Runners love strengthening their lower body from the quads, hamstrings, to glutes, but often ignore the benefits of upper body workout for runners!
Strengthening our core and lower body is incredibly important. We need to focus on weighted lunges, squats, and bridges to prevent injuries and build power.
But 100% you need to be training your entire body with weights to achieve all of your goals. That means full body days, upper body days, lower body workouts and all the core workouts you can manage!
In fact, I’ve done a HUGE post to help explain all the ways that science shows strength training for runners pays off, along with providing some complete programs.
But today, we’re focused specifically on an upper body workout for runners and all the benefits. Because if I can show you the benefits, you’re more likely to do the work!
So, in this article, we’ll be looking at 11 upper body workout exercises that will build strength. And we’ll also look at all the reasons why you should care.
✅If you want a complete follow along plan with videos, checkout our Runner Strength Training Programs >>
Intuitively, you might recognize the benefit to doing weighted lunges, step ups and squats. But how often do you think about the power needed from your upper body for a strong run?? Should you make time for an upper body workout for runners?
And I get it…but hey science (and all those super fast elite runners we marvel at) shows we need it!
Why Should Runners Do Upper Body Workouts?
A strong upper body and arm swing can make you faster. Have you ever noticed that if you increase your arm swing, your legs respond in kind?
Our goal is to improve efficiency. We want every muscle in our body to move with the least amount of effort so that we can run farther and faster without fatiguing.
To do that we need muscles that are both strong to move with power and have endurance.
As we run longer, our bodies get used to longer distances. As we lift heavier weights, we get stronger. So we’d think that strength training would have no bearing on our running ability – two different exercises, two different adaptations right?
As your shoulders being to fatigue, you stop swinging your arms as fast, which tells your legs to slow down, which tells your brain your getting tired.
Does Upper Body Strength Help Running?
Beyond our arms, there are benefits to ensuring we have good shoulder strength, a strong spine and neck. Along with of course our entire core, which I harp on incessantly in other strength discussions.
In fact, a study in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, showed there is a ton of neuromusclar coordination happening to keep your head stable while running. Other animals tend to flop around, while we are able to maintain a steady gaze.
The better we can do this, the less effort required by our brain. Which means that we are once again improving our running economy!
As your back gets tired you start to slouch, which closes off your lungs, which reduces your oxygen, which tells your legs they need to stop.
One of the key tenants of good running form is being able to maintain a strong upright posture. Your posture and arm swing play an important role in maintaining proper running form.
So, by having a strong back and shoulder, you’ll be able to remain upright as your run and won’t slouch which can cause inefficiency in running. A strong arm swing can also help you propel forward while you run.
And a final benefit of building muscle is that we now can store more glycogen. That means topping off energy stores prior to those long runs and races, which means improved endurance.
So let’s start working on that upper body for running!Ready to run faster and fatigue less?? Find out how an upper body workout could be what you're missing #runchat #running Click To Tweet
Benefits of a Strong Upper Body for Runners
What if we told you that by training your upper body, you might just become a more efficient runner?
Tons of new research indicates that strength training can provide up to an 8% increase in running economy when a resistance training program is followed. Why is that?
A few reasons:
- a strong core allows you to hold your posture with less effort, which leaves more energy for your legs
- strong arms are able to move quicker without fatigue, which entices your feet to move quicker
- strong arms prevent the excess rotation
- for sprinters truly are part of their power
- a strong upper body keeps your lungs open for better breathing
- additional muscle means more glycogen stores
How to Hold Your Arms While Running?
If we’re going to build muscle to be more efficient, then let’s make sure you’re running with the best form.
The goal is to prevent wasted movement and improve speed.
- Focus on pumping your arms forward and back
- You do not want your arms crossing over the center line of your body (this will cause hip pain)
- Think wrist to elbow, that’s how your arm should swing next to your hip
- Try pointing your thumb up, this keeps your arms moving more forward and back, rather than across
- Keep hands lightly closed
- Going uphill, think about doing an upper cut punch to help propel you
Upper Body Workout for Runners
There are a million different upper body exercises that you can begin including. Let’s start with a specific workout and then go into some additional movements or workout ideas you can implement.
