The runner's upper-body workout

Runners tend to give their legs all the credit for their speed, but ignoring other crucial body parts slows them down. While the quads, hamstrings, and calves do their fair share of work, the upper body plays an integral role in performance.

“Strengthening your upper back, core, and arms helps you run more efficiently and maintain proper balance, which in turn creates less strain on your body and reduces your injury risk,” says Heidi Anderson, a Precision Running coach at Equinox Chestnut Hill in Boston.

Below, Julian Ho, a Precision Run coach at Equinox Yorkville in Toronto, Canada, demonstrates five exercises that will help you be a better, faster, stronger runner. “It comes down to a patterns-over-parts mentality,” he says. Running is a mix of macro and micro movement patterns, and this routine trains a range of the smaller ones to help you achieve your goals.

Do 3 to 4 sets of these stretches and upper-body moves 2 to 3 times per week and you’ll see the results on the road.

Rotational shoulder press

Targets: shoulders, core, and triceps

How to do it: Grab a pair of dumbbells that you can comfortably press overhead. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding the weights at shoulder-height, palms facing toward you. Press right arm overhead while rotating the upper body to the left. As you lower the dumbbell, rotate upper body back to center. Repeat on opposite side for one rep. Do 6 to 8 reps. Do this on days you’re not running, or post-run if you’re stacking workouts.

Why runners need it: “We utilize the upper body, especially the arms, to propel us forward,” says Arthur Tang, a Precision Run coach and group fitness manager at Equinox 50th Street in New York City. As you run and fatigue, your shoulders also tend to slouch. Keeping your shoulders strong means you can relax your upper body while running and avoid injury, Anderson adds.

Pilates roll-up

Targets: range of motion in the spine

How to do it: Sit on a mat with legs extended in front of body, feet hip-width apart. Inhale while extending arms overhead. On the exhale, fold forward from the hips, reaching hands forward to the feet. Tuck chin to chest, inhale, and return to start. With the next exhale, round through upper back and slowly roll back until shoulders touch mat, with arms overhead. Exhale to reverse the movement back to start. That’s one rep. Do 5 to 6 reps. Do this on days you’re not running, or post-run if you’re stacking workouts. 

Why runners need it: “We often hold our bodies in a single position for extended periods of time, so it’s important to take opportunities to explore the articulation in the upper body, especially through the spine,” Tang says. You’ll be better equipped to notice when you’re tensing up on a run if you first recognize how your spine moves through its full range of motion, he notes.

Bent-over alternating rows

Targets: upper and lower back

How to do it: Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand with feet shoulder-width apart with a slight bend in the knees, and hinge forward at the hips so the back is as close to parallel to the floor as you can get it while maintaining a straight spine. Keep arms straight, hands in front of shins. Pull left dumbbell straight up to chest, keeping left elbow close to your side. Lower to start and repeat on the other side for one rep. Complete 10 to 12 reps. 

Do this exercise pre-run to activate and engage the muscles (reduce the weight and do 15 to 20 reps), post-run to build strength (increase the weight and do 8 to 12 reps), or on days you’re not running in combination with the rotational shoulder press.

Why runners need it: “Runners require structurally sound foundations from which to produce force,” Ho says. This exercise trains the upper and lower back to stay upright and rigid while you run, keeping it stable while allowing for proper rotational control.

Dynamic pec opener

Targets: pecs, anterior deltoids

How to do it: Stand one foot away from a pillar (or a wall), facing pillar with feet as far apart as your elbows would be if your arms were extended out to the sides. Pivot to the left, rotating into a stable lunge stance, while simultaneously lifting the right arm, bending elbow at 90 degrees, and placing right forearm flush against the pillar. Lean into the right arm stretch, left arm extended out to the side and down with palm open. Hold for 3 seconds, breathing throughout. Pivot back to face the pillar. Repeat on other side. Complete 5 reps on each side as part of your warm-up. During your cool-down, complete 10 reps on each side, holding each stretch for 5 seconds. 

Why runners need it: Mobile shoulders are necessary for effective arm swing, Ho says. This stretch enables dynamic range of motion, optimizes running mechanics, and minimizes imbalances in form. 

Kneeling lunge stretch

Targets: psoas

How to do it: Kneel down with right knee on floor and left knee directly over left ankle, left foot flat on floor, arms relaxed by sides. Slightly tuck hips under to flatten the lower back (using your hands can help), reach arms overhead, and shift your weight forward, leaning into the right leg until you feel the hip flexor stretch in the left leg. Return to kneeling position for one rep. Pre-run, complete 15 to 20 reps on the right, then switch sides and repeat. Post-run, hold lunge for 20 to 30 seconds on each side. 

Why runners need it: “The psoas is a deep core muscle that runs from the spine to the femur bone and helps stabilize your pelvis and move your legs forward,” Anderson says. It’s often weak or tight from sitting, overuse, or poor posture. “Stretching your psoas can lengthen your stride and correct your running form, which will relieve pressure from your lower back, hips, and groin,” she explains.

Photography by Gabor Jurina. Art direction by Kathryn Marx.