Common exercises that may hurt you

The strength and conditioning program of a distance runner is an essential part of any training plan when it comes to staying injury free and maximizing running performance. But it isn’t as easy as just going to the gym and banging out reps on the leg curl machine. The program should focus on correcting muscle imbalances and fixing incorrect movement patterns, while improving overall strength and explosive power. Distance runners will also benefit from performing explosive exercises in the same manner as sprinters.

A recent article in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports describes the effects of adding strength training to highly trained endurance athletes. They suggest that muscular and neuromuscular adaptations played a critical role.

Unfortunately, not all exercises are runner friendly. Remember, warm-up, core and strength exercises are all supplemental to your running program – they should not hurt or harm you in any way. Here is a list of common exercises runners perform on a regular basis that may actually harm you in the long run. Add the “better option” to your strength and conditioning program to maximize your running potential while minimizing the harm you might do in the gym.

The Exercises

Option: Iron Cross

Focus: Warm-up exercise

Better option: Knee Hug Crossover Lunges

The Iron Cross is a common warm-up exercise seen at track and field meets which attempts to warm-up the hip flexors while dynamically stretching the hamstrings. Here, the runner lies face up with his or her arms out and brings one foot to the opposite hand with a straight leg. This warm-up exercise forces lumbar rotation and flexion upon a fixed torso, which is a recipe for disc disaster. The lumbar spine isn’t designed to rotate that much and placing this kind of stress on it can cause injury. Instead, perform the Knee Hug Crossover Lunge. Stand tall and hug one knee – feel a stretch under your thigh and into your glute. Release the hug and with control, step the same leg backwards, diagonally behind your stance leg. Some refer to this as a “curtsey” lunge. Keep your shoulders and hips square – you should feel a good stretch in your hip. Stay tall and drive your front foot down to stand back up. Repeat on the other side and perform 10 per side before your workout.

Option: Scorpion

Focus: Warm-up exercise

Better option: Cossack Squat

The Scorpion is another common warm-up exercise seen at the track that attempts to fire the glutes while opening up the hips. Here, the runner lies on their belly with their arms out to the side. The runner then lifts and reaches their leg to the opposite hand. If you look at the low back, you’ll see lumbar extension and rotation – a recipe for spinal facet joint disaster. Instead, perform the Cossack Squat. Runners don’t spend enough time strengthening and stretching their legs in the frontal plane (left/right direction). Stand wide with your feet pointing straight ahead. Squat to one side while keeping the opposite leg straight. Slowly rotate your straight leg up so that you’re resting on your heel. You should feel a stretch on the inside of your groin and along your hamstrings. Hold out your arms for balance. Perform 10 repetitions per side before your workout.

Option: Leg Extension

Focus: Strength exercise

Better option: Unilateral High Box Step Up

The old-fashioned leg extension is an isolation exercise that targets the quadriceps – it also places unwanted shear stress to the knee joint and has minimal athletic transference to running. Instead, perform the High Box Step Up. Place one foot on an exercise bench or box that places your hip and knee at 90 degrees. Stay tall and drive your lower foot up and forward to step up. Resist the urge to jump. Return your trail leg back to the floor and repeat the step up. Work up to a heavy set of 5 repetitions per leg – hold one dumbbell on the same side as the stance leg.

Option: Superman

Focus: Core stability exercise

Better option: Conventional Deadlift

The Superman is a common core exercise that places unwanted stress on the lumbar spine. It doesn’t teach the runner to maintain a neutral low-back posture because the low back goes into hyperextension as the limbs rise off the floor. Instead, perform the Conventional Deadlift. Every runner can benefit from adding deadlifts to their program because this exercise strengthens the posterior chain – the hamstrings, gluteals and low back, which tend to be weak in runners. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that deadlifts elicited high-trunk muscle activation compared to an unstable Superman exercise. So train the trunk and posterior chain at the same time with the conventional deadlift. Stand with your feet 20 cm apart behind a barbell that is set-up at mid-shin height. Bend through your knees and hips to get your grip on the bar; you will bend more through your hips compared to your knees. Stick out your butt and chest and keep a flat back. Hold the bar with your arms to the outside of your legs. Keep your elbows locked and stand up with the bar by simultaneously straightening out your knees and hips. Stand tall and squeeze your glutes. Keep the bar close to you at all times. Place the bar back on the ground. Reset your position and work up to a strong set of 5 repetitions. Don’t round your back at any point during the lift.

Option: Crunches

Focus: Core strengthening exercise

Better option: Ab Wheel Roll Outs

This old-school method of abdominal training might give you a good burn, but it does little to improve your running economy. Instead, teach your core muscles to stabilize your lumbar spine while resisting movement. One of my favourite exercises uses the $6 ab wheel from 20 years ago. Kneel on a mat with your hands on an ab wheel just in front of you. Tighten your lower abs by pulling your belly button to your spine. Transfer weight forward as you slowly roll the ab wheel away from your knees. Keep your wrists and torso straight as your hips move forward of your knees. Keep your chest out and shoulders down. Reach a point where you still have full control. Feel a stretch in your abdominals with no pain in your low back – if you have pain there, this exercise might be too difficult for you. Roll back and repeat 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions per set.


Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc. Kin., CSCS, CEP is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist in St. John’s and owner of You can also find him at

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