As a trail runner, I understand the importance of strength training to help with my running and ultimately reduce the risk of injury.
I spend a fair bit of time in the gym nowadays and what I tend to see is a lot of people struggling to push out some heavy weights, with the wrong form that will ultimately lead to injury, or them getting fed up with their routine and giving it all in.
There is absolutely no point in trying to bench press a heavy weight with really poor form when you can barely do a push-up.
What I am trying to say is that for anyone new to strength training, or just getting back into it, then it is more beneficial for you if you start with bodyweight exercises in the first instance and then progress as you get stronger.
Disclaimer: The information presented by Trail Running Vegan is purely for informational purposes only. Any opinions on medical matters are purely the authors’ opinions and do not represent that of any medical professional. It is your responsibility to evaluate your own medical or physical condition before using any of the information presented. By voluntarily undertaking any of the exercises displayed on this post, the user assumes the risk of any resulting injury.
Benefits of Bodyweight Training for Running
As I have just said, a great place to start with any strength training program is doing bodyweight exercises. Don’t be fooled by the fact there are no weights involved, as some of the progressions in exercises would make a seasoned gym guy struggle believe me.
As a trail runner it is so important to have strong legs, glutes, and core to help you stay safe and injury free on some of those technical trails. It will also do wonders for running up and down those pesky hills.
So, lets take a look at some of the benefits of bodyweight training.
They Are Beginner Friendly
As you will see when we talk about the best bodyweight exercises, they are very beginner friendly. For instance, if you have never worked out before, you can start an exercise through progression. What do I mean by this?
Let’s take the push-up as an example. If I was new to this exercise, I could do an incline press-up where I might lean on a table at 45 degrees and push up from there.
This takes much of the weight and stress off of your upper body allowing you to master the move.
You could then progress to a press-up where you are on your knees and then eventually into the standard press-up and beyond.
I will explain in greater detail when we get to the exercises.
It’s a Do Anywhere Workout
This is one of the great benefits of bodyweight training as you literally can do a workout anywhere. You don’t need a gym, you just need enough space to do your exercises which could mean anywhere from your front room, your garden, a park, or just about anywhere you like.
Sometimes I like to do a trail run and at intervals start doing some exercises mid-run. It’s a great workout and I can do it where I like. You just can’t beat being out in nature doing what you love.
It’s Cost Effective
You don’t need a gym to do it so you don’t have to pay the monthly fee if you don’t want to.
You don’t really need any equipment, although some might be useful (more on that later), especially when you start to progress with some of the exercises. So if not spending too much money is a big driver, then this fit’s the bill.
Many runners prefer bodyweight exercises rather than weighted ones and have seen great results in doing so.
You see, these guys that start in the gym doing their bicep curls (nothing wrong with that), are solely focusing on one muscle when they train. What you will find with bodyweight training is that a lot of the exercises are compound type movements, meaning that the movement requires multiple muscles to activate in order to perform it. A lot like you would need when trail running due to the varied terrain and need for balance and strength incorporated by many muscles at the same time.
You will probably find that you are leaner, stronger, and generally more muscular when you perform compound movements.
This is pretty key, especially as you are getting older. We all suffer from those niggling injuries the older we get and I certainly started to find that with running.
The beauty of bodyweight exercises is that they don’t have you locked into a position like some gym equipment. They are more functional and relate to the movements you make in everyday life. Many of the exercises will help improve your mobility, flexibility, and core strength, meaning you are less likely to suffer from injuries.
The Best Bodyweight Exercises
Honestly, there are hundreds of exercises that are for all levels of athlete. But today I wanted to concentrate on the top basic exercises that have lots of progression steps within them so anyone from beginner to the more competent will be able to add them into their strength training routine.
The push-up is probably the best known of all the bodyweight exercises and to be honest, most people have probably done a few over the course of their lives. One of the reasons they are so common is the fact that they are very easy to teach, they are effective, and you don’t need any specialised equipment to perform them.
The standard push-up targets the chest, shoulders, and triceps as well as your lower back and core if done correctly. It is very important that when learning the push-up that you don’t try to tackle the more advanced push-up variations before you master the basics. As I said earlier, it’s all too easy to try and do the hard stuff before perfecting the fundamentals.
My advice would be to leave the ego at the door and take the time to learn all the moves correctly with good form. The better you can perform a push-up will ultimately determine how well you will progress with other bodyweight movements. It is a real test of not only your upper body strength but also control. The movement requires your core to be tight with muscular tension throughout the whole body.
To perform the push-up correctly you should:
- Place your hands on the floor shoulder width apart.
- Have your legs out behind you whilst you balance on your toes. Your body should form a straight line from your shoulders, hips, knees, and feet.
- Your eyes should look forward at around 45 degrees, then bend your elbows and start lowering yourself to the ground.
- Allow your elbows to push out very slightly from your body and stop the downward movement when your chest touches the ground. Your chest and toes should be the only part of your body in contact with the ground at this point.
- Once at the bottom, pause for a second and then push towards the ground, straightening your arms until you reach the starting position.
You have just completed one repetition. To advance to the next push-up progression, you should be aiming for 3 sets of 10 reps at whatever your starting level is.
So if the standard push-up is too difficult for you to begin with, then the simplest way is to introduce a raised platform to place your hands on. This can be in the form of a chair or bench, or something similar. By altering the angle of the body to an incline stance will remove weight from the hands to the feet making the exercise easier to perform. Once this is perfected you can move onto the standard press-up.
