Have you done an obstacle course race yet? If you have, then you know these races challenge not only your endurance, but also your strength, agility, and mental grit.

Regardless of which race you do (check out the Top 5 Obstacle Course Races), you’ll likely be required to jump over walls, climb ropes, crawl through mud, hoist weights, carry heavy objects uphill, and more. To do well, you can’t just train linear movement patterns (like standard squats, deadlifts, rows, etc.).

Instead, you have to get creative with your workouts, focusing on full-body movements that increase your power, flexibility, stability, and grip strength. These skills will help you complete, and dominate your next obstacle course race.

These exercises are designed to help you conquer every obstacle. You’re going to load your body unilaterally, asymmetrically, and unconventionally to build an unbreakable core, unshakeable stability, and unbeatable strength. Are you ready?

At the same time that you build endurance, you’re going to want to build your total-body strength. These exercises are designed to help you conquer every obstacle. You’re going to load your body unilaterally, asymmetrically, and unconventionally to build an unbreakable core, unshakeable stability, and unbeatable strength. Are you ready?

1. 2-Kettlebell (or Dumbbell) Front Squats

Goblet squats are an excellent exercise to build leg strength and core stability. This exercise will help you flip tires, and lift and carry cement balls (or other heavy objects). You can perform this exercise using a kettlebell or dumbbells.

Instructions: Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, and slightly turned out. Holding the weight at your chest, get tall through your spine and pack your shoulders. Keeping your chest tall and core tight, bend your knees and bring your hips down towards your heels. Make sure to track your knees over your 2nd toes (don’t let your knees collapse in). Inhale as you pull your hips down, and exhale as your drive through your feet to stand tall again.

2. Cliffhanger Pull-ups

Rather than a typical overhand pull-up, you’re going to perform a narrow-grip pull-up with staggered hands. In most obstacle races, you’ll have to climb up ropes, traverse ropes, jump over walls, and cross monkey bars. This means you need to be strong enough to hold and pull up your own body weight, usually with an asymmetrical grip.

Instructions: Using a pull-up bar, you’re going to place your right hand in front of your left, with both palms facing into the mid-line. Hang from the bar, keeping your shoulders packed away from your ears. Perform a pull-up bringing your head to the left side of the bar, then lower back down to the start. Now do a pull-up bringing your head to the right side of the bar. Continue to alternate sides. On your second set, place your left hand in front of the right.

3. Plank Kettlebell (or Dumbbell) Drag

Having a strong, stable core will help you conquer so many obstacles – crawling under barbed wire, crossing a cargo net, walking across rope ladders, etc. The plank kettlebell drag will not only build your core endurance, but also anti-rotational strength. The key is to keep your shoulders and hips square as you drag a heavy weight underneath you.

Instructions: Start in a high-plank position – hands on the ground, arms fully extended, and feet about hips-width apart – with one weight outside of your right hand. Get long from head to heels. If you’re doing plank correctly, you should be able to draw a straight line through your head, shoulders, hips, and heels. Maintaining this strong position, reach your left hand underneath your body to grab the weight and drag it along the floor to the outside of your left shoulder. Then plant your left hand, and reach your right hand underneath you to drag the weight back to the right. Keep going, and don’t let your hips or shoulders dip or twist.

4. Kettlebell (or Dumbbell) Suitcase Carry

You’ll probably face an obstacle that requires you to balance, whether that means crossing a balance beam, hopping from post-to-post, or walking across a rope bridge. Your ability to maintain stability is crucial. That’s your focus here. To make this exercise more challenging, step one foot right in front of the other, as if you were walking on a tight rope.

Instructions: Choose a moderate- to heavy weight, and hold the weight in your right hand. Stand tall with your shoulders and hips square, shoulders packed, and core tight. Step your right foot directly in front of your left without letting the weight pull you off-center, and without leaning to the right. You should feel your core working hard to stabilize your spine. After 30 seconds, switch hands and repeat.

5. Heavy Cable Lift

Being able to generate rotational power is hugely beneficial. One obstacle that challenged a lot of people in the Sacramento Super Spartan was dragging a cement block attached to a chain up a muddy, rocky hill, and then back down again. There’s a good chance you’ll have to pull or drag a tire, or some other heavy object.

Instructions: Using a cable machine, select a heavy weight that you can lift with good form. Set the anchor low. Stand sideways with your left shoulder next to the cable machine, holding the handle in your left hand, covered by your right hand. Start facing forward, then pull the cable diagonally upwards toward the upper right as your pivot your feet and hips. Control the weight back to center, and repeat.

6. Burpees

Burpees are the bread-and-butter of a lot of obstacle races, but especially Spartan Races. If you miss an obstacle, you get 30 burpees. Sometimes burpees are part of an obstacle, and sometimes burpees ARE the obstacle. Don’t you think it’s a good idea to get really efficient at doing burpees?

Instructions: Start standing tall, then squat down to bring your hands to the floor. Jump your feet back into a plank position as you lower yourself down into a push-up. Press out of your push-up and then jump your feet forward towards your hands. As soon as your feet touch the ground, jump up into the air. Land softly, and repeat – hands down, jump back, push-up, jump-forward, and jump up.

7. Single-arm Kettlebell (or DB) Walking Lunges

Unilaterally loading your body during walking lunges will challenge your legs, glutes, and core in a whole new way. This exercise will help you keep your balance when crossing balance beams or hopping from post-to-post.

Instructions: Select a moderate- to heavy-weight, and hold it in your right hand. Stand tall with your shoulders packed and core tight. Step your right foot forward, bending both knees down to about 90°. Then drive through your legs to step your left foot forward and lunge down. Continue your walking lunges without letting the weight pull you off-center.

