Jeremey DuVall, M.S., CPT—A bulky upper body haunts the dreams of runners nearly as much as a forced mid-race porta-potty stop. Extra weight up top brings visions of slower race times and reduced flexibility, which leads to runners neglecting their upper body in the weight room. Not only does this neglect a major component of running form, but it also sets runners up for injuries down the road.
Believe it or not, the upper body plays a huge role in endurance performance. The arms are responsible for maintaining a rhythmic motion in tune with the lower body. The shoulders should be properly positioned and flexible enough to allow the diaphragm to expand unimpeded and provide proper airflow. Most importantly, the torso must have a stable foundation to prevent excess rotation during the running motion.
While running looks like a simple forward and backward motion, it’s actually a complex motion that involves both side-to-side movement and rotation. To minimize wasted motion and to provide the best possible scenario for moving forward, many of the muscles in the upper body actually work in a different kind of capacity than expected. Rather than producing motion, they work in an anti-movement fashion. In the simplest of terms, they attempt to reduce wasted motion.
Use the following exercises to build upper body strength in the weight room. Many focus on unilateral or single-limb training to replicate the running motion. They also emphasize balance at the shoulder joint, counteracting the typical forces of a slumped posture created by sitting behind a desk throughout the week.
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How to do it: Grab two light dumbbells and place them on the floor about shoulder-width apart. Place one hand on each dumbbell and assume a push-up position with your feet wider than hip-width. Complete a full push-up. Keep your right hand on the ground as you pull the left dumbbell up in a rowing motion, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top. Avoid letting your torso rotate excessively. Slowly lower and repeat with your right side. That’s one rep.
Why it’s useful: This push-up variation combines the traditional chest staple with a row, which engages the core and also builds strength in the upper back. By using one arm at a time, your midsection must work overtime to prevent excess motion.
Single Arm Bodyweight Row
How to do it: Use a TRX or a bar set at sternum height. Grab the bar or handle with one hand using a neutral (palm facing in) grip if possible. Walk your feet forward so that your body comes closer to parallel with the ground. Pull your shoulder back and be sure to keep your body in a straight line throughout the movement. Pull your chest to the bar keep your shoulders square the entire time.
Why it’s useful: A rounded shoulder posture prevents proper running form by limiting the ability of the chest to expand. Incorporating more pulling exercises in your strength training program is one way to even out the chest. This pulling exercise in particular also forces your core and upper body to maintain a square posture similar to the running motion.
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Lunge Stance Single Arm Shoulder Press
How to do it: Stand in a lunge position with your right foot forward. Grab a dumbbell in your right hand and hold it a shoulder height with a neutral grip. As you exhale, press the dumbbell overhead while keeping your midsection tight to avoid overarching at the lower back.
Why it’s useful: During the running motion, your limbs move in a contra-lateral fashion, meaning your right arm and left leg move forward at the same time. This exercise reverses that motion to build flexibility from the entire body. In the lunge position, this exercise also strengthens the hips, particularly the gluteus medius, to provide a firm foundation when landing on a single leg during the running gait.
How to do it: Stand next to a cable machine with a handle attachment set at sternum height. Face forward so that the cable is directly to your right side. Stand with your feet about hip width. Grab the cable with both hands and extend your arms straight out in front of you. Pull your stomach in and emphasize a tall posture at your upper body. Hold for 20-30 seconds before repeating on the opposite side.
Why it’s useful: This exercise champions anti-rotation. By preventing the twisting motion encouraged by the weight, you build static strength at the core, and especially in the obliques. This translates to less wasted rotation when you’re out pounding the pavement.