High School Runners: Progressing Load and Grip Strength


For many youth runners new to lifting, their leg strength improves quickly. Getting them on a solid program of squatting, deadlifting and lunging often produces quick improvements in their lower body strength. As their leg strength progresses, the limiting factor for a lot of their lower body lifts becomes their upper body strength. 

We need to take this into consideration as we lay out their initial programming, as well as account for it as we choose exercises down the road. We want to make sure we are building their upper body abilities to complete bigger lifts, while also having different exercise options when their grip and upper body capacity becomes the limiting factor. Here are a few things to consider as we map out a younger runner's lifting plan throughout a season and a high school career.


The goal of strength training for runners is to improve their body’s resilience and ability to deal with the demands of running. We want to develop strength, power and how quickly they can produce force. Because of this, we do not have to fit a runner to a specific exercise. We have lots of options. There are certain exercise categories we should be implementing in order to make our programming comprehensive, but we have some freedom when it comes to programming specific exercises. Here are some options I often incorporate with younger runners.

1. Add a Weighted Vest to Big Movements

Incorporating weighted vests can be a fantastic way of progressing weight with lunging, squatting and deadlifting without putting added demand on the upper body. This allows us to further stress the lower body without the runner having to physically hold bigger weights. 

2. Use Goblet Holds Initially

When we begin squatting and lunging, goblet holds can allow the runner to use a little heavier weight as they have the support of both arms. It helps challenge their upper body to maintain the static position of the dumbbell throughout the exercise. Also, it tends to help them adopt a more upright posture and groove their hip and knee mechanics with squatting and lunging exercises.  

3. Modify Your RDL Grip

Single leg RDLs are a staple exercise of most of my athletes programming due to their ability to challenge single leg control while loading the posterior chain. When building strength, I will often progress to a barbell, or a double handed hold with a dumbbell. This allows us to use more weight while balancing it across both arms. 

It is important to remember this position tends to put runners in a more rounded posture throughout their upper body. We must encourage them to maintain proper stiffness in their shoulders and mid/upper back as their weight increases. 


We can't modify things forever. While we are adding in some of the variations listed above, we also want to be building the runner's upper body capacity in order to continue progressing their abilities. Here are two of my favorite exercises to program for this purpose. 

Trap Bar Deadlifts

While we would classify a trap bar deadlift as a lower body exercise, it also serves as a great way of developing a runner's grip and shoulder capacity. We can program higher volume sets, with lighter loads, to build up more endurance, or lengthen out the eccentric portion of the lift to make this more challenging on the upper body. 

Farmers Carries

Carry variations challenge a runner's ability to maintain an upright posture, but are also fantastic for building a runners upper body abilities. I will often include these at the end of a session after we have complete our main lifts as these tend to be very taxing.

Our last post in this series will be on programming plyometrics. Check out the other articles below if you haven't yet. Thanks for reading and let me know if there are any other topics you would like me to cover!

Part I: Introduction to Strength Training

Part II: Building Resilient Runners in the Weight Room

Part III: Progressing Load and Grip Strength

Part IV: Developing Power with Plyometrics

Nathan Carlson