Now that training and running races are behind me for the year, it’s time to focus on building (and rebuilding) a strong foundation. One area that I plan to focus on is strength training. Yes, I will continue to work on building strong hips and glutes, but I also want to pay attention to upper body strength too.
But what are the best upper body exercises for runners?
Thank goodness for friends who are personal trainers. I’ve asked my friend Carly from Fine Fit Day to help out. As a runner herself, Carly is an incredible resource. She’s pulled together her favorite 6 upper body exercises for runners.
Thanks to Christine for having me as a guest today on Love, Life, Surf! I love Christine’s writing and her approach to healthy living and balance. I also love how much she’s gotten back into running this year, since I’m a runner myself and love geeking out over running stuff with her. I’m excited to share with you a workout based on two of my favorite topics combined – strength training and running.
I am a huge advocate of incorporating strength training into your workouts when you’re a runner. As a personal trainer and a runner myself, this is probably no surprise.
Strength training can have a significant effect on runners for several reasons – it helps prevent injury, it can improve your endurance, make you faster and even improve your flexibility.
While strength training is important year-round for runners, a great time to get your routine set into place is once your goal races have been run for the year, and you’re starting to look at what you want to achieve in the year to come. For most runners, given a goal-race heavy Fall running season, Winter and the holidays are the perfect opportunity to focus on building your strength.
So, what do you think of when you think of the best exercises for a runner? Lunges? Step ups? Leg lifts? All of those are awesome moves for runners, definitely.
But today I want to address an area that can get forgotten, or added on as an afterthought at the gym – your upper body. Posture, fatigue and final finishing kicks in a race are all affected by strengthening and training your upper body.
Let’s look at the key upper body exercises for runners to improve your performance.
Narrow Overhead Press
The first thing I do when evaluating a personal training client is identify what movements they use most in their daily life and focus on strengthening those areas.
For a runner, one of the key movements of the upper body is the swinging back and forth of the arms. In most efficient runners, this swinging movement is quite narrow to the body, with elbows brushing against your body as you pump your arms.
A good exercise to train this movement is a narrow press – you can do this as a bench press as well, but I’m highlighting the narrow overhead press here, since it’s easier to do at home using dumbbells or a resistance band, or anytime you don’t have access to a bench or cable. No excuses! 😉
This exercise can be performed either seated or standing.
- With elbows close to the body and palms facing in, press one arm up overhead.
- Then, return to the start position.
- Repeat on the other side.
While this exercise is often performed with both arms at once, runners benefit from making it an alternating move, since your arms work separately while you’re pumping them back and forth on a run.
With the narrow row, you’re strengthening the second part of the back and forth pumping motion of the arms. You can use a dumbbell, kettlebell, or resistance band for this movement.
- With your arm close to the body and palm facing in, pull your elbow as high as you can.
- Then return slowly to the start position.
- In the photo above, I’m performing this movement on one side at a time, raising a leg for an added challenge for balance and core training.
- If you want to try this as an alternating exercise, you would get into a deadlift position, bent over at the hips, in order to work both sides.
Wait, what? Didn’t I just finish stressing that upper body exercises are super important for runners? How did the deadlift sneak in here?
Well, while your hamstrings and glutes may be yelling at you the day after deadlifting, you’re actually working your entire back and your deltoids while performing a deadlift. A strong back is key to maintaining good posture when you’re tiring during your run.
If you have kettlebells or heavy dumbbells at home, you can do the deadlift in your living room, otherwise head to a gym to use a barbell.
- Keeping your legs straight and hinging at your hips, bend over with the weight hanging in front of you.
- To keep good form, make sure your shoulder blades are squeezed together, shoulders pulled back and butt up in the air.
- From this bent-over position, thrust your hips forward forcefully to come to a standing position.
Cobra Plank Lowers
Much to my clients’ horror, this is one of my favorite exercises to program, as well as to do myself. Note: since growing this baby bump, this is an exercise no longer in my workout rotation. No bump touched the floor in the taking of the photograph above! 😉
Taking a cue from yoga, this exercise again works your back and postural muscles, as well as shoulders, triceps and abdominals. Every runner should incorporate this move!
- Start in a cobra position on the floor, with shoulder blades squeezed and chest open.
