We get it: An upper-body workout for runners probably sounds a bit, uh, pointless. After all, running is a leg-centric sport, so training other muscles won’t do a whole lot of good…right?
While this is a belief held by a lot of runners, it’s actually not true: Running is a full-body activity, which means upper body-strength does matter. And there are several reasons why.
“Having a strong upper body is really about improving your efficiency,” Kaila DeRienzo, NASM-certified personal trainer and RRCA-certified run coach in Orlando, tells SELF. Think of your torso and upper body as your base of support when running—weakness in these areas can negatively impact your stability, control, and balance while striding, says DeRienzo.
It can also contribute to pain while running, she adds. Say, for example, your shoulders hunch forward when you get tired on a long run, and you don’t have the strength in your back muscles to pull them back into the correct position—down and back. This hunching could trigger pain in your shoulders, back, or elsewhere. But if those upper-body muscles are strong enough to help you maintain proper posture and running form, that can help reduce your chances of feeling pain when you get fatigued.
There’s a performance reason for runners to train their upper body, too. A strong upper body can also improve your arm drive. Running with a good arm drive—where your elbows move forward and back parallel to your body instead of swinging side to side across your torso—expends less energy. The result? You run more efficiently, and aren’t wasting precious energy in movement that’s actually hindering you.
Lastly, upper body strength is “absolutely vital” for running fast, says DeRienzo, since a good arm drive can be an important source of power propelling your body forward.
With these benefits in mind, DeRienzo recommends runners schedule upper-body strength work one to three days a week. If you’re doing more than one session a week, make sure to schedule at least 48 hours in between them so that your muscles have enough time to recover.
As for which specific upper-body muscles runners should focus on? The chest, back, and shoulders are key, says DeRienzo. These muscles are crucial for good posture and contribute to core stability (which yes, runners should prioritize, too). It’s also a good idea to work the triceps and biceps, DeRienzo adds, since these muscles are important for a strong arm drive.
In the five-move dumbbell workout below, which DeRienzo created for SELF, you’ll target all of those upper body muscles and also get a solid dose of core work. Before jumping into this routine, do a five-minute warm-up to get your heart rate up and activate your muscles—moves like chest opening stretches, shoulder rolls, high knees, and jumping jacks can do the trick.
So, runners: Are you ready to fire up your upper body and improve your running efficiency in the process? Keep scrolling for a simple-yet-effective upper-body workout for runners that might just become the new staple in your fitness routine.
What you need: An exercise mat for comfort, and a set of dumbbells. You may want to use two sets of dumbbells for this workout—a heavier set for the moves that target your chest and back, and a lighter set for those that hit your shoulders and arms.
- Z press
- Cross-body single-arm curl
- Alternating single-arm chest press
- Triceps kickback in plank
- Do 8-12 reps of each exercise. Rest 30 seconds to 1 minute, then move onto the next exercise. Do the entire circuit 3 times, resting 1 minute in between rounds.
Demoing the moves below are Nathalie Huerta (GIFs 1-2), coach at The Queer Gym in Oakland; Denise Harris (GIFs 2 and 5), a NASM-certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor based in New York City; and Harlan Kellaway (GIF 4), a trans bodybuilder based in Queens.