Exercise Science Friday: No, Running is Not the Same as Training Legs

2-3 times a week, I tell a well-meaning inquirer that “No, running is not the same as training your legs.” This article delves deep into why that is. At the end, I provide one of my training templates for lower body, give a list of potential exercises, and provide a link to tried and true template from one of the best coaches in the business.

Here’s What You Need to Know (the tl;dr version):

This is a longer article. If you’re looking for the quick details, I’ve listed my main points below. I’ve also included a list of exercises and links to a few effective templates at the bottom.

  • Running doesn’t train your legs through their full range of motion – especially for joggers.
  • Running doesn’t activate every muscle group and often inhibits the glutes while overdeveloping the hip flexors – especially for joggers
  • Running trains the Type I muscle fibers of the leg while neglecting the Type II muscle fibers of the leg. Type II fibers are bigger, stronger, and more explosive than Type I fibers.
  • Running trains Type 1 muscle fibers (small, endurance based) but neglects and actually changes Type II fibers (Explosive, bigger, and stronger) into Type 1 fibers (hello chicken legs)
  • Training the legs with submaximal and maximal weights releases muscle-building  and fat-burning hormones, like growth hormone and testosterone.
  • Most lower body exercises are in truth full body exercises, especially those requiring a barbell: squats, deadlifts, barbell lunges, barbell step ups, bench hip thrusts, kettlebell swings, even barbell calf raises require you to hold a heavy weight with your entire body.

 

Let me tell you about a conversation that I have at least twice a week. It’s often with new members and friends of mine that aren’t getting the results that they want from their current workout program.

Me – “So, tell me about your current workout.”

Person – “Well, I lift weights for my arms, chest, shoulders, and back 3-4 times per week.”

Me – “OK. So what do you do for your lower body?”

Person – “I run on the treadmill for 30 minutes a few times a week. That’s good enough, right?”

 

To be clear: No. Running is not good enough. You need to strength train your legs for best results.

 

There are a few undisputed facts of exercise science. One such fact is that virtually everybody can benefit from strength training (interchangeably called resistance training).

Athletes in every sport benefit from strength training. Sprinters, marathon runners, football players, mixed martial artists, wrestlers, volleyball players, tennis players, and even ultimate frisbee athletes see improved speed, power, and performance from strength training.

I’ll say that again, for emphasis. The best sprinters in the world perform strength training for their legs. They don’t “just run” and call it a day.

"The secret to getting ahead is getting started" #foreverfaster #newgoals #newseason #newheights #training

A photo posted by Usain St.Leo Bolt (@usainbolt) on

LINK: Bret Contreras has an awesome article up on Usain Bolt (fastest man alive) and his unique training program here.

Strength training can reduce the risk of injury during sports. It improves your metabolism – helping you to burn more fat even while you’re not at the gym. It improves your bone density and helps to prevent or manage osteoarthritis. It improves your insulin sensitivity, or how your body manages its blood sugar in response to food.

It builds lean muscle mass, which let’s be honest, is the major goal of most men in the gym. And for women, it should be their primary goal as well. Simply put, strength training plain makes you look better naked.

If you’re not training your legs, and lying to yourself that running is good enough, you’re not reaping those benefits for literally half of your body. Even more, you’re neglecting many of the largest, most significant, best fat-burning muscles in your body.

If fat loss or weight gain is your goal, skipping your legs is definitely slowing down your process. (Unless, of course, you’re going for the coveted “chicken legs” look.)

With that said, let’s look at why running isn’t good enough.

 

#1 – Running doesn’t work your legs through a full range of motion.

Let’s be clear: When I’m talking about running, I really mean jogging. Most people’s running form is atrocious. And that’s the problem. With most jogging (especially on treadmills), the legs don’t travel through a full range of motion.

A quick youtube search found this video for “poor running form”.

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmW8VpXuN_w">https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmW8VpXuN_w</a>

Here’s an example of good running form, featuring a 2004 Olympian:

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwmouyieDbk">https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwmouyieDbk</a>

Here is the major point: in both videos, the hips are not traveling through a full range of motion.

The hips don’t travel to the full range of flexion (bringing the knee towards the chest). Compare this to a squat, where you must descend until the thighbone is parallel to the floor. If the hips aren’t fully flexing, then they are also unable to extend throughout the full range of motion. In this example, the hips are only being used throughout a very shallow range of motion.

Compare that to this video of a world champion weightlifter performing front squats.

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkK9-mnDAy4">https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkK9-mnDAy4</a>

Here, the hips and knees are traveling throughout a full range of motion and doing so under weight. You don’t even need to go nearly as heavy as this man. Bodyweight resistance can be effective, at least in the beginning.

