Why Endurance Athletes Should Lift Heavy Weights

EndurElite Chief Endurance Officer Matt Mosman busts the commonly held belief that endurance athletes should only lift light weights and explains why lifting heavy weights will lead to greater improvements in running, cycling, OCR, and other endurance sports.

Full Video Transcription:

Endurance Athletes Should Do Heavy Strength Training

Good morning, family of fast. Matt Mosman, the chief endurance officer over at EndurElite. Welcome to another episode of busting the bullshit. On the chopping block today is this.

As an endurance athlete, when you strength train, you should only be lifting light weights.

So, as an example, if you were to go into a gym, you would perform a series of exercises where the reps would be high, 15 to 20 reps, the weight would be low, below 70% of one RM, and the rest sets would be really short, like less than 30 seconds.

Now, for the longest time, you've been told that this is the best way to train, or strength train, as an endurance athlete, and this is not true.

What's The Deal With Endurance Strength Training?

And the whole philosophy behind this is that by doing this lightweight, low-intensity strength training, that you're gonna kind of help train those slow-twitch muscle fibers that most endurance athletes' muscles are composed of.

Now, I'm gonna make the argument that as an endurance athlete, you are much better off doing pure strength training, as an example, higher weights, lower reps, higher rest between sets.

So, as far as the load goes, you're looking at about 85% or greater of one repetition max, you're looking at about three to six sets, and about two to five minutes of rest in between sets.

Heavy Weight Loads Strengthen Tendons, Ligaments, And Bone Density

Now, as an endurance athlete, why would you want to lift these heavy loads? Well, there's lots of good reasons. Most importantly, it can help strengthen collagen, tendons, ligaments, bone density.

Now, if you believe in the whole theory of muscle fiber composition changes, this also might help transition type one muscle fibers to type 2A or type 2X, which are fast-twitch fibers. Now, why is that important? Well, those type two fibers are the ones that produce a lot of power.

So, as an example, if you're a cyclist, one of the key measurements is your power output, or watts. And by having muscles that are not only stronger but more powerful, you'll be able to crank out more watts and go faster.

The same thing with running. If you can produce more power, you might run a little more efficiently, or have more power with each footstep, where you might be getting anywhere from a half-inch to an inch greater stride length, which can add up to a lot over time.

So again, just to repeat myself, when you're strength training at a heavy load as an endurance athlete, it will increase strength. It will increase power.

And overall, it's just like an insurance policy for your body in terms of increasing the strength of the ligaments, collagen, tendons, and bone density.

The Research On Lifting Heavy

Now, don't believe me? There's actually quite a few studies done on this, and I'm gonna read it verbatim here in a second, to show you kind of how heavy strength training can benefit you as an endurance athlete.

Now, I'm gonna peek over here. The title of study is "Maximal Strength Training Improves Running Economy In Distance Runner." And this was done by a guy out of Norway named Storen.

And what he did is he took 17 well-trained runners, both male and females, that were randomly assigned to either an intervention or a control group. So, the intervention group is the group that's going to be doing the heavy strength training.

The intervention group for males and for females performed half squats, four sets of four repetition maximum, three times per week for eight weeks, as a supplement to their normal endurance training.

So they were concurrent training, so they were running and both strength training, and the strength training, again, was very, very heavy.

The control group continued their normal endurance training during the same period. Now, here's the results, which is really, really impressive.

The intervention manifested significant improvements in one-repetition max, or how much weight you can push with each rep, by 33.2%, the rate of force development by a whopping 26%. So again, that rate of force development is important with, like, cycling power and running power. And then, running economy, how efficient you run, increased by 5%, and time to exhaustion increased a whopping 21.3%.

Now, if that doesn't convince you, I don't know what will, because those are some pretty significant changes.

Now, no changes were found in VO2 max or body weight, which is pretty given, but you got all those other things that were increased that will increase your endurance performance.

Now, they concluded that maximal strength training for eight weeks improved running economy, increased time to exhaustion at maximal oxygen consumption.

That doesn't make any sense. Anyways, it all worked out pretty good in long-distance runners without change in maximal oxygen uptake, or body weight.

So, that's just one example, and there's many out there, how heavy strength training can really improve endurance performance. I sound like a broken record now, but I'm really, really adamant about how important strength training, and especially strength training heavily, for endurance athletes is.