Here’s a short, circuit to incorporate into your training plan 2-3x per week to meet your upper body needs quickly!
3 rounds, 10 reps per exercise to start. Then you’ll want to progress to heavier weights with lower reps. A set of dumbbells will get you through the majority of exercises, though I do also recommend the cable machine for a couple.
1. Arnold Press
This is a great exercise that targets all the delts in your shoulder, as well as other stabilizer muscles to build strength all over. Here’s how to do it:
- Start by holding a dumbbell in each hand with your arms bent, similar to a bicep curl with your palms facing you.
- Instead of pushing straight up, spread your arms to each side laterally and then press your arms up.
- As you’re pressing them up, twist your hands so that your palms now face forwards.
- Lower down in the same way, and repeat 8 to 12 reps.
2. Lat Pull Down
This exercise is incredible at working your back muscles as well as your shoulders and is best done with a cable pulley machine, although you can also use light weights or a resistance band for it.
Here’s how to do it:
- Start by sitting comfortably on the pulldown seat with your feet flat on the ground.
- Adjust the height of the bar so that the bar is at a height where your outstretched arms can comfortably grasp the bar.
- Grasp the bar with a wide grip, then exhale and pull it down until it’s approximately level with your chin.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades together while maintaining square shoulders then slowly return it back to the starting position.
- Repeat for 8 to 12 reps.
3. Bent Over Fly
This move is a great isolated strength training exercise to target the posterior or rear delts. These are often neglected, so this is the perfect exercise to balance your muscles.
Here’s how to do it:
- Start by holding dumbbells in each hand. Stand hip-width apart with a slight bent in the knees.
- Bend forward at the hip joint while keeping a flat back. This is your starting position.
- As you exhale, lift both arms out to the side, while maintaining a slight bend in the elbows while squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells back towards the ground.
- Repeat this move for 8 to 12 reps.
4. Chest Press
This compound move is great to target your chest muscles, as well as your rear delts, and triceps. Here’s how to do it:
- Start by laying on the floor or bench with a dumbbell in each hand.
- Then position the dumbbells at the shoulders with your upper arms at a 45-degree angle to your body. Palms face forward, with your thumbs wrapped around the handle.
- Engage your core and as you exhale push the weight upward. Make sure to not lock out the elbows.
- As you inhale, lower the weight back down while contracting your muscles to return to the starting position.
- Repeat 8 to 12 reps.
5. Tricep Kickbacks
This move is great to strengthen your triceps as it’ll help stabilize your shoulder joint as well. Here’s how to do it:
- Start by holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing toward each other. Keep a slight bend in the knees.
- Maintain a flat back and engage your core as you hinge forward at the waist. Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor.
- Now keep your upper arms tucked in close to your body. This is your starting position.
- As you exhale, engage your triceps by straightening the elbows. Hold your upper arm still and only move your forearms for this move.
- Inhale and return the dumbbells to the starting position.
- Repeat 8 to 12 reps.
6. Push Ups
Push-ups are great at building upper body strength as they work the triceps, chest muscles, and shoulders. Here’s how to do them properly:
- Get down on all fours and place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders, in a full plank position. Don’t lock out your elbows and keep a slight bent in them.
- Extend your legs back and balance on your hands and toes, with your feet hip-width apart. This is your starting position.
- As you inhale, slowly bend your elbows and lower yourself to the floor until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle. Think of creating an arrow from your head to your elbows.
- Then as you exhale, contract your chest muscles pushing back up through your hands and returning to the starting position.
- Repeat 8 to 12 times.
If you can’t do straight leg push ups, that’s ok! Instead place your hands on a bench. You’ll progress much faster than with knees on the ground.
7. Single-Arm TRX row
If you have access to a TRX then this is one of the best exercises to try! Or you can modify it to do a heavy dumbbell single-arm row.
The goal of doing one arm at a time to is force your core engagement for stabilization since that’s a big part of running.
Focus on really engaging your back muscles, the arms will automatically engage.
Here’s how to do it:
- Start by aligning the handles so that they’re low. Grab the handle with your working arm and step back from the point of suspension with your arm pulled back.