- Push into your hands and the balls of your feet to come up into a plank.
- With your elbows hugging into the side of your body, lower slowly by bending your elbows, until your whole body is on the floor.
- Focus on keeping that strong plank position throughout the lowering movement.
Shoulder External Rotation
You may have noticed a recurring motif of focusing on posture. Any runner who’s struggled at the end of a long run, or felt the pain and fatigue set in to their upper back and shoulders near the end of a race, can attest to the fact that good posture can help you through the tough parts of endurance running.
A deceptively simple exercise that works to pull your shoulders back to an optimal position is this external rotation movement. The three muscles working in external rotation are the posterior deltoid, teres minor and infraspinatus – the latter two are half of your rotator cuff musculature. Since the constant swinging back and forth of your arms can potentially lead to rotator cuff injuries in runners, this is definitely an area you want to strengthen.
- To do this exercise, you need to work against gravity, so lay down on your side, propped up on an elbow.
- Use a rolled towel to form a space between your upper arm and body.
- Holding the dumbbell in your upper arm with your elbow bent at a right angle, raise your forearm up.
- Then return to the starting position.
It’s a small movement and it will feel deceptively easy at first – until you feel overwhelming fatigue in your shoulder and are physically not be able to do another repetition. Try it – you’ll see what I mean!
Scaption is another exercise that is commonly used as a rotator cuff strengthener. It also strengthens the muscles used in overhead pressing, so it’s a good one to add to your training rotation. (See what I did there? #personaltrainerhumor)
Basically the middle ground between front raises and lateral raises, scaption is a straight-arm raise in a V-shape overhead.
- Start by holding dumbbells (or you can use a lightweight resistance band) by your sides.
- With palms facing in and thumbs facing up, raise your arms in a V overhead, stopping before you come to a fully raised overhead position.
- Return slowly to your sides.
CHOOSING YOUR WEIGHTS
As a trainer, two of the most common questions I hear are how heavy should my weights be and how many repetitions should I do? Well, again you should look to how you’re using these movements in your life, or in this case, as a runner.
When you’re running, your arms swing back and forth countless times during your training run or race. Likewise, your back and postural muscles are working hard at stabilizing for the duration of your run. That’s why for these upper body exercises for runners it makes sense to train these movements as part of endurance strength training – with weights appropriate for somewhere between 15 to 20 repetitions.
The actual weight you use takes a little bit of trial and error – start with what you think will be a light weight, then increase the weight incrementally until the last two repetitions of your set are very difficult to complete. That’s when you know you have the weight right.
Don’t forget, as you get stronger, you may need to increase the weight again, so try to focus when you’re working out to make sure you’re always getting to that point of almost being able to lift no more.
There’s always a ‘however’, though!
While doing endurance strength training makes the most sense for a runner, it’s important to build a base of strength as well. For strength based training, your repetitions will be between 6 to 10, obviously with a heavier weight than endurance training.
Ideally, if you are planning your strength training around a racing schedule, or your goal race(s) for the year, you would focus on heavier strength training in your building-up mileage phase, when you’re just getting started with your running training. You’d then move on to endurance strength training as you get closer to your goal race season, so you’re primed to compete at your best.
The only exceptions to this would be the external shoulder rotation and scaption exercises – since these target smaller muscles primarily, stick to the endurance repetition scheme of lighter weight at higher repetitions for these exercises throughout your training schedule.
FINALLY, FOCUS ON YOUR CORE
No, I’m not talking about your abdominals, although this kind of core training is important for runners as well. What I mean by ‘focus on your core’ is that the exercises listed above should be considered a core group of exercises that should form the focus of your upper body strength training workout. You should still definitely work on your wide press and row, wide overhead press (abduction), lat pull downs and wide pull ups as well – these are just exercises less stressed during running.
What upper body exercises do you focus on in the gym? Are there any of these exercises you’ll add to your current workout?
Carly Pizzani is a mama to a rampaging toddler, pregnant with her second child, a personal trainer, the author of the fitness blog Fine Fit Day, a freelance writer, and an ex-pat Aussie living in Brooklyn. She loves running, lifting weights, yoga, spin class, dancing with her son — basically anything active. Keeping mamas (and mamas-to-be) fit, healthy and motivated is what she loves most about her job. You can connect with Carly on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.