If you’re a runner or cyclist, it’s likely that most of your attention in the gym goes to making your legs more powerful and resilient. While this is important — after all, your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves are the big engines that propel your body in training and racing — developing a stronger upper body will make you even more physically capable.
Though it might not feel like it, the structures in your upper body are playing an important part in generating and transferring power into motion and helping you resist the forces that come into play from the ground, wind, and other factors. Let’s explore why and then introduce four exercises that can form the staple of your resistance work above the waist.
Fitting Upper Body Strengthening in Your Schedule
While it sounds daunting to include upper body training in your time-crunched schedule, most research suggests that two or three short sessions a week is sufficient to develop movement competence and produce beneficial adaptations in your muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons that will make you a more durable and capable athlete.
In a recent article for his Sweat Science column in Outside, Alex Hutchinson shared a recent finding from Brad Schoenfeld, a professor at CUNY Lehman College, who discovered that performing as little as one set of 8 to 12 reps of seven exercises (bench press, military press, lat pulldown, seated cable row, back squat, leg press, and unilateral leg extension, performed in a continuous circuit) three times a week for eight weeks improved overall performance. If you’re looking to build muscle size, Schoenfeld noted that three sets prompted hypertrophy and five sets delivered even greater gains in this area. But if you’re just trying to get a bit stronger and more resilient, the time-effective approach of single sets might be sufficient.
Improving Muscular Endurance, Strength, and Speed
Another study examined the effect of resistance training on a group of cross-country skiers. After a combination of upper body strength work and intervals twice a week for six weeks, they saw a significant increase in muscular endurance and simulated skiing performance.
Interestingly, replacing half of their usual interval training with upper body strengthening exercises had no detrimental effect on the skiers’ VO2max, which suggests that, contrary to popular opinion, resistance work does have a beneficial effect on at least maintaining cardiovascular fitness.
So now that we’ve seen compelling evidence for the efficacy of upper body strength training, let’s look at four compound exercises (i.e., those that involve multiple joints and muscle groups) that will give you maximum bang for your gym time buck.
Four Essential Upper Body Strength Training Exercises
The pull-up is one of the best upper body exercises you can do, as it calls into action big muscle groups like the lats, pecs, and delts, works the biceps and triceps, and requires you to use your core for stabilization. If you can’t do an unassisted pull-up, try to work up to it by doing partial reps, having a training buddy help you past your sticking point, or by utilizing bands. You can also do lat pull-downs to build a stronger overhead pull.
Here’s how to do a pull-up correctly:
- Stand underneath a pull-up bar and grip the bar with an overhand grip with your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Pull your shoulder blades back and down to pull yourself upward to the bar, pointing your toes with your legs straight in the gymnastics hollow-hold position. Mastering hollow holds on the ground will help you master this technique, which is much better for your low back than hitching your legs up like many people do and provides greater full-body stability.
- When your chin reaches the bar, slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.
- The number of reps will vary greatly, depending on how adept you are with the movement. Aim to work up to three sets of 10 or four to five sets of five.
You can perform a press with a barbell, which will allow you to get high-quality work done in an efficient way. But many people find that the kettlebell allows them to keep their shoulder, elbow, and wrist in better alignment. Plus, the unilateral nature of the single-arm press requires the inactive side of your body to resist rotation, activating your core to preserve stability on one side while you push the kettlebell upward on the other.
- Stand with your feet straight and shoulder-width apart.
- Pick a kettlebell up with one hand and hold it against your collarbone on the same side with your palm turned toward your chest.
- Squeeze your abs and push the weight overhead until your elbow is extended. The best path for the bell is a bit further back than most people realize. Try imagining a line coming up from the back of your traps up to the back of your ear.
- Slowly lower the weight back to the starting position.
- If using a lighter weight, perform three sets of 10 to 12 reps, and five sets of five reps if utilizing a heavier weight.