How To Properly Prepare Your Body For Lifting Heavy Weights

Now, you don't want to jump into heavy strength training right off the bat if you're not used to strength training at all. So there's a few recommendations I want to provide before you go into the gym and be a complete savage, and do a full squat and blow your back out, because that's no fun. You don't want to be set back.

So, here's what you want to do if you've never strength trained in the past before, or if you're kind of a novice at strength training.

First of all, you want to make sure you're performing these heavy movements correctly.

And I say heavy movements, I'm talking to things about, like, the squat, the deadlift, the bench press. Basically big exercises that involve big muscle groups and compound movements that involve a lot of different muscles, like say, for example, the chest or a bench press, will involve the pectorals, the shoulders and the triceps.

So you're doing big movements that involve a lot of different muscle groups.

So, first of all, learn how to perform, excuse me, the movement correctly first, so you don't hurt yourself.

Start At A Lower Weight

Now, if you're just starting out, obviously, you're going to start at a lower weight and lower rep scheme until you get stronger. I would say, you know, if you're just starting a strength training program, you probably want to strength train for at least 6 to 12 weeks before performing any heavy movements.

Use The Correct Weight Loads

Now, as far as kind of your overall scheme when you get to that point when you can start lifting heavier weights, here's what you want to do.

  • You want to do 85% of one repetition max for your sets. So if you went to the bench press, for example, and pressed 100 pounds up, with your strength training, you would want to make sure all your reps are performed at 85 pounds or above. So again, 85% of one repetition max.
  • You're going to do three to six sets
  • You're going to rest for about two to five minutes between each set.

Because the goal here is maximal strength development, and that's kind of the scheme you want to follow.

Strength Train At Least Two Times A Week

Now, also, you want to be sure you're strength training, at least heavily, I would say two times a week, and you never want to allow more than 72 hours between your strength training sessions, otherwise you might start to lose adaptations to that exercise.

Use The 2 For 2 Rule When Deciding When To Increase Weight

Also, the big question is when do you know how to increase weights with your heavy strength training days?

Well, I always use something called the two for two rule that was developed by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Let's see if I can get it here right.

Basically it says if you can perform two or more repetitions on your last set above the intended weight that you are at on two consecutive workouts, then you want to bump up the weight by about five pounds for upper body exercises, and about 10 pounds for lower body exercises.

Only Use Heavy Loads During Compound Exercises

Now, this is important too, when I'm talking about these exercises with maximal, like, strength training, you don't want to try to max out, like, on, you know, a bicep curl or a, you know, a tricep press and anything of that.

With your maximal strength training, or those heavy loads, again, you want to really focus on the bench press, the deadlift, the squats, maybe some heavy rowing movements.

Not, you don't want to really do, like, isolated movements, again, like the bicep curl, or leg extensions or tricep presses, or even, like, shoulder movements for that matter.

The Bottom Line On Heavy Strength Training For Runners, Cyclists, And Other Endurance Athletes

So, that is all I have today on why endurance athletes, when they strength train, should be lifting heavy loads, as opposed to the really light loads that you've always been told you should be doing.

Now, is there anything wrong with that? No, but you're probably not going to see as much benefit from lifting the light loads as compared to the heavy loads.

Again, think about it. What are you doing when you're running or cycling? You're kind of putting your legs under a heavy, or a light load, and you're repetitively doing that.

So, you know, I've really never seen the benefit of lifting light loads for endurance athletes, and I've seen not only with myself, but many other athletes, and, as the research has demonstrated, that you'll see significant improvements in endurance performance, and things like injury preventions when you lift heavy loads.

So, with that, I'm going to say goodbye. If you want other videos like this on endurance training, nutrition, supplementation, and other myth-busting episodes, subscribe to the EndurElite YouTube channel, or head on over to the EndurElite blog at www.endureliteelite.com. Get social with us on Instagram and Facebook. And until next time, my endurance friends, stay fueled, stay focused, stay fast, and stay informed.

About the author:

Matt Mosman (MS, CISSN, CSCS) is a research scientist, endurance athlete, and the founder and Chief Endurance Officer at EndurElite. Matt holds his B.S. in Exercise Science from Creighton University and his M.S. in Exercise Physiology from the University of California. Matt and his family reside in Spearfish South Dakota, where they enjoy running, mountain biking, camping, and all the outdoor adventures Spearfish has to offer.