I’ve been doing weight training for almost as long as I’ve been running. I’m not a body builder or a power lifter. Weight lifting isn’t a primary sport for me – it’s cross-training for running.
When I was training for my first marathon, I started doing long training runs. I started to notice that my arms and shoulders got sore and tired in the late miles. That was my initial motivation to lift weights. Although I was initially more concerned about building strength and endurance in my upper body, I tried to include exercises for every major muscle group. I learned that one of the keys to preventing runner’s knee was to strengthen my quads. In general, you want to keep opposing muscle groups in balance.
Over the years, I’ve made many changes to my weight training routines. I’ve added some exercises and eliminated others. I eventually settled into a routine where I alternate between two workouts. They each include the same lower body exercises, but they have different upper body exercises.
Ideally, I would work out twice a week. That would allow me to hit each of my upper body exercises every week. Because I often travel to races on consecutive weekends, it’s tough to fit in two weight training workouts between trips. More often than not, I end up doing one weight training session in the middle of the week. That means I go two weeks between some of my exercises. Worse yet, I sometimes go on longer trips, either because I’m traveling to an international race or because I’m doing three or more races on consecutive days. When that happens, I end up going more than a week between weight training workouts.
When you go too often between workouts, you lose a little strength. It’s not much, but it’s enough that I have trouble handling the same amount of weight I was using before. Ideally, I should cut back slightly and then build back up. Unfortunately, I haven’t been doing that.
I have a home gym that I built up gradually. I started with a set of free weights, a barbell and a bench. I gradually added more stations and different types of bars, until I could do a wide variety of exercises. One of the advantages of having a home gym is that you can work out whenever you want. You never have to drive anywhere, and you never have to wait for a piece of equipment. Having a home gym also has one big disadvantage. I work out without a spotter.
Working out without a spotter is manageable, but you have to be careful. I don’t do maximum lifts. In general, my workouts are as much about endurance as they are about strength. I’ve tried to pick exercises that won’t put me in danger if I’m unable to complete an extra rep. The exercise that requires the most caution is the bench press. If you lower the bar and can’t raise it again, it can be difficult – though not impossible – to move the bar to a safe location.
After a race, I go easy in my next training run. With running, it’s easy to scale back your workout. I leave my watch at home and run at a pace that feels right. Instead of running by pace, I run by perceived exertion.
With weight training, it’s harder to go by feel. You have to make a conscious decision how much weight to put on the bar. Sometimes, I really need to cut back a little, but I push myself to do the same workout I did last time. Pride gets in the way of common sense. When I do this, I can still complete each of my exercises, but they usually degrade in one of three ways.
The most common way my workout degrades is a decrease in my range of motion. This is what usually happens with the bench press. I sometimes sense that if I lower the bar too close to my chest, I won’t be able to raise it again. I subconsciously cut my motion short, so the bar isn’t as close to my chest. I always tell myself that I’ll get back to a full range of motion in my next workout, but I usually don’t. Instead, a temporary setback gets ingrained permanently in my workout. Over time, small changes accumulate, until I realize that my range of motion is only half of what it should be.
Another way my workout degrades is for my form to break down. For example, I may begin to slouch forward while doing curls, instead of maintaining good posture. This is a form of “cheating.” It enables other muscle groups to assist. As with a decreased range of motion, it’s an error that can accumulate over time.
The last way my workout degrades is for me to take longer breaks between sets. If I’m having more difficulty using the same amount of weight, I take a little extra time to rest before beginning the next set. I shouldn’t need more than one minute between two sets of the same exercise. When I’m transitioning between different exercises, the time it takes to set up the weight should be all the time I need. In practice, I start taking longer breaks, and these changes also accumulate over time.
I came to the realization recently that I was experiencing all of these problems to various degrees. I had to take a step back and re-evaluate my whole workout. I realized that in order to have a full range of motion on my bench presses, I needed to reduce the weight by 20 percent. I made the same change to every exercise. As a result, I’m now able to do every exercise properly, and I’m once again moving through the whole workout quickly.
Last week, I retooled one of my weight training routines. Today, I retooled the other routine. With each movement, I felt good about my form, my posture and my range of motion. With some exercises, it initially seemed like it would be too easy with so little weight. In each case, by the time I got to the last rep of my second set, I felt like I was getting a good workout.