Is it possible to be strong AND fast?

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I’ve had a lot of people ask me about improving their strength without losing their ability to run fast and/or run long.

Some of the common questions I get sound something like this:

  • “Can I still improve my strength without becoming slower?”
  • “I’d like to train more strength but will that “bulk” me up and then slow me down?”
  • “How can I get faster without giving up my strength?”

So the ultimate question is:

“Is it possible to get stronger AND faster at the same time?”

Military athletes (and really everyone else in my opinion) need a training program that improves fitness across a number of attributes including strength, speed, power, stamina, endurance, agility, balance, mobility, coordination, and accuracy.

For a typical athlete who participates in a sport and has “seasons” (i.e. In-season, off-season) designing a well thought out training program, to address each of these fitness attributes individually, can usually be accomplished without much of a problem. The benefit to this is that the coach and athlete can focus their attention on each individual training phase (Strength phase, speed phase, etc.) without having to worry about interference (one training focus taking away from another).

Unfortunately, a logical, sequential, training program like this doesn’t make much sense for an athlete who needs to be at the top of their game at all times. When dealing with a deploying military population it has been suggested that it is possible to design a training program that fits into a deployment cycle in an attempt to “peak” an athlete for deployment. However, this seems kind of silly to me considering this “peak” can’t last 6-12 months so you’d really just be peaking for part of the deployment… Although the deployment and training schedule needs to be taken into consideration to provide for optimal training AND optimal recovery during the workup, during the deployment, and upon return, a sequential training plan just doesn’t make much sense.

Always ready

If you’re an athlete that needs to be prepared for any number of demanding physical tasks year round then your training program needs to be designed in a way to allow you to continuously improve across the broad array of physical characteristics (mentioned above) at the same time.

Unfortunately, too many people out there think that the only way to get strong is to spend all of their time jacking weights. On the flip side, there are a ton of skinny people out there that think the only way to be fast (over long distances) is to spend all of their time running.

If you were to look into the research on concurrent training (doing both) a cursory glance would tell you that you are right, aerobic training will take away from your strength gains. However, most of this research isn’t very strong.

For example, in a 2012 study titled “Concurrent training: A meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises” studies were noted showing that concurrent training, in relation to resistance training alone, was shown to result in decreases in strength, hypertrophy, and power. However, the same authors also noted that a number of other studies show no decrements in strength training gains when endurance training is added.

So what gives?

How can a whole bunch of studies show one thing and a whole bunch of other studies show something different?

Well, it seems to me, based on reviewing the ‘Methods’ section of a whole bunch of these studies, that the weak point is in the training program design. In fact, in a study by Nader (2006) it was noted that concurrent training was only found to compromise strength when the concurrent training program engaged the same muscle groups at the same time.

Nader (2006) goes on to say that it was found that the studies that tested training methods that were more synergistic, rather than antagonistic, did not show an inhibition in strength (i.e. If the training was smartly programmed, there wasn’t a problem).

So the bottom line here seems to be this: If the training program is poorly designed then you will get weaker, but, if it is properly designed, you’ll be able to reap the benefits of strength training and aerobic training without a decrease in strength or power.

Let’s talk a bit more about strength training…

When most people think of strength training they think of a big dude in a tight singlet moving a shit ton of weight, right? (Or do I just know too many powerlifters?) Sure, this is definitely one way to view strength training however, I’d argue, that being a 300# dude who is injured on the battlefield is actually going to be a BIG problem for you (and the guys who have to go in to drag your big ass to safety).

I’d much rather you start to think about getting as strong as possible without gaining a ton of mass. Think gymnast, not powerlifter. A solid strength training program will get you stronger by improving performance via neuromuscular signaling, improved motor control, and increased fiber-recruitment (i.e. You’re using your current muscle mass smarter) Although, increased lean body mass is not a bad thing, you just need to be conscious of packing on a ton of weight.

Although I mentioned before that it’s definitely possible to build/maintain your aerobic engine without losing your strength gains a lot of research points to concurrent training being detrimental to maximizing hypertrophy (Growth). I’d argue that in your case, this is a good thing. If we can continue to get stronger and stronger without gaining a ton of mass we are going to be much more useful in our day to day jobs AND much less of a liability if we get injured. Although being huge and jacked is great on the beach it’s not very functional when considering the hazards and requirements of your job.

The solution

Although we cycle through a number of different strength protocols in our programming here you should design your strength program to focus on moving maximal loads for minimum reps (i.e. 5 set of 1-3 reps or similar) in order to maximize your strength without triggering a ton of hypertrophy. We like to combine this with a more dynamic effort (moving sub-maximal loads, fast) as well for a couple of reasons. For one, we can work on our power (bar speed) and two, your body just can’t handle that many max efforts days in a given week.

In addition to this, if you are looking to get faster and improve your endurance we like to perform 2-3 high-intensity aerobic interval training session each week as well. Doing so allows us to improve out maximal aerobic power (the rate that energy can be produced in a muscle via oxidative metabolism) without all of the downsides that come with long slow distance endurance training (fatigue, muscle protein breakdown, looking gross with your shirt off, etc).

As some of you may know I used a similar combination to get my 3-mile run time (USMC PFT) under 18 minutes while still maintaining 25+ pull-ups, 330+ back squat, and a 380+ deadlift. Although those aren’t the stats of a super athlete they sure made me ready for the job at hand.

In addition to my personal and practical knowledge that this type of training just works for a large majority of people it also provides for ample recovery time to ensure you aren’t smoked if you’re training during a deployment or any other high stress / high op-tempo time.

Wrapping it up

So, the question is: “Is it possible to get stronger AND faster at the same time?”

And the answer is yes, it sure seems as though you can as long as you are doing it in a smart manner and the training is programmed appropriately.

