Strength training for people who hate it?
March 1, 2010 6:21 AM   Subscribe

Help me come up with a QUICK strength-training routine that I can do 2-3 times a week, that won't interfere with my training for distance running and triathlon events.

I'm a 26-year-old female. Recently I lost about 55 pounds and started competing in endurance sports (10K and half-marathon running races, sprint- and Olympic-distance triathlons). I'm not competitive at these sports by any means, but I really enjoy them.

Because these races take a lot of time and demand a lot of aerobic endurance, I spend a lot of time doing cardiovascular exercise (probably about 10 hours a week during the April-November race season). I don't have a lot of free time left over for other forms of exercise, but I could probably squeeze out an hour a week for strength training.

Also, I absolutely hate lifting weights. I know it's extremely important for health, bone density, etc., and I don't want to develop the emaciated-looking upper body of the classic endurance athlete (swimming helps to some extent, yes, but I still am worried about it). But I really loathe being in the stinky weight room, I hate the way resistance training feels when the weight is heavy enough to actually provide an appropriate resistance level, and I hate how sets of squats and deadlifts give me a feeling in my tummy like I'm going to puke. Since I really love the way aerobic exercise feels, this gives me a powerful disincentive to hit the weight room at the gym when I could go outside and run, or swim laps, or go to spinning class.

Does anyone have any tips for how to incorporate strength training into my routine in a way that I might find minorly enjoyable, and doesn't require a hefty time commitment that will curtail my triathlon training plans? (For example, I love yoga and Pilates, but by the time I go to the class, take the class, and come home from the class, that's like 2 1/2 hours taken out of my precious free time.)
posted by kataclysm to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
CrossFit is kind of trendy right now but tries to avoid the whole stinky weight room thing.

Alternatively, I have had some really tough workouts which were mostly push-ups, sit-ups, and burpees. (I think if you got a pull-up bar you could hit pretty much everything with that.)
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:26 AM on March 1, 2010

One thought is to increase the strengthening aspects of your cardio workouts. When you are running, sprint up hills; it will build leg muscle as well as enhance your VO2 max. In the gym, up the resistance on the spinning bike. Hit the rowing machine, etc.
posted by caddis at 6:34 AM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Crossfit has plenty of stinky weightroom stuff, it's just that there's a metric buttload of other stuff also mixed in. Worthwhile. Check it out.

I'd second the bodyweight resistance excercise recommendation if you're not a fan of the weights. Try doing the crossfit warmup
Have a look at their exercises demo page and see if there's anything else that you take a shine to. Most of it is about major compound movements, so as long as you pick stuff for upper, lower, front and back, you'll do fine.

If you absolutely can't stand not running (try therapy? :) ) try taking a sandbag on a run with you.

Diet is also important for avoiding the emaciated look. Maybe drop by Rob Wolf's site and do some reading.
posted by CardinalRichelieuHandPuppet at 6:34 AM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by Syllables at 6:36 AM on March 1, 2010

A couple self-driven programs that are brought up frequently in AskMefi are and the related I took the Green's advice and did last fall. I went from a max of 9 to a max of 70 in six weeks (the story of why I didn't get from 70 to 100 is not the fault of the program).

These require very little time commitment and really helped me improve my upper body and core strength.
posted by mcstayinskool at 6:38 AM on March 1, 2010

I am meeting with a trainer on Friday to get just this type of workout! I'll try to remember to post it here or memail you, or feel free to send me a reminder.
posted by suki at 6:42 AM on March 1, 2010

A note on shovelglove: I tried it and really enjoyed the concept, but it did not do nice things for my neck and back.

I am in the same predicament as you are. I LOOOOVE running but hate lifting weights. What I've been doing is trying to slowly build into it. So, for instance, right now I am working my way through the hundred push ups challenge. I feel like once I get through that my upper body should look nicer. I'm going to follow up with buying a chin up bar, and then doing the 20 chin ups challenge. I think by the time I can do 100 push up and 20 chin ups in a row, I'm going to look pretty nice upper body wise, and be very strong.

I don't think it's going to require me to spend hours in the gym each week.
posted by sickinthehead at 6:51 AM on March 1, 2010

The problem of something like 100 push-ups which focuses on one exercise (albeit an exercise which works many different muscles) is that without exercising the counterbalancing muscles you put yourself at risk for injury.

