Is running a full body workout?

Running is one of the most popular and accessible forms of exercise. It requires little equipment, can be done almost anywhere, and has numerous health and fitness benefits. But is running enough on its own to provide a full-body workout? Or do runners need to incorporate strength training and cross-training to work their upper bodies, core, and smaller muscle groups?

What Muscles Does Running Work?

Running is classified as a bodyweight exercise that utilizes almost every muscle in the body to propel the runner forward. Here are some of the major muscle groups activated during running:


Running works the major muscles in the legs including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and shin muscles. These large muscles contract and extend to drive leg turnover and forward movement. The constant impact of running also helps build stronger bones and connective tissue in the legs.


The core muscles of the abs, obliques, lower back, and hips stabilize the body during running. Running engages the core muscles by requiring them to resist rotation and maintain upright posture and balance while the arms and legs are moving. Strong core muscles also transfer force from the lower to upper body.


Although the legs propel the body forward, the arms still get a workout during running. The shoulder and arm muscles assist with pumping the arms, maintaining balance, and driving proper running form. The contractions help build strength and endurance in the biceps, triceps, deltoids, and upper back.

Cardiovascular System

Going for a run trains the most important muscle in the body: the heart. Running elevates heart rate for a sustained period of time, increasing cardiorespiratory endurance. It strengthens the heart muscle and exercises the entire cardiovascular system.

Benefits of Running as a Full-Body Workout

Running offers several advantages as a full-body strength and cardio workout:


Running only requires a good pair of shoes, workout clothes, and an open space to move. This accessibility and simplicity makes running easy to incorporate into any lifestyle and schedule.

Time Efficient

Busy individuals can get in an effective full-body workout with a 30-60 minute run. Multi-tasking cardio and strength training saves time compared to hitting the weights and treadmill separately.

Functional Strength

Running builds strength you can use in everyday life by working major muscle groups together the way they’re used in real movement patterns. The muscles learn to fire together to power running movements.

Increased Calorie Burn

Running racks up more total calories burned compared to lower body exercises like biking, walking, or strength training. Using large muscle groups and a higher level of exertion results in more calories burned during and after exercise.

Outdoor Enjoyment

Running outside provides an energizing way to get a full-body workout while also enjoying fresh air and taking in the sights and sounds. A scenic trail run beats an indoor treadmill any day.

Muscle Groups Running Doesn’t Target

While running works out most major muscle groups, there are some limitations in the muscular benefits:

Upper Body

Although the arms and shoulders get some work, running doesn’t provide enough resistance to build significant strength in the biceps, triceps, chest, and upper back. These areas need exercises like pushing, pulling, and lifting.


Running engages the core muscles, but not often enough under load to build them to their strength potential. Planks, crunches, and other abs exercises apply more direct stress to build core power.


Running works the glute muscles in the butt, but does little to build, lift, or tone this area. Squats, lunges, and strength training targeting the glutes provide more sculpting and shaping benefits.

Small Muscle Groups

The smaller supporting muscles like the calves and spinal erectors don’t get fully strengthened due to the limited range of motion used in running. Isolated exercises train these smaller muscles for complete development.

Should Runners Lift Weights?

Runners can benefit by supplementing running mileage with some type of strength-building cross-training. Two to three resistance training sessions per week helps achieve full-body fitness. Here are some reasons runners should lift weights:

Injury Prevention

Resistance training improves muscle imbalances that can develop from heavy mileage. Strengthening muscles, tendons, and ligaments guards against overuse injuries in the legs and core.

Better Running Economy

Stronger muscles require less energy to generate force and motion. Increased running economy from resistance training allows runners to maintain paces using less effort.

Increased Power and Speed

Strength gains transfer directly to more leg power and faster turnover capability. Upper body training facilitates better running form and arm drive.

Improved Posture and Form

Total-body strength prevents excessive fatigue that causes sloppy running form and posture breakdown. Strong muscles support proper technique longer.

More Muscle Balance

Lifting complements running by developing the upper body, glutes, calves, and core to balance strength with the quadriceps and hamstrings.

Added Variety

Mixing up training with weights, resistance bands, plyometrics, and calisthenics breaks up the monotony of running while working muscles differently.

Increased Bone Density

The impact from running is great for building leg and hip bone density. However, strength training delivers more osteogenic benefits for bones in the upper body.

Better Weight Control

Adding muscle boosts resting metabolism, increasing daily fat and calorie burn. Resistance training is key for weight loss and preventing an overly lean runner’s physique.

Sample Weekly Training Schedule

Here is an example of how to balance running and a full-body strength training routine over the course of a week:

Day 1 30-60 mins steady run + core workout
Day 2 Upper body weights
Day 3 Interval or tempo run
Day 4 Lower body weights + plyometrics
Day 5 Long run
Day 6 Cross-training (yoga, cycling, etc.)
Day 7 Rest or active recovery day

Sample Full-Body Strength Workout

Here is one sample strength training session to complement running:

Warm Up

– Treadmill walk: 5-10 minutes
– Dynamic stretches: leg swings, lunges, skips, etc.


– Squats: 3 sets x 10 reps
– Lunges: 3 sets x 10 reps each side
– Step ups: 3 sets x 10 reps each side
– Plank: 3 sets x 30 seconds
– Push-ups: 3 sets x 10 reps
– TRX rows: 3 sets x 10 reps
– Shoulder press: 3 sets x 10 reps
– Crunches: 3 sets x 15 reps

Cool Down

– Treadmill walk: 5 minutes
– Static stretches for legs and upper body


Running is an efficient exercise that works most major muscle groups in the body to varying degrees. While it builds and tones the legs, core, and some upper body muscles, runners cannot maximize full-body fitness through running alone. Incorporating resistance training is necessary to achieve increased muscle balance, coordination, bone density, speed, endurance, fat loss, and injury prevention. Lifting just 2-3 days per week supplemented with core work and cross-training provides the full-body strength required to support optimal running performance. So while running is not a complete workout on its own, it can deliver an effective total-body training effect when combined strategically with strength-building exercises.

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