Whether you are lifting weights or performing bodyweight exercises, the squat is one of the fundamental 5 movements that you should be doing. And it’s a phenomenal exercise for runners to perform.
At first glance the squat may seem like a simple movement, but it’s actually quite complex if you are to do it correctly. There is a lot of interplay between both muscles and joints so it is quite easy to do it incorrectly. They also require a degree of flexibility, especially around the hip joint.
Due to the flexibility required around the hip joint, you might find at the beginning that you can’t bring yourself low enough to bring yourself parallel with your knee joint. Don’t worry too much, just go as low as is comfortable and as you become stronger and more flexible you will be able to drop lower into the squat.
To perform the squat correctly you should:
- To begin with, ensure your heels are shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed out in the 11 and 1 o’clock positions (about 30 degrees). Don’t get too hung up on the foot position, just something around this stance.
- Have your hands either folded across your chest or out in front of you – whatever feels more comfortable.
- With your eyes facing forwards, slowly start bending at the knees with your back as straight as possible. Start to push your hips back and down at the same time. As you descend, push your knees out slightly and allow your hips to drop into the gap between your knees. Whilst doing this, ensure your feet are staying flat on the ground and you are not raising your heels.
- Continue to squat as low as you can. Don’t worry if you cannot squat too low at this stage as this will improve over time.
- Once you are in the bottom position, pause for a second, then start to rise by driving the hips up until you reach the start position – this will be one rep.
Aim for 3 sets of 10 – 15 deep squats.
I thought long and hard about adding the pull-up as the best exercise here but decided that it might just be a bit too advanced for the beginner. The pull-up is a simple exercise to perform, but it is difficult if you have not built up your strength first, which is why I decided upon the row in the first instance.
Although the row isn’t strictly a pull-up, it does use the same muscle groups but is easier to perform. This is why it is a good progression exercise as it gives you the opportunity to strengthen these muscles prior to advancing to the pull-up itself.
To perform the the row you will need a bar or other object that sits at around waist height. This other object can be in the form of a table or a bar held across the back of 2 chairs. If you have use of a gym then a squat rack or smith machine will do the job for you.
To perform the row correctly you should:
- Grab the bar with an overhand grip with your hands spaced shoulder width apart.
- Position your body underneath the bar with your chest directly under the bar and your heels on the ground.
- Starting with your arms straight, pull your chest towards the bar whilst keeping your body in a straight line – this is achieved through tension of your shoulders, back, core, knees, and ankles.
- Once you chest reaches the bar, pause for a second and then lower yourself until you reach the starting position – remember to keep the tension in the body whilst performing this move.
The level of difficulty of this move can be altered by changing the height of the bar. The higher the bar, the less challenging. This is very similar to the push-up in terms of angles changing difficulty.
Aim for 3 sets of 10 repetitions before moving onto a harder level.
The bodyweight dip is another pushing exercise which primarily targets the triceps in the upper arm. All pushing / pressing exercises have a heavy tricep focus and if big arms are your thing then the tricep is the muscle that will give them a thick, big look.
Although the dip has a big focus on the triceps, your shoulders and chest will also be incorporated to a degree, especially if you add some weight. But for now lets concentrate on the basic dip.
The equipment required for this exercise will differ depending on the difficulty of the progression you are following. However, the main 3 pieces of equipment will be a box (or a chair), dip bars, and later on you can use a bar.
So the starting point for the dips is what we call a box dip. Like I said, you can also use a chair, bench, even a set of stairs – just make sure whatever you use is sturdy and can take your weight.
To perform box dips correctly you should:
- With the box (or whatever you are using) behind you, place your hands on it with your fingers facing outwards.
- Place your legs out in front of you, balance on your heels and keep your knees locked – if you want to make the exercise easier then bend your knees and have your feet flat on the floor.
- From this position, bend your elbows and allow your body to lower towards the ground. Keep bending your elbows until you reach the ground, or as far as you can drop whilst holding the position.
- Once in the bottom position, pause for a second, then push up hard until your elbows are in the straight position again.
Aim for 3 sets of 10 – 12 reps.
One core exercise that people tend to be familiar with is the plank. As the title might suggest, the exercise requires you to hold your body in a rigid position, a lot like a plank.
Before taking you through the steps to perform the plank I just wanted to outline one of the big issues I see with beginners performing the plank. The issue is that people will arch their lower back when performing the exercise. The problem here is that it is showing a potential weakness in their core that needs to be addressed.
To rectify the arched lower back, try to squeeze your abdominals, the same as you would with the press-up, and tuck your butt underneath your hips – you can do this by squeezing your glutes. By doing this you should help to eliminate the arch in your lower back and put you in a much stronger position for the exercise.
To perform the exercise correctly you should:
- Place your forearms on the floor and stretch your feet out behind you and balance on your toes so you are in an almost push-up starting position.
- Raise your hips up until your shoulders, hips, knees and ankles are aligned.
- Add tension to you abdominals and hold the position for as long as possible – you will feel it soon enough.
Unlike the other exercises that want you to perform a number of repetitions, the plank is time based. Try holding the plank position for 3 sets of 20 seconds and increase the time as the exercise becomes easier. Aim for 3 sets of 60 seconds and you are doing great.
I hope you found this post useful to show you some of the best bodyweight exercises for trail runners. Generally they are very simple to learn, but although they appear basic, they are great exercises to help improve your running performance.
Being 52 myself, I believe that these are the best bodyweight exercises to keep me strong for my trail running and they are certainly exercises that I use a lot as part of my ongoing health and fitness regime. I hope they work for you.
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