upper body strength exercises for runners

Add these upper body strength moves and become a stronger runner!

It’s no secret that runners train their legs. And understandably so, since they’re the ones who are going to get us through an uphill at Mile 8. We need those strong quads and tireless hamstrings. Our arms, shoulders, and overall upper body strength, though? Well, let’s say as runners, we aren’t exactly known for having muscular upper bodies. We’re here to run, not do curls, lat pulldowns, or other whatever upper body strength moves are currently trending at the gym.

But heart-shaped calves aside, it’s time to focus on other body parts, even if it’s only a couple of times per week. Those shoulders and arms that you’ve been ignoring can have a significant impact on your running.

Why You Need to Train Your Upper Body

Believe it or not, having upper body strength is essential to your success as a runner.

  • Powerful, Tireless Arm Swings: your arm swings drive you forward and help you find your cadence. Weak arms = reduced drive. A strong upper body also enhances endurance; if your arms slow down, so will your legs.
  • Faster, More Efficient Moves: Your legs don’t work by themselves. When you run, your entire body works as one coordinated unit. And the stronger your muscles, the more efficient your movements will be. Precise and quick, that should be your goal.
  • Better Posture: Your core, not your spine, controls your posture. Moves that strengthen your mid-section will keep you upright for the whole distance. If you slump when you’re tired, it affects your entire gait and slows you down.

Top Upper Body Strength Moves for Runners

Sure, you know all about bicep curls and push-ups, but these exercises take upper body strength training even further.

Keep in mind; you don’t want to bulk up. More muscle mass will only interfere with your speed. The goal here is to be stronger and leaner, which means high reps, low weights.

Aim for doing 2-3 rounds with 8-12 reps of each exercise.

1. Shoulder Press with a Twist

This shoulder exercise is a fresh take on an old classic. The added twist in this move fires up your core – specifically, your obliques.

  • Get into your athletic stance: heels under hips, knees soft, core tight, shoulders pushed away from your ears.
  • Bring your hands to your shoulders, palms facing forward.
  • Exhale and push your right hand up towards the ceiling. No forward motion at all; go straight up.
  • At the same time, twist your upper body to the left.
  • Inhale and return to center
  • Repeat with your left hand pushing up as you twist to the right.

Muscles worked: shoulders, core, obliques.

2. Reclining Chest Flies

You can do this one on the floor or a bench; it’s equally effective either way at developing upper body strength.

  • Lie on the floor: knees bent, heels in close to your bottom, lower back pressed against the floor, chin off your chest.
  • Extend your arms straight up over your chest, palms facing one another. Your elbows should have a slight bend to them.
  • Inhale and let open your arms wide towards the floor.
  • If you are on a bench, be careful that your arms don’t go any lower than your shoulder. If you are on the floor, just barely let your upper arms touch the ground.
  • Exhale and bring both hands back over the center of your chest.

Muscles worked: chest, shoulders, triceps.

3. Renegade Rows

Renegade rows are a push-ups’ tougher cousin. If you can’t do this one right away, substitute with classic push-ups. As your upper body strength improves, you can work your way up to these.

  • Get into a high plank position: palms flat on the ground under shoulders, arms extended, core tight, feet hip-width apart, straight line from your shoulder to your hips to your knees to your ankles.
  • Hold one dumbbell in each hand. Make sure your wrists are in a neutral (straight) position.
  • Shift your weight onto your right hand, pushing it into the floor.
  • Exhale and pull your left hand, holding the dumbbell, to the left side of your rib cage.
  • Inhale and lower your left hand.
  • Repeat, rowing with your right hand.
  • After doing one row on each side, do a push-up.
  • Keep your body stable; don’t twist your hips.

Muscles worked: core, shoulders, upper back.

4. Tricep Dips

You can do these on any bench, chair, or sturdy coffee table.

  • Sit at the very front edge of the bench. Place your hands on either side of your hips, fingertips pointing straight forward.
  • Extend your legs out, weight on your heels. The further away you move your heels, the more difficult this exercise will be.
  • Scoot forward, so your glutes are off the bench.
  • Keep your chest up, chin off your chest, and glutes as close to the bench as possible.
  • Inhale and slowly bend your elbow 90 degrees to lower your upper body.
  • Exhale and straighten your elbows.

Muscles worked: triceps, chest, back.

5. Snow Angels

There’s nothing angelic about this one! This challenging exercise targets your entire shoulder, so you might want to use lighter weights to begin. As you develop upper body strength in this area, you can increase the resistance with heavier weights.

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees soft, core tight, shoulder away from your ears.
  • Place your hands at your side, palms facing forward.
  • Exhale and lift your arm straight out and overhead – making a snow angel.
  • Inhale and lower your arms back to your side.

Muscles worked: shoulders, back.

Bonus Move: Plank

We couldn’t help ourselves; we had to sneak just one more move in there. And a plank is terrific for strengthening and stabilizing the core, plus working your shoulders.

  • You can do a plank on your knees or toes, on your forearms, or with the palm of your hands resting on the floor.
  • The most challenging plank is on your toes and forearms.
  • Engage your core the entire time you are planking. Keep it tight and contracted.
  • Push your toes into the floor and squeeze your glutes – the entire time.
  • Don’t let your hips pike (lift up) or sag (drop-down).
  • If you need to, you can always drop one or both knees to the ground for a quick break, then get right back into your plank position.
  • Aim at holding your plank anywhere from 30 seconds (beginner) to 3+ minutes (advanced).

Muscles worked: core, shoulders, glutes, quads.

Work these upper body strength moves into your fitness routine 2-3 times per week. You’ll start seeing results in your endurance, speed, and overall running technique faster than you can say “sore shoulders.” If you’re ever not sure about exercise form, amount of weight to lift, or anything related to upper body strength moves for runners, consult a personal trainer for one-on-one advice.

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