3 Ways to Get Strong Again (Without Joining a Gym)

As runners, we have all kinds of convenient excuses to not do any strength training.  Some of my favorites:

  • Running keeps me in plenty good shape, why should I do anything else?
  • I don’t want to injure myself with weights.
  • Big muscles will make me slower.
  • The Kenyans don’t lift!

I’ve used all of these at one time or another.  As a result, I’ve just run a lot.  And now I’m scrawny.

As it turns out, most of those excuses are bullshit.  Running does keep you in good shape, but it doesn’t do much for your upper body, appearance-wise or in terms of strength.  And while it’s probably true that when you first start out with weights, injury is a risk, a friend of mine who recently came in 18th at the Badwater Ultramarathon (yes, that’s 135 miles through Death Valley) tells me that he thinks strength training actually prevents him from getting injured now.

For me, it’s time to get back in shape.  But not just any strength program will do.

3 Things I Don’t Want in a Workout Program

When I ran my first marathon, I was really into lifting.  I was 25 pounds heavier than I am now and most of it was muscle.  Relatively speaking (and greatly exaggerating), I was a beast.

While I don’t want to be that guy again (have you seen his marathon time?), I do want to be stronger.  That means more bodyweight exercises and less grunting and contorting myself into the worst form possible to pound out a 1- or 2-rep set on the bench.

I also don’t want to join a gym.  My wife and I like to workout together, so we’d need a gym that can watch our baby. I’ve found those to be both rare and expensive, so I need something I can do at home with minimal equipment.

And I don’t want it to take a lot of time.  Running is still my focus; anything else is supplementary.  Three days a week is all I’m willing to give to strength training.

Programs to Get You Strong Without a Gym Membership

But I’ve managed to start down the path to getting strong again, without joining a gym or committing more than about three hours a week to strength training.  How?  I’ve found three programs, two of which I’m already doing and treating as a buildup to the third, which I’m going to start shortly after my next 50-miler in Vermont.

So here’s what I’ll be doing for strength training for the next several months.  All are quick, gym-free, light on equipment, and (I think) compatible with ultra training.  That last part remains to be seen.

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7 Weeks to 100 Pushups

Equipment needed: none

Time required: 10 minutes, three days a week

I first met Steve Speirs at the HAT 50K this March.  I knew him only as a DailyMile guy with a damn fast HAT time; I later found out he was the creator of the 100 Pushups program and winner of the 2009 Cayman Marathon.

Steve believes that the pushup alone can make you a better runner, as it is (surprisingly) somewhat of a full-body exercise, especially as you do variations that focus on core stability.  I just believe that doing 100 pushups sounds badass, hardcore, or both.

While the book is the most comprehensive, the free website and the $1.99 iPhone app both contain full 7-week programs you can use to work your way up to 100.  I’m on Week 2 of the book’s program, and already doing way more pushups than I did the first day.

The best part: Each workout takes literally less than 10 minutes.  5 sets of pushups with a minute rest in between each set.  It’s so little that you can even do it along with another program.

Which brings me to…

Core Performance Essentials

Equipment needed: stability ball and dumbbells

Time required: 30 minutes, three days a week (plus cardio days)

I credit the the Core Performance Endurance program with turning me into a “serious” runner.  It was with that program, focused on core strength and proper form in all movements, that I developed the stability and muscle tone to stop getting injured so that I could train consistently enough to call myself a runner, athlete, or what have you.  (And it helped me get my marathon under 3:30 for the first time.)

Problem is, my wife and I did that program for so long that we got really sick of the workouts.  So we’ve turned to Core Performance Essentials, which is the same idea, but with new workouts, less required equipment, and crammed into half an hour a day, three days a week.  There are separate cardio days, but I’ll substitute my normal running workouts for those.  And there’s regeneration too, based mostly on foam rolling, the goal of which is to keep your muscles soft and pliable.  Trust me, you can feel that it’s working (i.e. it hurts).

We’re starting the second week of Core Performance, and progressing quickly through the workouts.  It’s time-based, so you move to the next workout as soon as you can complete the circuits in the previous one within the 30 minutes.  I suspect in 8 or 10 weeks we’ll have reached the end, at which point I’ll be ready for…

Rebel Fitness

Equipment needed: dumbbells or stability bands and a pullup bar

Time required: 30-45 minutes, three days a week (plus easy exercise days)

I recently discovered a site called Nerd Fitness, whose goal it is to “help fellow nerds, desk jockeys, and average Joes level up their lives while still doing the stuff they love.”  It’s the type of stripped-down approach to fitness for busy people that’s right up my alley.

Steve, the owner of Nerd Fitness, recently released the massive Rebel Fitness Guide.  It contains six different workout routines, which you move through at your own pace (Steve recommends spending four to eight weeks with each).

