Even though I consider myself a pretty good runner and fairly strong my post-Chicago running experiences have made me face facts: I have an incredibly weak lower body. Don’t get me wrong, the “meat” of my legs, the quads and hamstrings, they are very strong and can get me up beastly hills in a blink; however, the smaller, supporting leg muscles (glutes, hip flexors, and inner/outer thigh) need some TLC.
Ever since I completed Chicago in mid-October my right knee has started to “click” when I walk. After a long, tough gets tight: it feels like pressure slowly builds and I when bend my knee it “clicks” and relieves the pressure. Talk about annoying, uncomfortable and scary! Ugh!!!
What is happening here and why? Last summer my physical therapist informed me that my glutes and psoas major* are incredibly weak, causing an overworked IT band, a strained knee cap and ultimately a very tight inner thigh! His general recommendation was that all of the supplementary muscles in my lower body needed some serious TLC– and by TLC he meant a set of exercises focused on safely targeting and strengthening these muscles.
*The psoas major is the largest hip flexor that runs from the femur to the lower spine on the backside of the body; this muscle is responsible for the process of lifting your leg.
A year ago I nodded my head at my physical therapist’s suggestions, but it wasn’t until recently that I actually took them to heart and started incorporating them into my strength training routine. I suppose a sudden reappearance of knee pain will motivate any runner to make the necessary changes to prevent injury.
Since these supporting muscles in my lower body (hip flexors, glutes, IT band, inner thigh, etc) are in a weakened state most machine oriented exercises have aggravated them even further post marathon. So, I have been on the hunt for safe, body-weight exercises to safely strengthen various muscles in the lower body.
My Top 5 Favorite Exercises to SAFELY Strengthen the Lower Body
Pulling from my 6 month stint in PT last summer/fall and my ongoing work with my personal trainer, Debbie Russell at the SSYMCA I have begun to incorporate the following gentle exercises that target various muscles in the lower body. Once I develop my muscles using these basic exercises I will later incorporate more rigorous, demanding exercises into the mix. I incorporate strength training exercises into my routine at least twice a week.
1. The Clamshell
(muscles engaged: hips, inner and outer thighs, glutes)
Come onto your side with your knees together and bent. Place a resistance band loop* just above the knee. Open through your hips to bring your knees apart. Try to open full range. Don’t worry if one side is stronger than the other! That’s why you’re doing this! (10-15 repetitions on each side, 2 sets)
2. Basic Side Leg Raise
Muscles engaged: The abductor muscles (the outer thigh), glutes and hip muscles
This exercise can be performed by either laying down on one side (as pictured) or standing up. While laying down bend one leg at the knee for added stability and slowly raise the leg upwards and then down again. Be sure to keep you hips stacked over each other to fully engage the abductor muscles. (Complete 3 sets of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest on each leg).
Advanced: Once you build up your outer leg strength try adding a 2 pound ankle weight for resistance. At first complete 3 sets of 10 seconds on, 20 seconds rest, then move on to 3 sets of 20 seconds on and 10 sec. rest.
3. Advanced Leg Raise with Side Plank
Muscles engaged: core, hips, outer thigh/abductor muscles and glutes.
Similar to the Basic Leg Raise above the Advanced Leg Raise is performed from a floor position. Lay down on floor and bend your lower leg at the knee for added stability. Stack your hips (one over another) as well as your shoulder carefully over your elbow (as pictured). Then carefully engage your core and raise your hip off of the ground. This position alone will begin to engage your core.
Next, as shown in the lower picture raise your leg off of the ground. Either (a) raise and lower the leg for a count of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest (three sets) or (b) rotate the leg clockwise in a circle and then counter clockwise for 20 seconds, 10 sec. rest (three sets).
Extra challenge: Either (a) prop your elbow and forearm on a bosu ball to add a balancing element and further engage the core or (b) add a 2 pound leg weight to leg being raised/lowered.
4. Squat Walks with Resistance Loop Band
Muscles engaged: inner/outer abductors, glutes
Place a resistance band loop around your ankles. Begin by standing with your feet and ankles directly underneath your hips. Engage your core and glutes and sink back into a squat position (be sure that the tip of your knee does not extend farther than your toes).
While maintaining the squat position sidestep to the left as far as you can without splaying the knees inward. Then bring the right leg towards the left leg but be sure to maintain some resistance in the band. (Step to the left 10x, then to the right 10x; 3 sets each)
5. Hip Drop
Muscles engaged: mostly hip muscles and IT band
I completed this exercise all the time in physical therapy!! Often I was on a raised platform (like a step from “step class”) and held onto a chair in front of me for stability. However, the maneuver can easily be performed at home off of a step or raised surface.
Stand sideways on a step with one leg dangling/unsupported. While keeping both legs straight slowly drop the hip and lower the unsupported leg towards the ground. Drop the foot at low as possible before reversing the movement and raising the leg upwards. This exercise will strengthen the hip muscles of the standing leg. (Complete 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions each).
*A note about resistance band loops.*
In several exercises above I use resistance band loops; they provide gentle yet effective workout to strengthen muscles all over the body. I love them!! The exercises can be easily done at home and can even be brought on vacation for a 15 minute workout session! The bands typically come in 3 different colors which represent three different levels of tension (Typically green, red and blue). They are often $10 or less and can be easily found online or at big box athletic stores like Dicks Sporting Goods or Sports Authority.
**Disclaimer: I am not a certified personal trainer. Every body is different and responds to exercise in a different manner. Please consult with a doctor before embarking on a new workout regime and always consult with a certified personal trainer about trying new strength training exercises. (I do!)
I hope these exercises bring you as much pleasure and pain as they do me!! Enjoy!!
<3 The Lone Runner #NeverStopRunnig