8. Plank Crawl

Can you guess what this exercise prepares you for? – Crawling under barbed wire. Yes, the barbed wire is sharp. And you’ll want to keep your body low to the ground while moving efficiently forward. You’ll get muddy and feel your arms, legs, and core burn, but practicing the plank crawl will help you beat this obstacle without a scratch.

Instructions: Start in a plank on your forearms. Keep your body long from head to heels, and your core tight. Crawl your right arm and your left foot forward, then the left arm and right foot. Keep crawling until the time is up. Don’t let your knees, hips, or head drop down.

9. Hanging Oblique Raises

When you have to jump over a tall wall, climb straight up a rope, or cross the monkey bars, you’ll be glad you did this exercise. Hanging oblique raises strengthen your grip while building your core control.

Instructions: Hang from a pull-up bar with an overhand grip. Pack your shoulders, bringing your shoulders away from your ears. Start with your legs hanging straight down. Maintaining stability in your upper body, bend your knees and raise them towards your right tricep. Lower your legs back to the start with control, then bring your knees towards your left tricep. Continue alternating sides until you’ve completed the prescribed number of repetitions. Don’t swing your legs! You want this movement to come from the strength of your core, not from velocity.

10. Box Jumps

In some races, you’ll have to jump over a wall of fire. In others, you’ll be required to jump over logs, or even walls. In order to overcome these obstacles, you’ll need enough power in your legs to get some serious height. That’s where box jumps come in. You can either train this exercise for max speed, or for height. I recommend focusing on height.

Instructions: Choose a tall box that you know you can safely jump onto. Start standing tall facing the box. Squat down, and then drive powerfully through your legs while driving your arms to land softly on top of the box in the squat position. Make sure to land with soft joints, and drive your knees towards your 2nd toes. Don’t let your knees collapse in. Initially, I recommend stepping down. As you build your technique, you can jump down, making sure to cushion your landing with soft knees. Reset in your start position, and then jump back onto the box.

11. Inverted Rows

To prepare yourself to climb an inverted wall out of a muddy water pit, or traverse across a hanging rope, you’ll want to increase your horizontal pulling strength. The inverted row does just that. To make this exercise easier, don’t lean back as far. For a greater challenge, place your feet on an elevated surface.

Instructions: Holding onto a squat bar or a suspension training system (like TRX), step your feet forward so that you’re leaning back. Keep your hips lifted by engaging your glutes and squeezing your abs. Pull your chest towards the bar while keeping your body in a straight line. Lower yourself back to the start position with control. For a greater challenge lean further back, or elevate your feet on a box or bench.

12. Resistance Band Sprint-in-Place

The hardest obstacle in the race might just be the steep, relentless hills. Practicing resisted sprints will build your hamstring and glute power, so you can charge the hills and beat the fatigue.

Instructions: Attach a super band to a solid anchor point. Step into the band so that it’s against the front of your waist, and take a few steps forward. Leaning slightly into the band, begin “sprinting”. You won’t go anywhere, since the band will be holding you in place. Pump your arms and drive your legs as fast as you can, with control.

Obstacle Course Strength Workout Example

Sacramento-Super-Spartan

Here’s an example of how you can combine some of these exercises into a workout:

Workout #1

Complete 3 rounds of each circuit. Rest for 30-60 seconds between each round.

Circuit #1 Reps/Time
Goblet Squats 10 reps
Cliffhanger Pull-ups Max reps
Plank KB or DB Drag 30 seconds
Circuit #2
KB or DB Suitcase Carry 30 seconds, each side
Heavy Cable Lift 10 reps, each side
Burpees 15 reps

Obstacle Course Workout Plan Tips

Obstacle-Race

To properly prepare for an obstacle course race, you’ll want to include both running and strength training. The distance of your race will determine how much endurance you want to build. For example, several races are only 3-4 miles, while others can be upwards of 12-14 miles. Whatever the distance, plan on running 3 times per week.

If you’re new to obstacle course races, or to running in general, I recommend starting with a 3-4 mile course. If you’re an avid runner who’s participated in a variety of road races, ranging from 5-Ks to half-marathons, then challenge yourself with a longer course of 8-10 or 12-14 miles.

Don’t underestimate the importance of building your aerobic base. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen people crying mid-course. You’re going to face steep uphills and downhills, uneven terrain, rocks, tree branches, and mud. But the hills are what get people. The more you can include hills in your running program, the more prepared you’ll be on race-day. If possible, include one tempo/speed day, one hill day, and one long run per week.

Be Prepared to Conquer the Race

To do well in an obstacle course race, you’ll want to train for at least 3-6 months ahead of time (depending on the distance of the course). Perform these strength workouts in between your running days for best results. If you try these out, let me know what you think! What are your favorite exercises to train for obstacle races?

Additional Resources:

1. Spartan Race: http://www.spartan.com/
2. Tough Mudder: https://toughmudder.com/
3. Warrior Dash: https://www.warriordash.com/
4. Men’s Health Urbanathlon: http://www.menshealthurbanathlon.com/
5. Rugged Maniac: http://www.ruggedmaniac.com/

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3 Comments

  1. profile avatar
    Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT Apr 22, 2016 - 12:14 #

    Amazing article, Kristin. Love the exercise demos and you include some exercises that are very effective but many people may not have done before.

  2. profile avatar
    willard Apr 24, 2016 - 08:42 #

    Good for my knowledge as a basketball coach

    1. profile avatar
      Kristin May 02, 2016 - 12:31 #

      Glad you found it useful!

Comments are closed 30 days from the publication date.

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