The Rebel Fitness guide is actually aimed at people looking to lose weight, which I’m certainly not.  So how come I can’t wait to get started?

Because the exercises are awesome.  Crazy stuff I’ve never done.  All different kinds of squats, lunges, pushups, pullups, kicks and other bodyweight exercises, plus a few with dumbbells or bands.  Organized into supersets and circuits for speed and efficiency.  And complete with interval training after most of the strength workouts.

I just don’t see how you could do this stuff and not get strong.  And yet the program doesn’t involve huge weights, which is great, because I’m still not sure that heavy weights and ultramarathon training can peacefully coexist.

Like I said, the program is massive.  I can’t begin to tell you about all the stuff that’s included, but you can check out Steve’s site to learn more and even see a free preview of the guides.

Vegan month is on!

Oh yes, I’ve been eating vegan for seven days now.  Eating at home has been simple—almost no different from how I ate at home anyway, minus the honey.

Eating out has been tougher, but twice I’ve eaten out and been fine.   However, at two parties already I’ve eaten dairy.  It was served to me as part of a meal that was prepared specially for my wife and me as vegetarians.  And, quite frankly, I refuse to be the guy who turns down vegetarian meals that people were considerate enough to make for me.  I suppose I need to do a better job of communicating that I’m trying the vegan thing this month.

How’s is going for those of you who are trying out a vegan diet with me?



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  1. I agree with not turning away a specially prepared meal for you.
    On a different note, I think strength training is SUPER IMPORTANT. All I did was run with the occasional core and upper body workout. The fact that I was not doing anything else caused me to get a stress fracture in my hip (the stress fractures in feet and lower legs are mostly from running too much). You use the same muscles to run, so those kept getting stronger and my other muscles just kept getting weaker. This caused an imbalance that puts pressure on the bone, and soon I had a stress fracture. So just running COULD lead to an injury. It might not hurt you in the short term, but I want to be a life-long runner. And that MUST include proper body balance!

  2. I started the 100 push-ups program (as well as the 200 sit-ups program) the last week of July. I was originally able to only eek out 3, maybe 4 real, non-girl push-ups. I am thrilled that now (a mere 6 weeks later), my max is 32 – and that’s in my 5th set! I can’t believe I did a total of 98 push-ups yesterday. I’m going to keep cycling through the program till I can (hopefully) literally do 100 at a time!

    I just reread that and it sounded like a total spam-ad. But I swear, its true! :]

  3. I bought it. I’ll literally throw a party the day I can do 100 push-ups in a row! I think push-ups and chin-ups are the two coolest exercises known to man.

  4. Hey Matt –
    This is my first comment, though I’ve been reading for ages (and also wear a NMA tshirt with pride!)

    I am looking forward to hearing about your vegan for a month trial. I’ve been going backwards and forwards on the idea for months now, and after drastically cutting back on dairy and eggs, I feel like the only logical next move is to just take the leap and try it out! I’m thinking October. I would have joined you this month, but I run my first marathon in 2 weeks 🙂

  5. Great post. I honestly feel that general cross training (both different forms of cardio and weights) makes me feel like a better runner (it may all be in my head;)). My husband has done P90X and he really likes that (in terms of home workouts). Good job with the vegan month so far!

  6. Great blog! I’ve been lurking for a while. So, hello there!
    I recently moved from a weights-based strength program to a more body weight focused one. A good book is You Are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren. I like to do the daily workouts on bodyrock.tv. She does a lot of different kinds of pushups and some really tough plyo moves.

  7. How did I not even know it was Vegan month? I’ve never been able to fully cross over. Giving up meat was a huge sacrifice. I just don’t think I could give up the cheese too. Every time I “try” I just end up having dairy without even thinking.

  8. once again, fantastic article! looking into those programs right now. i’ve lost a lot of upperbody strength since running became my predominate form of exercise and it’s hard to find the time to get to the gym.
    glad your vegan month is going well, i definitely think eating something friends prepared especially for your was appropriate.

  9. I’m a big fan of the 100 pushups program, I’ve gone through it a few times.

    In fact, I’m technically in the middle of it right now, although I took last week (and now this week) off from it after I cracked a rib. I figure that since it’s painful to push open a heavy swinging door at work to get to the production floor, I probably shouldn’t be doing pushups. Hopefully I can start again next week, but was told it will probably take 3-4 weeks for my rib to heal.

    • And you’re part of the app! My dad got it for his iPhone the other day and we were looking at the video of the form and I was shocked to see it was you!

      • Yeah, I finally got around to checking out the app about 3 or 4 weeks ago, and I showed it to my wife.

        She laughed and said, “You used to be young!”