I saw an exercise class at the gym last weekend which might appeal to you. They were doing push-ups, lunges, ab work, and exercises with weights from the floor (standing and lying down). They were moving quickly enough between exercises that there was a cardio component to it as well.
posted by caddis at 6:53 AM on March 1, 2010

If you really look into Crossfit, they talk about how to train for endurance events by de-emphasizing the long slow distance training. The whole system is really based on the idea that long slow distance is a poor way to train, even for endurance events. Mostly they substitute shorter interval training and mixed strength and flexibility training.

A lot of contemporary programs for marathon training are moving towards only having one long training day a week. The other days are used for shorter tempo runs and interval workouts. I'm not familiar with triathlon training, so I can't speak to the amount of time that is required to train for the swimming and biking portions.

Also with the hundred push-ups, you will probably get some results but most people probably aren't going to look muscular from just doing push-ups. After a certain point your body will stop putting on muscle mass and start building endurance, not that this is a bad thing.
posted by jefeweiss at 7:06 AM on March 1, 2010

caddis: I am skeptical of this. How could such a natural movement put you at risk for injury?
posted by phrontist at 7:07 AM on March 1, 2010

It sounds like one reason you find weights uncomfortable is trigger points in muscles. Happy to discuss this further if you want.
posted by Not Supplied at 7:14 AM on March 1, 2010

I actually like lifting weights, and I currently make it a priority to do yoga 3-4 times a week (I get up in the 5am range to run or swim), but at times in my life when I didn't have the time to spare to spend the time at a class or get to the weightroom, I usually spent a half hour after running doing these:

walking lunges (up and down the block/gym floor)
calf raises
push-ups (including variations of hand placement - tricep push-ups, etc)

Also, if your cardio schedule allows it, you could swap out a day or two to do a combo cardio/resistance training class if your gym has them (step and sculpt, kickbox and sculpt, interval classes - or ashtanga yoga!).
posted by Pax at 7:44 AM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

caddis: I am skeptical of this. How could such a natural movement put you at risk for injury?

Because in actual nature, resistance wouldn't be limited to those muscles, but would include motions that acted as counter moves. Similarly, a lot of runners injure their knees if they run a lot (hamstrings get very strong) but ignore their quads.
posted by Pax at 7:48 AM on March 1, 2010

I hate lifting weights in the weight room too, and hated lifting weights in general until I started doing Body Pump/muscle conditioning classes and now I'm pretty addicted to it. Yes, you're lifting but it's somehow much more fun and easier to do when a whole room full of people is doing it with you. My gym has a half-hour version of the usual one-hour class so you could get in and out quickly.
posted by pised at 8:10 AM on March 1, 2010

Disclaimer: Self-link ahead!

My friend and I put together a functional strength and conditioning program for adventure racers, triathletes, ultrarunners, etc. We use kettlebells, TRX suspension straps, sand bags, medicine balls, jump ropes and occasionally barbells to do high intensity strength training. Generally the workouts last about 20 minutes and if you have the equipment at home you can do it in your backyard or in a park very easily. Check it out at

Several commenters mentioned CrossFit...this is also a great program. There is actually a flavor of CrossFit geared toward triathletes called CrossFit Endurance where every day they prescribe a running or biking workout along with an "anaerobic" strength workout. You just hop on the site and see what the daily workout is and knock it out. These people get strong and fast.

If these don't appeal to you I still urge you to get a kettlebell, two dumbbells, and a pull-up bar. Every other day swing the kettlebell for a couple minutes, do about 20-30 thrusters with the dumbbells, 20 push-ups or so and 20 or so pull-ups (you can scale these by jumping or kipping). This will help improve your strength. If you decide to do these sorts of movements seek out a qualified trainer to teach you before doing it on your own....
posted by rlef98 at 8:28 AM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

jefeweiss: I do, in fact, only do one LSD run per week :) I'm using a modified version of FIRST running training, so I do 1-2 tempo runs and an LSD run every week; I only do speedwork every other week because I find that I invariably end up injured if I do weekly speedwork training, plus I don't find it as valuable as the tempo runs for the distances of race that interest me. The problem is that in order to improve at any of the three sports (swimming, biking, running) that triathlon involves, you really need to do three quality workouts a week, at least one of which should be LSD to improve your sport-specific endurance. So during race season, I work out nine times a week -- three two-a-days, one LSD per sport, and one total rest day.

caddis: I live in Pittsburgh, so it's actually impossible for me to NOT do hill workouts every time I run. I'm not so worried about lower body strength; all the running and cycling has given me a decently strong lower body. When I bother to go into the gym and do squat sets, I can do 5 reps at 1.3 x bodyweight (real squats, not just butt-bumps). I have a minor problem with posterior-chain muscular imbalances, but I'm working with pretty good chiropractor/PT-type people and I have some exercises (which I hate, but actually do) to rectify that. My deltoids and lats are also pretty strong from all the swimming, and I have a pretty strong core. It's just that I have noodle arms, I'm worried about developing upper-body muscular imbalances since swimming is pretty much my only upper-body exercise, and I want to keep my strong core, since that's a huge asset for cycling, swimming, running, and also looking good naked :)
posted by kataclysm at 8:30 AM on March 1, 2010

Also, you could develop a home yoga practice that doesn't have to be long or complicated. A few sun salutations (after a while, double pump your chaturanga) and you'll notice a difference. Add some bakasana (crow) and side and reverse planks.

