You can increase the weight (and lower the reps) every two weeks, similar to the way you increase your running mileage in a training plan.

3 Common Weight-Training Mistakes Runners Should Avoid

Here, Fitzgerald shares some common weight-lifting mistakes to avoid:

→Going too heavy: The weight room is no place for ego, so check it at the door. “Not every lift has to be super heavy and super hard. Don’t risk injury trying to be a hero in the weight room.”

→Lifting too light: On the other hand, if you’re always lifting low weight for high reps, you’re building endurance in the weight room. That’s a fine place to start if you’re new to weight training, but you want to work toward going heavier for fewer reps. “Runners work on endurance all the time with every run. The goal with weight training needs to be strength and power,” Fitzgerald says.

→Focusing on specific body parts: “Runners don’t need to lift that often, for as long, nor isolate individual muscles. You can lift full-body twice per week for 30 to 60 minutes,” Fitzgerald says. You’ll get everything you need with that setup.

9 Essential Weight-Training Exercises for Runners

Below are nine weight-training exercises that are the most beneficial for runners according to Holder and Fitzgerald. To build your own workout, you can choose one from each area (upper body, lower body, and core) and create a circuit of three moves. Each move is demonstrated by Christi Marraccini, instructor and head of production at NEO U.

For a quick cheat sheet of moves, scroll to the bottom of this article and pin, share, or screenshot the workout.

Upper Body

1. Push-Up

Works chest and core muscles

How to do it: Start in high plank, wrists under shoulders, core engaged so body forms a straight line from head to heels. Bend elbows to lower chest to floor then press back up to plank. Keep core tight; don’t let hips dip or lift. Do 3 sets of 6-15 reps.

Beginners: use your own body weight
Advanced: add a weighted plate (6-15  kilograms) on back

2. Bent-Over Row

Works back and core muscles

How to do it: Start standing, soft bend in knees, with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing each other. Hinge at the hips, sending butt straight back, so arms hang perpendicular to floor. Keep back flat, core engaged. Pull weights up to ribs, drawing shoulder blades back and down, keeping elbows close to sides. Lower weights back down, extending arms. Repeat for 3 sets of 6-12 reps.

Beginners: use your own body weight
Advanced: use 10- to 25-pound dumbbells

3. Reverse Fly

Works back of shoulder and rhomboid (mid back) muscles

How to do it: Start standing with feet shoulder-width apart and dumbbells in hand. Hinge at hips by sending butt straight back, so that torso is nearly parallel to floor, knees softly bent. Let the dumbbells hang straight down, palms facing each other. Keeping back flat and core engaged, lift arms up and out to sides until they’re in line with shoulders. Your upper body will form a “T,” with a slight bend in elbows. Lower weights back down with control. Repeat for 3 sets of 6-12 reps.

Beginners: use 2.5 kg dumbbells
Advanced: use 5- to 10-kg dumbbells


4. Plank

Works all muscles of the core, especially the transverse abdominis, and shoulders

How to do it: Place hands directly under shoulders on the floor and step feet back, placing them hip-width apart to hit a full plank. Engage core and squeeze glutes to stabilise the body. Keep neck and spine neutral. You should form a straight line from head to heels. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Relax, then repeat for 3 sets.

Beginners: use body weight
Advanced: add a weighted plate (10-25 pounds) on your back

5. Leg Raise

Works abdominal muscles, particularly the rectus abdominis

How to do it: Lie faceup on a mat with hands next to hips for support. Lift legs straight up so body forms an “L.” Engage core and slowly lower legs until feet hover just above mat. Slowly raise legs back up. Repeat for 3 sets of 8-12 reps.

Beginners: use body weight
Advanced: add a 5- to 12 kg medicine ball between ankles

6. Single-Side Weighted Sit-Up

Works core muscles, including obliques

How to do it: Lie faceup on mat with feet flat on floor and a dumbbell in right hand extended straight up so that wrist is directly over shoulder. Engage core to lift chest and dumbbell up toward ceiling, coming into a full sit-up. Keeping arm straight, slowly lower back down to floor. Repeat for 8-12 reps. Then switch to other side. That’s one set. Complete 3 sets.

Beginners: use 2.5 kg dumbbell
Advanced: use 7-kg dumbbell

Lower Body

7. Deadlift

Works hamstrings, glutes, back, and core

How to do it: Stand with a soft bend in knees and feet hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand down in front of you, palms facing you. Hinge at hips by sending butt straight back, back flat, and core engaged, weights staying close to legs. Focus on just hinging at the hips, not squatting. When your torso is nearly parallel to the floor, drive through feet and engage glutes to stand back up. Repeat for 3 sets of 6-12 reps.

Beginners: use 7- to 10 kg weights (make sure you master the hinge motion first)
Advanced: use 10+ kg weights or a weighted barbell

8. Lunge

Works quads, thighs, and glute muscles

How to do it: Stand tall holding a dumbbell in each hand, down at sides. Take a big step forward with right leg and bend both knees until right thigh is parallel to floor and right shin is vertical, left knee hovers just off the floor. Press into right foot to stand up, stepping leg back. Repeat on right leg for 6-12 reps. Then switch sides. That’s one set. Complete 3 sets.

Beginners: use 4.5- to 11-kg dumbbells (or body weight if you haven’t done a lunge before)
Advanced: use 11-kg+ dumbbells

9. Single-Leg Glute Bridge

Works hip and glutes

How to do it: Lie faceup on mat with feet flat and knees bent. Lift right leg up, knees in line. Press into left foot to lift hips off mat. Slowly lower back down. Repeat for 8-15 reps. Then switch sides. That’s one set. Complete 2 sets.

Beginners: use body weight
Advanced: add a 4.5-kg weighted plate or dumbbell to hips, hold in place with hands

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