        When Steve put the original 100 pushups site up, he was trying to explain how to do a pushup with static screenshots, so I told him he could use my animated gifs I’d made a year or two earlier. When the app came around, I told him he could use it for that too.

  10. I can totally relate to this “excuses.” Moreso, I read ChiRunning and had these ideas, but then I joined a new gym after I lost access to my company gym. And holy moley, there were so many fun weight machines greeting me that I couldn’t help but WANT to use them. I know it sounds strange, but it’s true.

    So now my upper body is buffer, and honestly, I think the weight training has helped me in running up those hills. I don’t do much leg work (maybe once a week on machines and one other time where I do bodyweight stuff like lunges), but arms/abs I do 3+ times a week, intensely.

    But honestly, I think I could achieve this without a gym — when I didn’t have one for a few weeks, I used Jillian Michaels’ No More Trouble Zones with dumbbells… it also made an immediate impact on my muscle tone.

  11. I have definitely been thinking very much about strength training and once I have my baby I’ll be including a LOT more of it into my work outs. It’s hard to accept that running isn’t the end all. haha

  12. My colleagues at work (especially those I see infrequently) have started telling me I look scrawnier than normal. Will check out the plans – I think the 100 pushups for now.

    On the vegan front, I am at about three months now. Love it! My favorite meal is baked tofu with a spicy peanut sauce served over jasmine rice. Even my kids like it.

  13. LOVE the 100 push ups challenge. There are so many ways to get strong! It’s great.

    Am excited for you about your vegan challenge. I really enjoyed my month of veganism last year.

  14. Great article as always, just gave you a shout out on facebook as well, keep the good info coming!

  15. Glad to know you’re doing ok on the vegan front. I am on day 17 and so far so good. This morning I woke up with a headache, and nausea, but I googled it and realized I was low in the protein department. I really concentrated on getting enough today, and tonight I feel much better. It’s a learning experience but it’s really easier than I thought it would be

  16. i have been vegetarian for 15 years, after a few month of been vegan for a couple weeks a month i decided that september will be my vegan month, i realized that i have to cook more if i want to eat right, but i feel great. I am trainning for vegas marathon, i am trying to get my energy back since i ve been feeling completely out of it, i love been vegan.

  17. I’m definitely going to try out the 100 push-ups program!

  18. I was JUST talking about the 100 push ups program and how I wanted to do it. Strength training is something I struggle with. On my non running days I struggle to do anything, I just want to focus on non-exercise stuff in my life, but I know strength training and yoga will make my running better. 100 pushups seems like an easy way to sneak in that strength training on those non-run days. Maybe I can work up to lifting those free weights collecting dust in my apartment…

  19. Hmm I will have to look into these core exercises. I agree that if your just trying out veganism it would be a bit rude to say no to a meal made specifically for you if you didnt let them know before hand. Now if you were vegan from here on out id say it would be a different story and maybe a good time to let them know what ways your diet had changed. Hope the vegan diet is going well.

  20. thanks for the tips! i bookmarked this post and will surely be coming back to it when i get tired of my current workout regimen!

  21. I am a vegetarian training for my first Marathon in December. Another good program to add to this list I think is p90x. I started out doing the whole program at the beginning of this year. I now have modified it to match my routine. I still follow the 3 month program, but instead of doing their cardio, I run or spin, or do whatever Im going to do for my training 3 days a week. I do their recommended strength training program the other 3 days a week (which includes a great ab/ core routine) and then try and slip the Yoga in on Saturday if/ when I feel up to it.

    It works great, is low equipment, I can do it in my home, and it really pushes you with out really bulking up (unless you want to)

  22. I’m so weak when it comes to push ups, so maybe I should look into this program. Keep up the good vegan work.

  23. I am a total cardio-junkie. I had to force myself to do weight lifting at the gym once a week–and it wasn’t that great of a routine at all!

    A recent running injury forced me to reevaluate my workout. I had to find things I COULD do instead of things I WANTED to do.

    For 6 weeks I am continuing my normal swim routine but I am also now incorporating a serious weight lifting routine 2-3 times a week now. It’s a slow process but I’m learning!

  24. I don’t quite understand the big deal on doing 100 push ups! I used to do up to 20 per day regularly after morning runs, then one day as part of a spin class in the gym we were asked to do 100 push ups! and I did it without going through any progrmas etc… after 80 my upper body muscles were burning and I was soar for about a week but I did it!

  25. Have you considered doing yoga to build strength as well? The resistance training of yoga is definitely a great strength builder without adding much weight. It tones you up, for sure, and helps you to become a lot stronger in a relatively short period of time.

    Lots of time is spent on core work, upper body strength, and basically the whole body. A vinyasa flow yoga has been the most intense of a workout for me.

    If you have the time, try it. It’s a great way to improve your body even more.

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