And the conclusion from that meta-analysis backs me up here stating: “Our results indicate that interference effects of endurance training are a factor of the modality, frequency, and duration of the endurance training.”

Would love to hear your thoughts on this so drop me a note in the comments and let’s start a conversation!

References

Nader, G. (2006). Concurrent strength and endurance training: From molecules to man. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 06, 1965-1970.

Wilson, J., Marin, P., Rhea, M., Wilson, S., Loenneke, J., & Anderson, J. (2012). Concurrent Training: A meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2293-2307.

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15 thoughts on “Is it possible to be strong AND fast?”

    1. This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been looking for. I run because I love adventure and exploration powered by my own two feet. So I love to go exploring both trail and urban environments. Sometimes this means I need to scramble up steep hills, climb fences, trees, or buildings. At the same time, I want to be ‘mad strong’! I am super jealous of the ninja warriors ladies. I have a pretty muscular build and I’m fairly lean; but I’m not happy with the strength of the muscles I have. They look pretty good, but I don’t feel I’m getting optimal strength from them. I usually run for an hour four days a week and an hour twenty -five minutes twice a week (15k commute form my house to my office). My commute gives me some hill training, and then I try to do one other day a week of 6-10×1-2 minute intervals and one day of 5x60m progressive sprints. I take Sundays off completely usually.

      I really want to figure out how to build 2-3 days of strength training into my week. But I don’t know when or how to do it without compromising recovery (I’d love to keep the running schedule the same, but realize I might have to cut back the time/distance a bit). Any suggestions?

      I am NOT racing. I run for exploration and discovery and simply because I love to chart out new territory on my own two feet. But I also love being uber strong (not, oh let me lift 5 pound barbells 20 times strong). I’ve just started rotating strength work back into my routine. This will be week two of the following: I am doing 3 sets x 4 reps of the follwing: back squats (135lbs) – pull ups (3×5 with thin elastic assist), dead lift (145lbs) – db bench (40lbs), step ups (50lbs) – db row (40lbs), back extension (10lb plate) – face pull (15 reps, 50lbs), shoulder press (25lbs). I do the leg exercise, rest 30 secs, a core exercise (planks, Russian twist, planked knee to chest), then 30 sec rest, then the arm exercise and repeat this cycle for three sets.

      Anyway, I don’t know if running what I do and using this routine 2-3 times/week is okay or if it’ll burn me out so any thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

      1. Hey Katie,

        So it sounds like you’re running way more than I suggest for that optimal balance of strength, power, AND speed, endurance… But I’m not going to tell you to stop for the simple fact that you’re doing it for a great reason!

        With that said, you may want to dial back the running a bit in order to prioritize your general strength & conditioning training… At least until you adapt to that training and you able to recover better. A long run or two each week mixed in with some interval work on 1-2 other days should work fine for you along with the S&C work you’re doing. Just make sure you are paying close attention to your recovery (Are those runs feeling harder than normal?) and if possible, try your best to get 4-6 hours of recovery in between your running and strength workouts.

        Make sense?

        1. That’s great! Thanks, P.J.! It’s so hard to rest. I was just talking to another friend of mine this morning about it. I guess the majority of the population doesn’t really like working out. I find this very strange. If I could move: run, walk, climb, lift, all day, I’d be the happiest person in the world. The biggest difficulty for me is rest and sitting still and allowing recovery to make me stronger! I tried track – running the 400m – but if you want to actually be fast, you have to wait a long time between sets and you can only really run 2, max 3 days a week. I was too impatient for it! Doh.

    2. Hey thanks! Just what I needed to hear! Perfect for my kind of training. I think I will explore, help, and get out more!

  1. Hey Pj , been looking for this for a long time….is there a limit to how far you can go…I wanted to achieve maximum for both red and white muscles…I know most likely I won’t be as fast as a full time sprinter or as Strong as a full time heavy weight lifter…but I find it interesting that you can have the best of both worlds.

    1. Feels like a balancing scale to me…I would love to get to the best of that.. to my next question down below…

  2. I’m looking for a good rotation to achieve that balancing act , I’m not an expert or anything…but what would be a good workout routine weekly to achieve this goal or milestones #brainstorming

    1. A good plan to achieve this balance would be… Anything I suggest on here! 🙂

      I’m in the business of building general strength & conditioning and fitness across a variety of modalities for military and tactical folks. Specialization, when it come to peak job performance, is the enemy and the goal is to improve the individual across the board gradually and sustainably while improving their long-term durability (i.e. Injury prevention).

  3. For what I’m trying to achieve strength and stamina training…would it be wise to use weights as well from the gym in the combination of exercises?….
    Oh and u said u had a similar training awesome! I’m trying to see how I can fit strength and stamina in a training routine so I’m able to do it all throughout the week or month.

  4. I am having trouble figuring out a proper training schedule. I take cross fit class 5 times a week and I run about 4/5 times a week (1 day is speed work and the rest just easy runs, not too long). My running goal is a 20 min 5K. I love both – cross fit and running, but they do not seem to mix well. What I mean is I find that my legs feel heavy when I run. Though it seems that high intensity classes improve aerobic fitness, so intuitively these 2 should complement each other. Do I just need to be more patient?
    Thank you for your feedback!

  5. Hayden Dressler

    Hey i’m a sophmore in highschool and im a powerlifter who can squat 465lbs while weighing 175. I love running and used to do it a lot but i found it was making me weaker so i took a break and the month i stopped i gained 100 lbs on my squat max. I want to get back to running but im afraid it will make me weaker. im not sure how to time the running and weight workouts in accordance to each other cause i want time for my body to heal. One idea i had was to do squat on monday and wednsday and do bench and run on tuesday and thursday. What do you suggest?

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