Cross-Training

Distance Runners, This 5-Move Dumbbell Workout is For You

This next-level dumbbell circuit will help improve core mobility and build a more efficient, powerful stride.

Strength training for middle- to long-distance running has come a long way from the niche books I used to read about 15 years ago. I was always baffled to see biceps curls, bench dips and sit-ups recommended. Not that I was against such exercises, but it wasn’t clear to me how they improved running performance. As it turns out, my suspicion was right. Today’s top strength coaches, biomechanists and movement specialists don’t recommend these exercises at all. 

Exercises come in many different forms and they all have different underlying effects. Some will have better transference to improving running performance while others just make you tired. Every exercise I include in my articles and workouts have been researched and tested by me and my clients. There is nothing worse than wasting your precious energy on exercises you find online or in a book that actually have little influence on your running economy. 

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One of the purposes of this workout is to focus on a concept called core mobility. Core mobility occurs, for example, during the running gait where the torso rotates relative to the pelvis. If you watch anyone run, you’ll see that during the swing phase, when the right knee lifts upward, it drives the pelvis towards the left. In a counteraction, the torso will slightly rotate toward the right as the left arm swings forward. 

This “ringing out a wash rag” action is a mechanism the body uses to create balance during motion, but it’s also one way the body stores and utilizes elastic energy during each stride. There is no point during the running gait where the “core” is actually stable, hence we need to train it for mobility. Excess mobility, however, will reduce the body’s effectiveness at storing and utilizing elastic energy — thus, there is an ideal amount of torso rotation desired for smooth and efficient running. 

Man on treadmill with logo of arrows pointing left and right.
Core mobility example: During running, when the right knee is forward, the pelvis rotates toward the left, and when the left arm is forward, the torso rotates toward the right. Photo: Jon-Erik Kawamoto

The exercises below have all been chosen to improve different phases of gait and components necessary for an efficient, strong and powerful stride. You’ll notice that I incorporate core mobility components to the middle three exercises. Enjoy incorporating this concept into your training! 

The Workout

This workout is designed to be performed as a continuous circuit. Perform one exercise after the other with no rest. Notice that the reps climb up then down like a pyramid. Aim to use 10–30 lb dumbbells and focus on performing each exercise with as much intention as possible. Take 60-seconds between sets and perform 3–5 total sets. Do this circuit-style workout once a week.

The Exercises

A1) Repeated Dumbbell Vertical Jump

Man doing a vertical jump with dumbbells.
Photo: Jon-Erik Kawamoto

Why: To develop explosive power

How: Stand with your feet hip-width apart while holding the dumbbells at your side. Soften your knees and bend over by pushing your hips back. There should be more movement at your hip compared to at your knees. Once your torso approaches an angle past 45-degrees, stand as quickly as possible and jump as high as you can. Land lightly and immediately perform the exact same movements to perform the next repetition.

Do: 5 explosive reps

A2) Dumbbell Plank Row with Shoulder and Hip Rotation

Plank rotation.
Photo: Jon-Erik Kawamoto

Why: To develop core and upper body strength

How: Place your hands on the dumbbells that are ~10” apart on the floor. Go into the top of a push-up position with your shoulders above your hands. Place your feet wider than shoulder-width apart. Expand your upper back and move your shoulder blades away from each other. Tuck in your hips and notice your abs kick on. 

Without moving your torso, row one of the dumbbells off the floor and turn your shoulders in the same direction. Keep your hips and body still. Return the dumbbell to the floor and switch sides. 

Next, bring one knee in toward your torso and reach your foot to the opposite side. Notice your hips rotate respective to your hips. Return the leg back and switch legs. That is one rep.

Do: 7 reps per side

A3) Dumbbell Forward/Reverse Lunge with Rotation

Man doing lunge rotation with dumbbells.
Photo: Jon-Erik Kawamoto

Why: To develop lower body strength and hip stability

How: Stand with your feet hip width apart while holding the dumbbells in front of your shoulders. Take a large step forward and bring your rear knee toward the floor and rotate your torso toward the lead leg. Remain fairly upright and let your front knee move in toward the line of the big toe. Press back to return to standing but continue into a reverse lunge by stepping backward with the same leg. Bring the rear leg knee toward the floor and let the front knee move toward the line of the big toe. Again, rotate your torso toward the lead leg. Press the front foot down to return you to standing. That is one pair.

Do: 9 pairs per side

A4) Alternating Step Back Romanian Deadlift with Rotational Row

Man in weight room doing alternating step back romanian deadlift with rotational row with dumbbells.
Photo: Jon-Erik Kawamoto

Why: To strengthen the hip extensors, hamstrings, core, back extensors and upper back

How: Stand with your feet hip-width apart while holding the dumbbells at your sides. Take a small step back and toe tap the floor. As you do so, soften your front knee and push your hips back to lean over your front foot. As your torso approaches a 90-degree angle, notice tightness develop in the back of your front leg. Row the dumbbell up opposite to the rear leg and rotate your rib cage respective to your hips. Lower the dumbbell and step forward as you return to the upright position. Step back with the opposite leg to perform the next rep.

Do: 7 reps per leg

A5) Fatigued Dumbbell Vertical Jump

Why: To develop explosive power while you’re tired!

How: Stand with your feet hip-width apart while holding the dumbbells at your side. Soften your knees and bend over by pushing your hips back. There should be more movement at your hip compared to at your knees. Once your torso approaches an angle past 45-degrees, stand as quick as possible and jump as high as possible. Land lightly and immediately perform the exact same movements to perform the next repetition.

Do: 5 explosive reps

Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CK, CSCS is a Certified Kinesiologist, Strength Coach and co-owner of JKConditioning, a small group personalized training, nutrition and run coaching company in St. John’s, NL, Canada. Jon is a runner and regular contributor to PodiumRunner. Find more running content at www.YouTube.com/StrongerRunner.