Remember, you need to strength train a muscle through its entire range of motion to see optimal results. The quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and adductors are all muscles that involve the hips. If they’re not being used throughout a full range of motion, they are not able to contribute fully to both muscle development and fat loss.

 

#2 – Running doesn’t activate every muscle group and often inhibits the glutes while overdeveloping the hip flexors

To explain this, I’m going to introduce what’s called “lower crossed” syndrome. Lower Crossed syndrome is a term developed by influential physical therapist Dr. Vladimir Janda to describe a common pattern of hip dysfunction.

Essentially, the muscles in the front of the hip (hip flexors) become overdeveloped and dominant. The hip flexors are often short, overused, and stiff. As a result, the muscles in the back of the hip (hip extensors – glutes and hamstrings), become less active (inhibited) and weak.

Janda's Syndromes. Image Credit - www.jandapproach.com

Janda’s Syndromes. Image Credit – www.jandapproach.com

Many people acquire Lower Crossed syndrome from a combination of sitting, driving, and overuse of the hip flexors. You’ll see this most often in people with lordotic or overly arched backs. Think of a Victoria’s Secret model sticking her butt out and over-arching her back and you’ll know what I mean.

Most methods for treating Lower Crossed syndrome involving stretching the hip flexors before strengthening the glutes and hamstrings through a full range of motion. Anecdotally, I’ve seen the best results come from performing high rep kettlebell swings on a daily basis. The Russian kettlebell swing takes the hip through it’s full range of motion. It challenges the strength of the glutes and hamstrings while also requiring excellent abdominal strength & control.

Even more interesting is that running on a treadmill can contribute to overdevelopment of the hip flexors and the underdevelopment of the glutes. The moving nature of a treadmill (the tread moves towards you) means that as your hip flexors bring you forward, the treadmill will bring you back. Compare this to running outside, where your glutes are responsible for bringing your leg back behind your body in a leg stride (hip extension).

 

 

#3 – Running trains Type 1 fibers (small, endurance based) but neglects and actually changes Type II fibers (Explosive, bigger, and stronger) into Type 1 fibers (hello chicken legs)

Type I muscle fibers are ideally suited for endurance. They are more aerobic in nature. Their small fiber size makes it easier for muscles to receive a fresh supply of oxygen and energy from the body. Elite marathon runners have a higher proportion of Type I muscle fibers.

Type II muscle fibers are stronger, larger, and better suited for feats of strength and power. Type II muscle fibers are best stimulated by training with moderate to heavy weights. Type II muscle fibers are also responsible for activities such as sprinting, throwing, and applying maximal force.

Each muscle is predominantly Type I or Type II. Over time, a muscle can shift to having more of one type than the other. This is dependant upon exercise choices and the method of training. Endurance training causes muscles to become more aerobic. They therefore have a higher percentage of Type I fibers.

Taken from http://general.utpb.edu/fac/eldridge_j/kine3350/chapte19n.jpg

Type II muscle fibers are only activated when they are needed. The human body strives to be as efficient as possible. Each muscle is made up of motor units, or clusters of muscle fibers. Your brain activates the bare minimum number of motor units needed to do a job. For most people, it activates motor units from smallest (type I) to largest (type II) as needed. In well-trained individuals, this process can be bypassed so that the larger, stronger type II motor units are recruited right away.

However, this also means that people that do not train with moderate to heavy resistance are not activating and developing their Type II muscle fibers. When the goal is improving lean muscle mass in order to burn more fat and look better, training just Type I fibers won’t cut it.

 

 

#4 – Most lower body exercises are in truth full body exercises. They build muscle throughout the entire body and increase the production of muscle-building, fat-burning hormones like growth hormone and testosterone.

 

Consider the barbell squat. The muscles of the torso (latissimus dorsi, spinal erectors, and abdominals) must act to stabilize the spine. The upper back holds the bar in place, in both the front and back squat. If you’re doing it correctly, you’re creating full-body tension to improve your stiffness and explosive strength.

Here’s a picture from strength coach Jen Comas Keck’s Instagram of her performing a deep squat. As you can see, it’s clearly a full-body exercise. I’m estimating that’s at least 155-165lbs, and there’s another image of her squatting 205lbs. Which means that her shoulders, upper back, lats, and core are all working hard to keep the bar steady and her spine stable.

The same goes for the deadlift, arguably more so than the squat. The arms are braced to prevent the elbow from bending. The shoulders are stiff, the shoulderblades retracted to keep the bar close to the body. The torso must again stabilize the spine. In a good deadlift, the entire upper body is stiff and locked to prevent any movement while the bar is lifted from the floor. The deadlift requires every muscle in the body to contribute and produce high levels of muscular force.

