ARTICLE: High weight, low reps

When your main physical activity is running, you have to make sure any other activity you do is fairly effective. While injured I have done my best to try and build strength through other forms of training. I have favoured sessions that kept my heart moving for a period of time to stay active and fit but as I return to running my eye again moves towards the most time-efficient strength training modalities.

Naturally then I have rekindled my interest in Tim Ferris’ “The 4-Hour Body” essentially a quick guide to how you can “hack” the human body. Sadly, despite some claiming the opposite, no hack exists for the aerobic system. Some training forms are faster than others in developing the aerobic system (steady running outpaces jogging, for instance, in this respect) and you can do many things to gain quick or short-term improvements but the aerobic foundation develops over months and years and your ultimate potential can only be realised if you are willing to train from 3 to 10 years consistently and systematically.

Yet, the impatient need not despair, there is room to improve strength, power, running economy, breathing muscles and other factors and get some extra benefits much quicker than that. In “The 4-Hour Body” Tim Ferris’ takes on strength training in the chapter “Effortless Superhuman”. The principle is simple and scientifically verified: you can maximise strength gains simply by following a very simple training protocol of very heavy weights and low reps. Interestingly, this does not differ significantly from the training advice given by Keith Livingstone in his modern Lydiard bible: Healthy Intelligent Training.

Leg strength, properly developed, can boost both injury resistance and performance. Improperly developed it makes you stiff, fills you with scar tissue and ingrains undesirable movement patterns into your system. Ferris’ method is borrowed from the great sprint coach Barry Ross who has female athlete lifting as much as much as 184kg despite being only 59.6kg. This was achieved through 15 minutes actual lifting time per week. For and endurance runner fifteen minutes seems reasonable enough, so what’s the theory…


I tested the most important exercise of Barry Ross’ workout: the classical deadlift which essentially consists of lifting a barbell off the ground up to hip level and then lowering it back to the floor. Proper form is very important to protect your back during this exercise and anyone wanting to do it should watch the online videos that can be found in troves on YouTube.

My personal gym equipment does not actually allow me to lift very much. I stacked the barbell which every single weight I had in the house but yet still only had around 55 kilos. No matter: as this was new to me I technically had a lot to learn and the weight was heavy enough to be challenging, particularly as my core and back worked hard to hold good form with this load. Rather than my masculine pride being hurt, I reflected on the fact that a girl weighing about ten kilos less than me can lift more than three times the weight from a positive angle: there is no way I should not be able to lift 184 kilos too. An oft-quoted standard to aim for is to be able to lift twice your body weight. Bruce Tulloh wrote in 1976 in “Natural Fitness” that a man that cannot lift half his own body-weight over his own head can consider himself weak. So how do you get started getting these strength gains?

Lift then run

By lifting very high loads, so high that you can perform now more than 2-3 repetitions, you keep your active lifting time less than ten seconds and avoid triggering the anaerobic system with all the negative consequences that has.

Additionally, these weights are so heavy that the body will switch straight past all your weaker muscle fibres (such as your Type 1 endurance fibres) and go straight to utilising your powerful fast-twitch fibres. This allows you to do your lifts and go run afterwards as you are not stimulating the same fibres in the two workouts (unless you plan on doing a sprint session in which case this advice does not stand). Tim Ferris’ mentions that running and then lifting is a recipe for disaster.

Between each lift in these sessions you will need a long rest (3-5 minutes) for full recovery before you lift another 1-3 times. You would usually aim for a total of about 9-10 repetitions all with weight at about 95% of your 1-rep maximum or basically as much as you can lift more than once. My session consisted of 3 x 3 reps and 1 x 1 rep. The deadlift works essentially every single muscle in the body so very few other exercises are used in Barry Ross’ programme. The workout is done three times per week (usually Mon, Wed, Fri).

Here’s an example:

  • Dynamic stretch
  • 10-12 push-ups
  • Deadlift: 1 set of 2-3 reps @ 95% 1RM followed by 1 set of 5 reps @ 85% 1RM. 1 minute after each set, athlete performs 2-4 10-15m sprints then continues rest
  • Core exercise: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps (30 secs between sets). Barry Ross’ uses a sadistic exercise called the “Torture Twist”

There is a little more to it than this and I would recommend the book but essentially an endurance runner does not need to set aside very much time to become super-strong if Ross’ experience is to be believed. For now, it has allowed Allyson Fellix to run the fastest 200m of 2003. As one of the members of the US Anti-Doping Agency’s “Project Believe”, there is all reasons to believe the power to run that fast is simply a result of Ross’ conditioning. So why not get a barbell and try it out for yourself at home?