My strength experiment: What I learned during a season in the weight room

There is a gym I go to with some charts blown up into poster form, and at the bottom of these charts is a short sentence written in small type with a very big message: “Being stronger makes you harder to kill.”

It goes on to qualify this, saying that the stronger you are, the harder it is for things like disease, accidents, the elements and even other people, to kill you. Makes sense to me.

Fitness is a major part of my life. I’m not strictly a runner, and not strictly a weight lifter. I incorporate both (plus things like cycling) in hopes of preventing mushball status.

This past fall, I wanted to try something different. Back in the days before running became a thing for me, I used to lift a bunch of weights and find cardio in other forms of exercise. When I became a runner, I worked to find a balance between the two. But after the end of the fall race season, I chose to focus on strength for a few months. I was OK in terms of strength, but I knew I could be better if I put in a little extra work. I wouldn’t stop running entirely, but the weekly mileage would drop significantly while I emphasized more time in the gym.

In this case, it was about getting back to basics. No fancy programs, no weird new exercises, nothing exotic at all. Just a workout program based on four basic strength movements: The press, the pull, the squat and the hip hinge.

If you know what these entail, you’re way ahead of the game. If not, let me define them more precisely…

Press: This is picking up a weight and lifting it over your head. This could be a barbell or dumbbells. Variations could also include flat bench or incline bench presses, but the most important press here is the overhead press. Presses work your shoulders, triceps, upper back and, in some variations, the chest.

Pull: Pulls include pull-ups, chin-ups, cable pull variations (lat pulls, seated cable rows, etc), barbell and dumbbell rows, and so forth. With these, you’re training the muscles in your entire back, your biceps, and to a lesser extent, your shoulders.

Squat: Most people know what this is. Starting from a standing position, you squat down, bending at the knees and the hips, while keeping your back straight. Barbell back squats, front squats, goblet squats, and so on. The squat is a full-body exercise, but the primary muscles used are the glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings. Truly strong people squat well.

Hip-hinge:  The hip-hinge, simply put, is the action of bending at the hips, and with a straight back, powering yourself to an upright position with your hips. If that sounds weird, just watch someone deadlift. A deadlift is a hip-hinge. So are Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell swings and hip thrusters. Hip-hinge exercises are full-body in nature, but they primarily work the posterior chain. Posterior chain muscles include the entire back (from the base of the neck all the way to the tailbone), glutes and hamstrings. Like the squat, a truly strong person will be strong in hip-hinge movements. Deadlifts also work your quads, and through the act of holding something heavy, strengthen all the muscles used in your grip.

There are a bunch of exercises that support these movements, and I’ll get to that in time. But these are where my focus was. If you can master them, you’ll build a strong, athletic body that can be good at just about anything, and that includes activities that most people don’t associate with weight training, like running, hiking, backpacking or even climbing.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, for a few reasons. This was a bit of an experiment, to see what I could accomplish in four months. I wanted to see what went right and what went wrong, and why. And if I learned anything worth sharing, to pass it along. Some things went very “right.” And that was exciting. Some things went wrong, and for the most part, that’s on me.

Another reason: Strength is often something that is undervalued in the endurance community, and similarly, neglected by a lot of people who are focused on the outdoors. Personally, I think anyone can benefit from being stronger. It doesn’t mean you must be a body builder or a power lifter (those guys usually don’t do well in our chosen activities, mostly because size can be prohibitive of endurance), but I’d go back to that poster I mentioned earlier: Being stronger makes you harder to kill.

So over the coming days, I’m going to post about this and pass along what I’ve learned. And in turn, I’m more than pleased to hear from any of you who have undertaken similar efforts. Stay tuned …

Bob Doucette