Your legs will thank you for the stretches, too.
posted by Pax at 8:46 AM on March 1, 2010

I tried the hundred pushups thing because I wanted the bragging rights... I did manage to do a lot, like up to 40ish in a single set (I'm a woman). But frankly, a) not sure an ordinary woman can in fact finish the program unless she cares about little else, and b) it's hardly the ONLY strength training you'd want to do.

I do in fact lift weights, but did this home circuit workout (which I got from askmefi) the other day because I didn't feel like shoveling two feet of snow from the driveway to go to the gym.

It hurt. That routine (or similar ones) plus a chinup bar will go a long way.
posted by kestrel251 at 8:50 AM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

It has to be said that there isn't really a solution that will effectively increase your maximal strength while also meeting all of your criteria, depending on how strict you are about them.

You say that you hate stinky weight rooms, which suggests finding a non-stinky weight room or purchasing equipment to lift at home. But you say that you hate lifting weights. What is it that you hate about weights? Do you hate barbells, dumbells, kettlebells, or what? Any strength program will require you to increase the load progressively, which means making the weight that you're moving heavier over time. The barbell is the best implement for this task. There is the possibility of doing bodyweight exercises exclusively (check out dragon door for lots of articles about bodyweight training), in which case you'll still have to increase the load to get stronger, but this can sometimes be done by manipulating leverage. However, the loading in this type of exercise will still not be as finely scalable as the weight on a bar, so it won't be as effective for strength.

You say that you hate the feeling you get after a heavy set of squats or deadlifts, but that's just what it feels like to lift something heavy. To make you strong it has to be heavy, and if it's heavy it's going to be hard. If it's not hard, it's not heavy and you don't get strong.

CrossFit is a good program for GPP, or General Physical Preparedness. It is not a strength program. Although it may make you stronger, that will be more of an incidental effect than the primary goal of the program. But if you're already doing plenty of cardio and endurance training, it doesn't make sense to start doing CrossFit WODs on top of that because you want to get stronger. Do CrossFit exclusively for the GPP benefits, which will include some strength as well as plenty of conditioning, or add some strength work to the conditioning/endurance work you're already doing.

You say that you have problems with posterior-chain muscular imbalances. I assume you mean that your PC is weak. The best exercises to address those imbalances will be the low-bar squat, the deadlift, and the power clean. If you've been doing a high-bar squat, switching to low-bar may make a big difference in that regard. A thorough article on the difference between the two types of squat can be found here. I suspect that these exercises are a far better use of your limited training time than anything your PT gave you.

In terms of core training, again the squat and deadlift, along with the overhead press, which require the core muscles to contract isometrically against a heavy load, are the most effective.

The last problem is going to be time commitment. One hour a week will not get you very far. It should be said here that any program, however poorly-designed or minimally adhered to, will get you results for a short time. But to sustain results you need to do a proper program, and that requires more than an hour a week, although not necessarily much more.

So, ultimately I think you need to decide on your goals a little more specifically and come up with a program to suit them. I think it'd be a good idea to do something like the Starting Strength program, but limited to 2 workouts a week. You'll probably also need to make small jumps in weight from the beginning (e.g. 5#/workout on the squat/deadlift and 2.5#/workout on the pressing movements, or possibly even less) in order to manage recovery. It would look like this:

Workout A: Squat 3x5, Press 3x5, deadlift 1x5/power clean 5x3
Workout B: Squat 3x5, Bench press 3x5, chinups 3xF, back extensions 3x10

Those would be done on Monday and Thursday, or Tuesday and Friday, or whatever. You'd alternate between deadlifts and power cleans each workout A. It shouldn't take very long to do, especially towards the beginning. If you're really not interested in improving your squat or deadlift, you could reduce their frequency or remove them from the program altogether, although I wouldn't recommend it, especially in light of your comments re your posterior chain. You could also drop the chinups and back extensions to save time, as those are assistance exercises.

