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Upper Body Strength for Runners

January 16th, 2013

When you think ‘elite runner,’ the words ‘super buff upper bod’ probably aren’t the first that come to mind. But adding upper body strength training can be a key step to improve your efficiency as a runner.

If you train the right way, you’ll build strength without adding unnecessary bulk. If you’re looking to shave a little time off your current PR, or to give yourself the edge necessary to achieve your next race goal, then spending some time building upper body strength could be just the ticket.

Why does upper body training help?

For most runners, strength training is focused on leg exercises. Without a doubt, lower body strength training can produce performance benefits for runners. But you’re missing out on some extra performance points if you’re skipping upper body work entirely.

When you employ resistance training (read: weights, bodyweight resistance or resistance band exercises), your muscle fibers increase in size, which in turn increases the strength of your muscles. Resistance training also improves your nervous system’s ability to coordinate muscle contractions.

But you’re not running on your hands, so what difference does upper body strength make? Strength training in your upper body can help boost respiratory efficiency, increase the stability of your core, and eliminate unnecessary movement while you run. Although these benefits likely won’t affect your running performance as drastically as increasing your aerobic training, they can help give you that slight edge to beat out the competition when it really counts. Having a well-toned upper body can also improve your form, helping to prevent injury.

Which exercises should you do?

It’s important for runners to train their muscles in ways that mimic the body movements of running. A runner’s arms move independently of each other when running, so it’s important to train them independently. A runner should focus on unilateral exercises (work one side of the body at a time), as opposed to bilateral exercises (use both sides of the body in tandem). It’s fine to include a few bilateral exercises in your training mix, just don’t make them the bulk of your workout.

Here are a few exercises to try:

  • Chin-ups (3 sets x 12 reps)
  • Dumbbell chest press (3 x 12 – each arm)
  • One arm bent-over row (3 x 12 – each arm)
  • Standing shoulder press (3 x 12 – each arm)
  • Standing deltoid raise (2 x 15 – each arm)

How often should you do them?

For strength benefits that won’t get in the way of the mileage you’re logging, add in an upper body workout twice a week for about 20-30 minutes. Make sure to do at least 10-12 reps per set for each exercise. Start with lighter weight and gradually increase to heavier weight. Keeping your reps high and your weight low to moderate will help you achieve endurance strength gains without adding bulk.

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