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I have written this column for 28 years, with 23 of those years happening in 2020. In all that time, I have zero articles about upper body strength work. Heck, the logo for my coaching team is a T. Rex, partially because they are confident and strong, and partially because they have useless noodle arms. Upper body strength is just not the most important thing for runners. Right?
Yes, right. I’m not going to totally switch my position. You never go full-Rubio. But over the years, I have really come around to the value of consistent upper body resistance training for the secondary benefits that go beyond raw strength. For simple lower body options, here is the 3 Minute Mountain Legs routine and the 8 Minute Speed Legs routine.
Over the years, I have really come around to the value of consistent upper body resistance training for the secondary benefits that go beyond raw strength.
As outlined in this 2018 review from the journal Sports Medicine, we know strength training can generally improve speed and running economy. But that review did not have any major findings for upper body strength work specifically. So let’s try to get at the question another way. A 2019 study in the journal Sports found that upper body and core fatigue from short circuit training sessions reduced subsequent running economy. Perhaps an upper body that is more resistant to fatigue could play a positive role in running economy through improved biomechanics.
And even if the benefits aren’t immediately apparent (or if it’s difficult to isolate causation), there are likely some longer-term positive effects from upper body strength. A 2005 review in Sports Medicine found positive hormonal responses after strength and resistance training, though the exact type of stimulus and response varies. Other benefits could be related to circulatory factors (when running, blood is pumping everywhere, not just your legs), bone density improvements (loading bones makes them stronger, and the body likely doesn’t view every part of the skeletal system as a fully separate entity), and epigenetic changes (influencing how baseline genetics are expressed over time), along with many other possibilities ranging from improved confidence to metabolic adaptations. Most likely, upper body strength is even more important with age.
The goal of training is to find your strong.
For runners, what “strong” means is a bit different than it is for football players. But a strong athlete of any type can probably not afford to entirely ignore a whole section of their body.
Being able to lift a box into the car = great. Being able to lift the car onto a box = excessive.
On the flip side, I don’t think upper body strength is the most important thing. I have met many elite performers who would need a hammer to open a pickle jar. There is only so much stress to play with in training, and upper body routines should probably be streamlined to avoid muscle breakdown and to support long-term adherence. Being able to lift a box into the car = great. Being able to lift the car onto a box = excessive.
What upper body strength should you do?
I like athletes to consider three goals. First, if benefits are partially related to hormonal responses and similar changes, it’s key to aim for consistent, repeatable stimuli. Second, upper body work that engages the core may be extra productive given the core’s role in providing a base from which to put out power during running. Third, bodyweight exercises are preferable because after an athlete adapts, it’s tough to be sore for 72 hours from lifting something you’re carrying around 24 hours a day.
Here’s where I list the disclaimers, so get out your disclaimer bingo card if you’re playing at home. I am not a strength coach, and please listen to any advice from a health professional that specializes in this area. Different routines work for everyone, and this is the absolute-bare-minimum approach that my wife Megan and I have found works for athletes we coach, especially if they don’t do any upper body work. When I went to college, I was a football player, so I might be working through some demons from all that high school lifting. I think I went to prom with a whey protein shake.
All that build up, and the routine consists of just two exercises that will take a couple minutes a day.
Drum roll please. All that build up, and the routine consists of just two exercises that will take a couple minutes a day.
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With your core fully engaged, do 1 to 3 sets of push-ups most days. When you start out, you may want to begin on your knees with just one or two reps–that’s great, and some of the pro runners we coach started that way too. Make the movements quick but fully controlled, with arms shoulder width apart, but mixing it up to keep it spicy. Do the sets to fatigue, not failure, though don’t be afraid to push yourself with time.
Spice it up: To get added core work, recover after a set, then with your arms extended and core engaged as if you’re at the top of a push-up, bring your knee toward your chest, alternating legs.
Many athletes can stop reading there. You can do more involved routines, but if you go from zero to doing a single push-up each day, that is AMAZING and worthy of celebration. If you’re feeling frisky, read on.
Chin-ups or pull-ups
Here’s the magic exercise for some of our athletes. 1 to 3 times per day 4-6 times per week, do a quick set of chin ups or pull-ups (you can buy a cheap bar to put in a door frame at your home). If you aren’t quite ready for that yet, you can place a chair or other platform under the bar (or better yet, use a resistance band like you’d see in the gym) to support some of your weight. One rep counts. No need to lock your elbows out on each one or anything like that, do what feels natural and safe. I personally like chin-ups rather than pull-ups because the form feels like it engages my core more. But like a bad gastroenterologist, I don’t know sh*t.
No matter how you do this exercise, focus on engaging the core, with your knees slightly forward rather than hanging limp underneath you. Interestingly, many athletes that start chin-ups will get more sore in their ab muscles than their arms. Think of both push-ups and pull-ups as a full body exercise disguised as an upper body workout.
I didn’t become a big proponent of chin-ups until a couple years ago, when an athlete on the team swore that doing a few quick sets a day transformed their body. I was a skeptic, but I shared that anecdote with other athletes who had asked for upper body recommendations, and they later made similar comments.
And that’s it!
You can do it right after your run or later in the day. All at once with rest breaks, or spread out. I personally do a few sets of chin ups to break up the work day. Megan does push ups and chin ups after her morning runs. But whatever works for you works for me.
After you adapt, you can keep this routine going almost every day for the rest of your life. There’s no need to do harder and more intricate routines unless you want to. You can add specific core work, but as you get stronger on these exercises, you’ll probably notice your core getting stronger and more functional too. And maybe this simple starting point will open the door to other activities, like climbing or yoga or lifting or chasing a UFC championship belt.
The goal isn’t to be the world’s strongest human, it’s to find a consistent stimulus that supports running without being too stressful. The message of this article is simple: if you’re at zero right now, it’s time to start. Literally this moment, drop down and do a knee push-up if you haven’t been keeping up with upper body strength. You got this! We got this! As the T. rex says, RAWRRRRRRRR.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.