- Once you feel the tension in the straps, lean back and keep your legs and torso in alignment, allowing the working arm to extend out in line with the straps.
- Exhale and contract the lat of the working arm, then pull the shoulder blade down and back as you row your arm back and pull your body forwards towards the TRX handle.
- Inhale and slowly lower back to the starting position.
- Repeat 8 to 12 times.
8. Alternating Chest Press
This single-arm exercise is incredible at building strength and muscle in the pectorals and other supplementary muscles.
You can do this laying on the floor or a bench press. Here’s how to do it:
- Laying on the floor raise up into a hip bridge.
- Press the dumbbell up with one arm at a time, making use it’s straight above your chest. Don’t lock your elbows.
- Slowly lower the dumbbell down so that your elbows are bent and the weight comes down just off the outer chest. Make sure to not go too wide or too narrow. Maintain shoulder width for best results.
- Slowly push the dumbbell upward with one arm and lower down again to starting position.
- Repeat for 8 to 12 reps.
When laying on the floor, if you are lifting heavier then you might leave out the bridge to really focus on the weight.
9. Renegade Row
This incredible upper-body exercise is a compound movement that strengthens almost every part of your upper body while also working your core.
It’ll also help identify any imbalances you may have in your upper body in terms of strength. Go for lighter dumbbells with this one till you have your form down.
- Starting from a plank position, place a dumbbell under both hands.
- Pull up the weight on the right side keeping it close to your body, so that your hand comes just above the hip bone.
- While raising the dumbbell, support yourself on the other arm. You don’t want the body to sway, so you will have to fully engage the core.
- Return to starting position and repeat on the left side.
- Repeat 8 to 12 reps on each side.
10. Kneeling Single Arm Shoulder Press
I love doing this from a kneeling position to force the core engagement. It targets the shoulders and is great for overall upper body strength
Here’s how to do it:
- Start by holding the dumbbell in front of your shoulder with your palm facing you.
- Kneel on one leg on the floor. You will press up from the same side as the knee that is on the floor.
- Repeat 8 – 12 reps and then switch knees and start pressing on the other side.
Quick tip: If you’re looking to build muscles, then pick a weight that you can only complete 5 to 8 reps of as this will help you build muscles more quickly!
This is known as an anti-rotational movement. The goal is to teach your body how to maintain a forward position when forces are pulling on it from different directions.
I do this move with a resistance band looped around the leg of my treadmill. Here’s how to do it:
- Start with a half-kneeling position and attach a resistance band to the leg of your treadmill. You can also use a cable machine at the gym for this.
- Hold the band to your chest and have your legs hip-width apart.
- Press the band horizontally to extend as you exhale.
- Then slowly return to starting position and repeat 8 to 12 reps.
You can certainly do more, but you don’t have to do a ton to see some great benefits to your run.
That being said – I 100% would love to see you start picking up some heavier weights! We cover all the benefits in my complete guide on combing weightlifting and running. You really need more than body weight over time.
Upper Body Posture Exercises
Our focus here is on the inclusion of posture focused movements to keep our core stable, our arms pumping and our chest open to keep air flowing.
These moves will help us limit the hunching and slumping common in our every day, computer-working, lives.
- Supermans (lying face down on the ground, raise both arms and legs for 10 seconds)
- Cat/Cow (yes the yoga move)
- Bird dogs
- T bands (holding ends of a band in each hand pull shoulders down and arms out into a T)
Additional Upper Body Moves for Runners
Again, let’s focus on what will help with power and prevent that rotation while we run.
- Lateral raises
- Front raises
- Assisted pull-ups
- Holding a pair of light dumbbells and running with your arms
- Tricep dips (placing hands on a bench and lowering down)
- Up down planks (from forearm position press hand to ground and raise into a straight arm plank, then back down)
✅We go through full demos and full follow-along workout videos in our Runner Strength Training Programs >>
All right hopefully this upper body workout for runners gives you a starting point and some ideas to start incorporating into your week! Remember that SOMETHING is better than nothing, so just start.
Looking for more weight lifting?
- Checkout this comparison of the different Beachbody Workouts (so many great options for runners).
- 10 Online Resources for Strength Training At Home
- Reach out to a running coach for a custom program
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