Building Your Strength Base: How Base Building Applies on and off the Trails
Can the famous “base building” concept apply to your strength routine, too?
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While many athletes will be familiar with the concept of base building as it applies to their aerobic systems, the idea can also be applied to strength training. Building a strength training base is similar to developing an aerobic base for running. It involves gradually increasing your strength and muscular endurance while focusing on proper form and technique. In addition, establishing a strong strength base can help give you some leeway as the season progresses (no excuse to drop off strength entirely, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to build a foundation for yourself). That said, just how much can we build a “base” that will last us through our season?
What is Base Building?
Base building, whether in aerobic fitness or strength training, is the crucial initial phase of training. During this phase, you lay the groundwork for enduring progress by building a solid foundation of endurance, strength, and mastering proper technique. This preparatory or adaptation phase is essential for preventing injuries and ensuring your body is ready to tackle more demanding and specialized workouts (Stöggl, T. L., & Sperlich, B., 2015; Baechle, T. (1989).
Similarities Between Aerobic Base Building and Strength Base Building:
Base building for running and strength training differ in their energy system emphasis, with running focusing on aerobic capacity and strength on anaerobic capacity. Both prioritize volume and intensity, with strength training directly impacting muscle development (Schoenfeld B.J., Ogborn D., Krieger J.W., 2017). These variables, along with exercise order, reps, sets, tempo, and rest periods, enhance muscular endurance and strength (Ralston et. al, 2008). Running emphasizes heart rate zones (1-4), while strength training employs phases like adaptation, hypertrophy, strength, and power. Both use macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles within a season.
- Gradual Progression: Just as you gradually increase your running mileage during aerobic base building, in strength training, you progressively increase the intensity (weights or resistance) while focusing on proper form. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 1−3 sets per exercise of 8−12 repetitions with 70−85% of one repetition maximum (1RM) for beginners, advancing up to 3−6 sets of 1−12 repetitions with 70−100% 1RM for advanced individuals (2009).
- Building Endurance: In running, the aerobic base phase improves your cardiovascular endurance. Similarly, in strength training, base building enhances your muscular endurance. You’re able to perform exercises for more repetitions before fatigue sets in.
- Technique Focus: During both base building phases, emphasis is placed on mastering the fundamentals. In running, it’s about maintaining an efficient stride; in strength training, it’s about executing exercises with proper form to prevent injuries and ensure the right muscles are engaged.
- Injury Prevention: Just as an aerobic base minimizes the risk of overuse injuries in running, a strength training base helps condition your muscles, tendons, and ligaments, reducing the likelihood of injuries as you progress to more intense workouts. Carbiener suggests
- Foundational Strength: An aerobic base builds the foundation for more demanding training like speed work or race-specific workouts. Similarly, a strength base is essential before moving on to advanced strength routines involving heavier weights or more complex exercises.
- Consistency: Both base building approaches require consistency. Regular aerobic base building sets the stage for successful race training, and consistent strength training establishes a solid foundation for more advanced strength goals.
Katie Carbiener, physical therapist at Carbs Performance & Wellness agrees that strength has many similarities to aerobic base building. She notes, “Pre-season, in-season, and recovery phases (building a base) would involve lifting heavier pre-season, and then focusing more on neuromuscular movement patterns, meaning that your strength program is focused on maintaining some type of stimulus throughout the season.”
Why is Base Building Important for Strength Training?
- Adaptation: Base building allows your muscles and connective tissues to gradually adapt to new stress levels, reducing the risk of strain or injury when more weight is added later.
- Movement Patterns: It helps ingrain proper movement patterns, ensuring you have a solid foundation before attempting more complex exercises.
- Muscular Endurance: Base building improves your muscles’ ability to sustain effort over time, which is crucial for safely progressing to more intense strength training.
- Neuromuscular Coordination: It improves the coordination between your muscles and nervous system, leading to smoother and more controlled movements. Carbiener recommends incorporating core and balance exercises into your routine throughout the season to help with neuromuscular coordination and proper movement patterns.
- Long-Term Progress: Establishing a strength base sets you up for better long-term progress, allowing you to lift heavier weights and achieve your fitness goals over time.
Carbiener shares that “Your demands for needing strength demands on how much strength you have. Base training builds over years, meaning a new runner may benefit from more strength and lifting early on, while a more experienced runner will be able to handle higher volume (both lifting and running) without additional injury risk. While the frequency may differ, every runner can benefit from adding an additional stimulus (lifting weights).”
How long can I go without strength training before I lose gains?
Much like the realm of running, building strength requires consistency. Interestingly, a 2012 study suggests that an approximately three-week hiatus from your strength training regimen won’t likely lead to a significant decline in muscle strength. However, it’s advisable to steer clear of prolonged breaks if possible. In fact, a 2010 study indicates that athletes, upon resuming training after a period of rest, can even surpass their initial fitness levels, showcasing the remarkable potential for post-break improvements.
The action: here’s how you can build a strong foundation in your strength training routine:
Phase 1: Foundation Building (4-6 weeks)
Frequency: 2-3 times per week
Focus: During this phase, the goal is to establish a foundation of strength and proper technique. Use moderate weights that challenge you but still allow you to complete each exercise with good form.
- Push-ups (on knees or standard, depending on your fitness level)
- Bodyweight rows or assisted pull-ups
- Planks (start with 20-30 seconds and gradually increase)
- Bodyweight hip hinges (similar to deadlifts without weights)
Sets and Reps: Perform 2-3 sets of each exercise with 10-12 repetitions. Focus on controlled movements and proper form.
Rest: Rest for 1-2 minutes between sets.
Phase 2: Strength Development (6-8 weeks)
Frequency: 2-3 times per week
Focus: During this phase, you’ll start increasing the intensity by adding slightly more weight or resistance. This phase is about building strength and muscular endurance.
- Squats (with dumbbells or a barbell)
- Push-ups (standard or with added resistance, like a weighted vest)
- Pull-ups or assisted pull-ups (use less assistance as you progress)
- Lunges (with dumbbells)
- Planks (increase duration)
- Romanian deadlifts or kettlebell swings
Sets and Reps: Perform 3-4 sets of each exercise with 8-10 repetitions. Focus on maintaining good form even as you increase the resistance.
Rest: Rest for about 1-2 minutes between sets.
Phase 3: Endurance and Stabilization (4-6 weeks)
Frequency: 2-3 times per week
Focus: This phase emphasizes muscular endurance and stability. It involves incorporating more functional and balance-oriented exercises.
- Goblet squats
- Push-ups (variations like diamond push-ups or decline push-ups)
- Rows (using TRX or stability ball)
- Step-ups with weights
- Planks (explore side planks and other variations)
- Single-leg deadlifts
Sets and Reps: Perform 3-4 sets of each exercise with 12-15 repetitions. Focus on controlled movements and maintaining proper alignment.
Rest: Rest for about 1 minute between sets.
- Always prioritize proper form and technique over lifting heavy weights.
- Gradually increase the resistance to challenge your muscles while maintaining control.
- Incorporate a warm-up and cool-down routine.
- Listen to your body and adjust the intensity if needed.
- Stay consistent and patient. Building a strong foundation takes time.
Looking for more of a strength training routine? Try this 8-week strength routine for runners for a more comprehensive program.
After completing this base-building phase, you can continue to progress by adjusting your routine, incorporating more advanced exercises, and increasing weights as appropriate. In both running and strength training, base building is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Your individual fitness level, goals, and any existing conditions should be considered when designing a base-building plan. If you’re new to strength training or have any concerns, consider working with a certified strength coach or fitness professional to ensure you’re performing exercises correctly and safely.