3 Most Useless Gym Exercises for Runners (And What to do Instead)

Useless Exercises for RunnersThis is a guest post by Jeff Gaudette (click here to check out my previous interview with Jeff).

Jeff Gaudette is a 2:22 marathoner and owner of RunnersConnect, a team of expert coaches dedicated to helping you run faster and stay healthy. RunnersConnect provides custom training schedules, strength training programs for runners, and recently launched a 6-week course on how to improve your running form.

I used the RunnersConnect Strength Training for Runners program for my recent marathon. The exercises in Jeff’s program helped me beat my marathon PB by more than 40 minutes – with no injuries along the way. I have no doubt his new course on running form is also excellent.

Enter Jeff

Most runners understand the value of strength work for improving performance and staying healthy. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, maybe some peer-reviewed research can help sway your opinion.

Studies have shown as much as 4% increase in running efficiency and a 3.1% improvement in 5k time with strength training alone. Even better, studies show improving hip strength virtually eliminated the onset of IT band syndrome and runner’s knee.

Thus, the question isn’t should you add strength training to your running schedule, but what exercises are most effective for runners.

With an endless variety of machines and exercises to choose from, is it possible you’re wasting your time with exercises that seem like they would help your running, but in reality offer little running-specific benefit and may even contribute to injuries?

Judging from what I’ve seen in the gym, most runners are.

To help you make the most of your time spent strength training, here are the three exercises to avoid and more effective, running-specific alternatives.

Quad extension machine

The quad extension machine targets a singular muscle group, in one range of motion, that doesn’t mimic any of your proper running mechanics. Even worse, this exercise puts a tremendous amount of stress on your patella tendon, which can easily become inflamed and result in patella tendonitis, an injury that accounts for almost 5% of all running-related injuries.

Quad ExtensionMany runners think the motion of this exercise will help them drive their leg forward with less effort. Unfortunately, that’s not how running mechanics work.

During the recovery phase of the gait cycle, your heel rises towards your butt to create a better lever for your leg to move forward – a shorter lever means less work needs to be done by the hip flexors and quads.

Once the leg is forward, your shin unfolds in preparation for contact with the ground. This is the movement the quad extension mimics. However, while actually running, this movement requires almost no effort from the quad muscle. Since the hamstring is contracted to bring the heel towards the butt, all the hamstring has to do is relax and the leg drops back into a neutral position. Very little activation of the quad is needed. As such, the quad extension machine is useless and potentially harmful.

Do this exercise instead

Single Leg Squat

Stand with your arms extended out in front. Balance on one leg with the opposite leg extended straight leg forward as high as possible. Squat down as far as possible while keeping your other leg elevated off of floor. Keep your back straight and supporting knee pointed in the same direction as the foot supporting. Raise your body back up to the original position until the knee and hip of the supporting leg is straight. Return and repeat.

If you’re an advanced runner, you can perform this exercise with an uneven weight on one side (either with a barbell, like a traditional squat, or while holding a weight in one hand).

Not only does this target your quad muscle in a more running-specific way, since it mimics the stress on your quads, knees and hips as you enter the stance phase of the gait cycle, but research also shows it engages your hip stabilizer muscles, making this a more dynamic movement that can prevent knee injuries.

Single Leg Squat

Hamstring curl

Like the quad extension, the hamstring curl machine targets a singular muscle group in one range of motion that is not correlated with how the hamstring is used or activated during the gait cycle.

hamstring curlAgain, most runners believe that the hamstring curl will make them more efficient at bring their heel towards their butt during the recovery cycle. This isn’t surprising, since this is the exact range of motion reproduced during this exercise.

However, bringing the heel towards the butt actually requires very little activation of the hamstring. Electrographic research suggests it is as little as 7%. The movement of the heel towards the butt is aided by the stretch-reflex generated during hip extension (the amount your leg travels behind you during your stride). This is why the faster you run, the closer your heel will get to your butt without trying to.

Do this exercise instead

Cable Drive Back

With your foot or heel attached to a cable machine, stand facing the structure that the cable is attached to. Balance on one foot (it’s ok to hold onto another object for balance) and bring your leg slightly in front of you. Drive backwards with your foot in the band. Focus on generating the movement from your glutes and hamstrings. Slowly bring the leg back up and repeat.

This exercise mimics and strengthens the hamstring and the glutes in the exact motion they are engaged during the running gait.

As your foot touches the ground, ideally directly under your center of mass, the hip and hamstring work to drive the leg backwards. This is what creates explosive speed and is when the hamstring is most activated. Thus the exercise strengthens the hamstring in the exact motion and firing pattern you’ll use during your stride.  Plus, it’s dynamic and also recruits the hips and glutes.

Cable Drive Back

Hip abductor machine

We know that hip strength, or lack thereof, is one of the main contributors to running injuries.  The prescription is obviously to strengthen the muscles in the hip, which include the abductors. Seemingly, the abductor machine at the gym make this very easy to do. Just sit down, push out and you’re on your way to injury-free running.

hip abductorUnfortunately, this isn’t the case.

Research has shown that to improve running-specific hip strength, an exercise should maximize the recruitment of the gluteus medius and gluteus maximus, while minimizing the recruitment of the TFL (tensor fasciae latae – a muscle located on the upper lateral portion of your thigh).

The abductor machine actually targets the TFL and therefore has limited effectiveness. Furthermore, a tense TFL, because it connects directly to the knee’s lateral side via the iliotibial band, may increase knee strain that could develop into IT band syndrome.

Do this exercise instead

Sidestep

Wrap a theraband around your knees while standing with your feet shoulder width apart. Walk to one side, taking short, 2 to 3 foot steps, for 10 steps then walk to the other side for ten steps.

The sidestep displayed a statistically significant difference in EMG signals in both the gluteus medius and gluteus maximus muscles compared to the TFL. This exercise will improve running-specific hip strength without risk of aggravating the IT band.

Sidestep with band

Make the most out of the precious time you have to spend at the gym or strength training by understanding how running biomechanics work and targeting the movements needed to help you improve form, run more efficiently, and stay injury-free.

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  • Kristen E. Scruggs

    Thank you for the enlightening article – I have been using two of these machines thinking that I was strengthening my hips and quads while training for my 1st full marathon.

    • http://www.healthynomics.com Mark Kennedy

      Hi Kristen. Thanks for your comment. These 3 exercises will really help you train hard and avoid injury. What marathon are you doing? Best of luck!

      • Kristen E. Scruggs

        Thanks! Space Coast on Dec 1 :)

    • http://runnersconnect.net/ Jeff Gaudette

      Glad you enjoyed, Kristen. Indeed, switching both exercises will help you exponentially more for the marathon. Best of luck with the training!

  • RichFrantz

    Thanks. The first 2 I knew, learned something helpful about the abductors.

  • Brandie

    I got connected to this article from the National Black Marathoners facebook page. It was right on time. I used to be really heavy into the gym but quit once I started running. I recently rejoined due to everyone recommending strength training for my first marathon on November 9(Soliders Marathon at Fort Bening,GA). My partner and I were doing all the wrong exercises listed. I sent her the article and will change our routine this week. Thank you.

    • http://www.healthynomics.com Mark Kennedy

      Hi Brandie,

      Thanks for reading and I am glad this post helped you.

      Best of luck for your Nov 9th race!

      Mark