Most trail and ultrarunners know they need to strength train. The reasons are many:
“I need to have a strong core for running all day on rugged trails.”
“My hips need to be strong and stable.”
“Strength training helps me run faster at the end of a race.”
Yet for many the answer to what exactly we need to do is elusive. Exercises like crunches, planks, clamshells, and squats are common but for most of us these exercises fail to inspire. They’re often done halfheartedly if at all, and many runners prefer to get strong by simply running faster, farther, and steeper.
In my physical-therapy practice, I always aim to prescribe exercises with as much functional application as possible. Drills and routines–such as the 100-Up and The Pawback–aim to mimic the precise pattern of running, reinforcing strength, range of motion, and efficiency. Anything short of that is often left at the wayside.
Formal weight training often falls into this category. Many find the high-intensity and muscle-thrashing elements of heavy weight training to be both unpalatable and detrimental to running: rendering muscles too sore, tight, and big for light and effortless trail running.
But what if there was something out there that exactly replicated almost every crucial element of the run stride–all in one exercise?
The Runner Deadlift
The deadlift is considered–along with the squat and the bench press–to be among the three fundamental powerlifting exercises. The formal deadlift quite simply involves lifting a bar from the ground position to the waist and back. It is considered a ‘dead’ lift because the weight begins on the ground and is lifted upward without assistance.
Simply mentioning the word ‘powerlifting’ conjures images of muscle-bound strongmen–a major turnoff for most runners. However, the fundamental concepts of the deadlift–and the runner-specific version I will introduce–are compelling for all runners, but especially ultra trail runners.
The Runner Deadlift begins at the waist position. Then the weight is slowly lowered, and then lifted back to the waist:
This exercise seems overly simplistic and a bit arcane. But a closer look reveals how this exercise pinpoints every vital component of ideal running mechanics.
Concepts of the Run Stride and the Deadlift
When I teach running mechanics, I emphasize four fundamental concepts:
- Forward trunk engagement through a hip hinge
- Short and long hip pattern
- Strong arms
- The Pawback
A close look at the Runner Deadlift reveals that each and every one of these elements are reinforced.
The Hip Hinge and Trunk Alignment
The fundamental element of the deadlift is the hip hinge: the isolated movement of a stable trunk at the hip. A small amount of hip hinge in the run stride does two vital things: it provides consistent, sustainable forward momentum, and pre-loads the gluteal muscles to be able to push off beneath and behind you. This latter element is what makes a hip hinge-based ‘forward lean’ biomechanically superior to a trunk or ankle lean.
Ideal hip hinge–for running as well as all functional movements–involves a chest-over-knee-over-foot alignment. This alignment is absolutely crucial to ensure that the bulk of weight and power comes from the the hips–and limits stressful loading of the knees and quads, and calves and ankles. Indeed, most lower-leg injuries–including blown quads, knee pain, calf strains and cramps, and foot pain–are impacted by insufficient hip hinge.
The deadlift is the perfect hip-hinge, trunk-aligning exercise. Unlike a rear squat, the bar grasped in front of the body helps to reinforce this alignment:
Insufficient hinge–a lack of hip loading, too much knee/ankle flexion, or insufficient forward trunk–does not allow the bar to freely lower beyond the knees. This is crucial feedback for ideal running posture.
Short and Long Hips
The Runner Deadlift reinforces the hip pattern in the run stride: the isolated hip motion and the powerful hip extension that must occur to return the weight back to the waist-high position. And the chest-knee-foot alignment ensures that the bulk of the work is done by the glutes–not the quads or calves.
This is where the true beauty of the Runner Deadlift begins to emerge. Whereas many exercises strengthen the hips and glutes, few exercises also target the trunk and the arms quite like the deadlift.
The central element of the arm swing in running involves strong shoulder blades. The scapular stabilizers and movers drive the arm as a whole forward, but predominantly rearward. This action aids in maintaining forward trunk momentum and hip power.
A central element of the Runner Deadlift involves stabilizing the shoulder blades in a rearward–slightly retracted–position:
This stabilizes the bar weight against the trunk and reduces shoulder strain. And when the weight is lowered to the knee position, the trunk and scapular stabilizers get a tremendous workout, mimicking the demands of running.