One of the key requirements for causing muscle growth is mechanical tension (how hard a muscle contracts). Exercises that load the entire body with the largest possible amount of weight have been shown over and over again to be effective muscle builders for the entire body.

Anecdotally, many bodybuilders place deadlifts (especially snatch grip rack pulls) onto their back training day because of it’s muscle-building effects.

 

So, if the reasons for training legs for strength are so obvious, why don’t most people do it?

 

For starters, most of the leg exercises that people learn are boring. Machine leg curls, machine leg extensions, and seated abduction/adduction machines? Please. I’d skip legs, too. I’d rather watch paint dry than fiddle around on a resisted swing set.

It’s time to graduate to real, effective lower body training. I recommend that you set up your lower body workouts like an athlete would. Focus on full-body strength and use functional exercises to develop your legs while improving your speed, power, and athleticism.

(Before the bodybuilders get in a huff, yes, machines can be effective. However, they are most effective as an after-thought or an accessory to compound strength training).

Squats:

  • Goblet Squats
  • Front Squats
  • Back Squats
  • Zercher Squats
  • Overhead Squats
  • Kettlebell Squat Variations – Goblet, One Kettlebell / Offset, Two Kettlebell (Front Squat), Overhead

 

Lunges:

  • Reverse Lunges
  • Forward Lunges
  • Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats / Bulgarian Split Squats
  • Walking Lunges

 

Single Leg Work:

  • Step Ups at varying heights
  • Single Leg Squats / Pistol Squats
  • Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts

 

Deadlifts & Hip Hinges:

  • Cable Pullthroughs
  • Good Mornings
  • Barbell Bridges, Bench Hip Thrusts, Band Hip Thrusts
  • Romanian Deadlifts
  • Rack Pulls
  • Conventional, Trap Bar, Sumo, and Snatch Grip Deadlifts

 

Plyometrics:

  • Squat Jumps – Squat Jump, Tuck Jump, Vertical Jumps
  • Single Leg Hops and Jumps
  • Broad Jumps
  • Bounding
  • Box Jumps

 

Kettlebells:

  • Russian Swings, One Arm Swings, Cleans, Snatches
  • Two Kettlebell Cleans, Snatches, Swings
  • Turkish Get Ups

 

Lower Body Training Templates

Here’s one that I frequently use for training lower body two days a week. Ideally, this program is set up so that you work out 4 days per week with weights: 2 upper body, 2 lower body.

I stole the idea of using upper back fillers for scapular stability, posture, and shoulder health from Eric Cressey of Cressey Performance. It’s a great way to spend your rest period practicing movements that are often ignored in most programs. Undo some of that benching with a little prehab work rather than text, will ya?

 

Day 1: Squat Focus

  • A1 Squat Exercise
  • A2 Upper Back Filler – T-Raise oriented – Band Pull Aparts, Face Pulls, Prone T-Raises
  • B1 Hip Dominant (not deadlifts)
  • B2 Upper Back Filler – Y-Raise oriented – Y-Raises, Back to Wall Shoulder Raises, Trap 3 Raises, Scaption Raises
  • C1 Lunge Exercise
  • C2 Upper Back Filler – Rotator Cuff oriented
  • D1 Anti-Extension Core Exercise
  • D2 Anti-Rotation Core Exercise

 

Day 2: Deadlift Focus or Dynamic / Speed-Strength

  • A1 Hip Dominant – (usually deadlifts or regressed deadlift)
  • A2 Upper Back Filler – T-Raise oriented – Band Pull Aparts, Face Pulls, Prone T-Raises
  • B1 Single Leg Exercise – Step Ups, Single Leg Squats, etc.
  • B2 Upper Back Filler – Y-Raise oriented – Y-Raises, Back to Wall Shoulder Raises, Trap 3 Raises, Scaption Raises
  • C1 Posterior Chain Exercise – Hip Thrusts, Swings, Pull Throughs, Good Mornings, etc.
  • C2 Upper Back Filler – Rotator Cuff oriented
  • D1 Anti-Lateral Flexion Core Exercise
  • D2 Leg Lowering Core Exercise

 

One of my favorite programs to recommend and use with athletes is Joe Defranco’s Westside for Skinny Bastards series. I typically program the 3rd template, WS4SB 3, because it has 2 lower body training days instead of just one.

 

So, now what?

If you’ve stuck it out this long, thank you for reading to the end. If this article left you even more confused and unsure of where to start, shoot me an e-mail at [email protected] with your questions and I’ll answer them for you.

 

If you live in the Franklin, MA area, feel free to contact me for a consultation at my gym – Optimize Fitness & Performance. I offer free consultations where we work together to find the “missing link” in your program. As you saw here, the “missing link” for most people is not training their legs. Head to www.optimizefp.com and fill out the form at the top right to schedule your change session.

 

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