OK, this one might seem obvious, but there’s a reason that the push-up is universal. When done correctly, it not only targets your chest and triceps but also the muscles in your back, shoulders, abs, and legs.
- Lie face down on the floor with your feet slightly apart and your hands about halfway up your rib cage.
- Squeeze your butt and abs as you push your body up off the floor. Keeping your arms tucked into your sides rather than flaring your elbows will help you avoid shoulder issues. Some people might question this, but according to experts like physiotherapist Dr. Kelly Starrett, they’re wrong!
- Once your arms are extended, lower yourself back to the starting position without your hips sagging. TRX advises you to imagine keeping your whole body rigid and straight like a surfboard.
- Perform three to five sets of 7 to 15 reps.
4. Bent-Over Row
Any kind of rowing that uses resistance generates a great horizontal pulling motion that will make you stronger. You could try seated rows, TRX rows, or short intervals on a rowing machine (the latter will also bolster your endurance). But one of the best variations is the bent-over row. You can do it one of two ways:
The advantage of using a barbell is that you can work both sides of your upper body equally in a shorter amount of time and lift more weight. Using a barbell for this exercise also makes it easier to maintain spinal alignment than the single-arm version below.
- Place a weighted barbell on the floor in front of you.
- With your feet straight and shoulder-width apart, hinge at the hips to pick the bar up.
- Maintaining the hinge position with your torso just above parallel to the floor (or as close as you can comfortably get to this), squeeze your abs and pull the bar toward you until it touches your ribs.
- Slowly lower the bar to the starting position.
- Repeat 8 to 12 reps with a lighter weight or three to six reps with a heavier one.
- Perform three sets if using a lighter weight and five if utilizing a heavier one, resting for two to four minutes between sets.
This unilateral iteration of the row will require you to resist rotation and create stability on one side of your trunk as you generate motion on the other. To do it:
- Stand next to the long side of a weight bench or plyo box.
- Put your knee of the nearest leg on the bench, while the other stays flat on the floor next to a dumbbell or kettlebell.
- Hinge at the hips and pick up the weight with the hand nearest to it.
- Creating a straight line from your hips to the back of your neck, squeeze your abs to pull the weight up until it touches your side.
- Slowly lower it to the floor. After 8 to 12 reps with a lighter weight or three to six reps with a heavier one, switch sides.
- Perform three sets on each side if using a lighter weight and five if utilizing a heavier one. Take breaks of between two and four minutes.
While upper body strength training will not directly impact the ability of your legs to propel you faster in your runs or rides, it will ensure that the major muscle groups above the torso have the strength and muscular endurance you’ll need to achieve and maintain optimal positions in which you can give your best possible performance. As such, investing as little as 40 minutes per week (across two 20-minute sessions) using the exercises recommended here will set you in good stead to go faster and further than ever before.
Barbell Shrugged. (2018, November 25). One Armed Rows: TechniqueWOD, Episode 149. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IZ91oZIbv8
Børve, J. et al. (2017). Upper-Body Muscular Endurance Training Improves Performance Following 50 min of Double Poling in Well-Trained Cross-Country Skiers. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5615216/
Carl Paoli. (2016, November 29). Hollow Body: A key to motor control. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLt0s2cimdI
Carl Paoli. (2017, February 5). The Pull Up. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fG5MpgTbbaM
Hutchinson, A. (2018, September 5). This New Research Can Help You Decide How Much to Lift. Retrieved from https://www.outsideonline.com/2340676/new-research-can-help-you-decide-how-much-lift?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=onsiteshare
Nike. (2020, March 27). The Bent-Over Barbell Row at Home with Betina Gozo. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKFeB7ST830
StrongFirst. (2015, April 5). Pavel Tsatsouline on the Kettlebell Press. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJ3iAT3UP3k
The Ready State. (2013, January 7). Elbow mechanics in push-ups: Feat. Kelly Starrett. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1h2TUz2eod4