And lastly, any program focusing on a single movement for very high repetitions, e.g. hundred pushups, is a party trick, not a strength program.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:20 AM on March 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Just wanted to throw out there that I do the start strength workouts in addition to my marathon training. I do the workout a/b system ludwig mentions, and I manage to finish them in my lunch hour at work. So I get my strength training out of the way at lunch, freeing up my evenings for my marathon training runs.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 10:18 AM on March 1, 2010

Thanks for the advice, ludwig_van. I think I kind of already knew what a good answer was going to be, but was hoping I was wrong, know what I mean?

I do low-bar squats anyway (my torso is relatively long, so when I was doing high-bar squats with more than 120 pounds I began to feel it suspiciously in my lower back, and it felt better when I moved the bar down lower), but good to know that that bar position is actually doing the right thing anyway. I've been doing one-legged squats (unweighted because I still suck at that movement and fall over) and one-legged deadlifts at my PT's advice (not only is my PC weak compared to my quads, but it's weaker on one side than on the other, so the stronger side tends to compensate for the weaker one). I've had some crappy PT's in the past, but I trust this one, and I'd rather try to make each of my legs/glutes equally strong before thinking about increasing their combined max. strength.

But I probably should just HTFU and get in the weight room and lift some weights, huh?
posted by kataclysm at 10:34 AM on March 1, 2010

No problem. I know how it is. I seriously thought I was going to die/puke/crap my pants last week when I had to squat 5x5 at 320#. But I didn't do any of those things, and I got through it, and this week I'm going to do it again with 325#. I asked a question awhile back about how to stay motivated to lift heavy weights, and the most useful advice I got was 1) turn your fear of the weights into anger, and 2) decide that the pain of squatting isn't as bad as the pain of quitting. So right before my set I try to get really pissed off, like I'm about to get into a fight. And I remind myself that this is what it takes to be strong, and I want to be strong, so I must do it. It helps me a lot.

Unilateral vs. bilateral training can be a controversial topic. I'll tell you what Mark Rippetoe would say, and I'm inclined to agree -- all compound movements, when performed correctly, necessarily require all of the muscles involved to contribute their anatomically-determined share. So if you begin with a load on e.g. the deadlift that you can handle with proper form, meaning you're setting up correctly with the scapulas over the bar and the lumbar spine locked in extension, you're keeping a straight bar path over the middle of your foot, and you're not doing something weird and lopsided, and you increase the weight steadily over the course of your training, the only possible result is that you'll end up equally strong on both sides. And there's also the fact that bilateral movements allow more weight to be moved, which increases the systemic stress on the body and therefore the systemic response.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:55 AM on March 1, 2010

I can't quite make out what you are trying to get from lifting weights. What do you want or you think you'll gain from getting into the weight room? Do you want to lift X amount of weight? Do you just want to make sure look good nekkid?
posted by P.o.B. at 2:06 PM on March 1, 2010

P.o.B. -- I just want to attempt to maintain a functional level of upper-body and overall strength. I'm not a tall woman and I frequently find myself having to do things like lift heavy stuff up over my head because almost every shelf is taller than me, I like to have dogs -- specifically big dogs that I need to be able to physically control when they get it into their heads to challenge my authority over them, and I also occasionally end up doing stuff like having to pick up, hold, and carry stuff that weighs half as much of me. I can do these things perfectly well right now, but large amounts of aerobic exercise do have a tendency to eat at muscle mass -- I don't want to suddenly realize that hey, shit, I'm not strong enough to keep the half-grown puppy from pulling me down five flights of city stairs.

Also, I'm concerned about maintaining bone density -- while running is a good activity for increasing some bones' density, bone is a dynamic organ which is constantly remodeled, and the parts of your skeleton that don't get stressed on a regular basis end up losing bone density.
posted by kataclysm at 2:34 PM on March 1, 2010

I think you got the advice you need to get going. I would say that it sounds like you don't really need a 5x5 program though. You could go ahead and try them out but I think you could do some complexes and be just as happy. Maybe even more so because it would keep you moving through the weight room faster and they offer benefits that regular strength trainining doesn't.
Here are a couple of great articles on complexes.
Or since you are doing PT work already you could just start doing Turkish Get Ups They used to be a staple of strongman workouts until strength training became more sport oriented and an end unto itself. Anybody who doesn't think core work is useful has not tried to do these.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:31 PM on March 1, 2010

My other suggestion would be to work in some Overhead Squats I'm not sure what other people's definition of strength is, but I think that clip pretty well demonstrates it.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:24 PM on March 1, 2010

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