This concept was introduced in my last column–the vital notion of pulling the leg from a flexed-forward, to an extended push-off position. It is ‘the glue’ between the shortened, forward knee drive, and the lengthening push-off position. It ensures the foot lands efficiently beneath the body and accentuates hip-extension power.
The return motion of the Runner Deadlift–a strong pinch-squeeze of the glutes–directly replicates and powerfully strengthens this vital run stride mechanism.
Neutral, Forward Trunk Posture
But that’s not all! In addition to targeting the four stride fundamentals, the Runner Deadlift also strengthens more vital components, like a neutral, forward trunk posture.
One of the first things to go during a long ultra is trunk posture and forward engagement. In a previous Stay the Course column, I demonstrate how–during the course of a long, exhausting ultramarathon–runners frequently lose their forward engagement and substitute in the following ways:
- ‘Sitting Back‘ in the stride
- Becoming too upright, or ‘Standing Up‘ in the stride
- Rounding the back and slumping (or what I call, ‘Old Man Back’)
Losing a neutral, forward trunk has dire consequences for running performance:
- Greatly reduced hip-extension power. With the trunk upright, the hip has nowhere to push.
- Over-striding. The foot invariably strikes in front of the body, causing energy waste and damaging leg stress.
But most overlooked and perhaps most costly:
- Compromised breathing! A loss of trunk neutral can greatly restrict lung ventilation. Being too upright, or too rounded restricts ribcage mobility and prevents the diaphragm from fully expanding the lungs. Less air equals less oxygen equals higher heart rate equals myriad problems and undue suffering!
A mindful eye on a neutral trunk–including a slight lumbar arch with open shoulders–during the Runner Deadlift creates a powerful strengthening and muscle memory of neutral trunk posture during running:
This is especially important during mountain trail running where steep uphill and downhill running places even greater demands on a forward trunk posture. What a double-edged sword a steep hill climb becomes if you also lose trunk neutral and cannot fully inflate the lungs!
Head and Neck Posture
A greatly overlooked element of running posture is head and neck alignment. At all times, the head and neck should remain level. A simple cue is, if one were wearing sunglasses, the side of the frames should always remain parallel to the waist–even on uphills. The neck plays an enormous role in overall spinal stability and should not be overlooked–in this exercise, or during the course of a run:
Who would think that grip strength should be important for ultrarunning… except every ultrarunner out there who’s been forced to hold and/or swing a one- or two-pound water bottle in his or her hand all day!
By virtue of grasping the heavy bar, the Runner Deadlift strengthens the muscles of the entire arm complex: from the scapula to shoulder to bicep to the forearm and hand-gripping muscles.
Performing the Runner Deadlift
All runners unfamiliar with this exercise should begin with the lightest possible bar. A standard weight bar is 45 pounds.
- Begin by lifting and holding the bar at the waist with straight arms.
- Allow the weight of the bar to freely dangle in front of you: avoid ‘holding’ the bar in front. This will become increasingly difficult–if not impossible–as you increase weight.
- The central motion–the hip hinge–involves a bowing action, whereby the hips and pelvis move straight back (think ‘butt out’), as if one were sitting on a stool behind them. At the same time, the trunk bows forward and the knees bend slightly.
- Ideal alignment has the bar lowering straight down, just in front of the knees. Inadequate hinge results in the bar touching the knees or thighs. If this happens, the butt and knees need to move rearward and the trunk farther forward.
- Lower as far as you can with a neutral–slightly arched–trunk. Hamstring flexibility will dictate how low you go. When you can no longer keep the back lightly arched, stop. This is the end position.
- Hold this position for two to three breaths. Focus on inflating the abdomen while holding this end position. This will mimic the demands of uphill running with a neutral trunk!
- To return, begin by first pushing with the quads. When you’re halfway up, powerfully pinch the glutes to finish. This is vitally important to avoid overusing lumbar muscles, which causes back pain.
A video of the exercise:
The key to Relentless Forward Progress on the run is a strong, efficient stride that maintains a neutral trunk and powerful hips. Use this exercise to strengthen your resolve and quicken your pace to the finish!
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Is the Runner Deadlift, or a slight adaptation of it, part of your strength-training regime? If so, what parts of your running stride do you have weaknesses in that this deadlift addresses?
- For those of us who don’t yet incorporate the Runner Deadlift into our exercise, how do you think it could best assist your running stride?