The Importance of Back Strength for Runners

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There are a lot of options to choose from when it comes time to hit the gym. One group of muscles that runners should never ignore, however, is the back. Your back keeps you upright and good posture helps you remain injury-free.

“Runners need strong backs—both mid and lower backs—to stabilize the spine and pelvis,” says Dr. Richard Hansen of High Altitude Spine and Sport in Boulder, Colo. “This reduces injury risk by helping to evenly distribute the forces that are being absorbed with each step and helps to improve running economy by reducing energy lost to unnecessary body sway.” If you don’t have a strong back when you begin increasing your running volume, it can eventually lead to tissue breakdown and injury—especially in the lower leg and hip—according to Hansen.

RELATED: Upper Body Exercises That Improve Running Form

A runner with a strong back also tends to have better posture. Jon-Erik Kawamoto, founder of JK Conditioning, says this translates into more efficiency. “[Runners] have better arm carriage when running,” he says. Kawamoto believes that poor arm carriage can lead to energy leaks with inefficient arm actions when running. Also, a weak low back, in addition to other core musculature, might lead to an energy leak with excessive trunk rotation when running. “Both of these biomechanics inefficiencies can waste energy,” he contends.

Incorporate these three exercises into your gym routine to improve your back strength and stability:

Rows

WATCH: One Arm, One Leg Cable Row and Dumbbell Pushup to Row

Kawamoto recommends this set of exercises (e.g., seated cable row, bent over row, chest-supported row) to work on your upper back, which prevents weak, rounded shoulders and poor arm carriage. He says the coaching cues for all of these exercises are the same: Pull your shoulder blades down and back with each row. “Do not arch your low back and sit tall and don’t lean back excessively,” he advises. “And when lowering the weight, ensure your shoulder blades separate slightly to allow for a slight stretch of the muscles in between them.” A word of caution: start with a low weight and focus on mastering your chosen exercise(s) with proper form before increasing.

Bird Dogs

WATCH: The Bird Dog

While on your hands and knees, brace your abdominals and keep your spine in a neutral position. Slowly extend your right arm and left leg at the same time and at the same speed. Hansen advises holding each extended position for 3-5 seconds, and then slowly bring your arm and leg back together, touching them together under your torso. Hold this position for 3-5 seconds and repeat. Complete 8-10 reps before switching sides (left arm and right leg). “Don’t let your pelvis twist up during the movement, keep the abdominals braced and your pelvis level,” says Hansen. He also advises not doing these reps too fast as the purpose of the exercise is to enhance stability and control. Once you’re comfortable with the basic mechanics of the exercise, add some variation by slowly moving your foot and hand out along an imaginary line, then move them slowly back along the same imaginary line while returning to your starting position.

Titanics or Cobra Pose

WATCH: The Cobra Pose

Do these on a large stability ball placed under your hips. Keep your feet on the ground and form a “Y” with both feet on the ground. Hansen advises to make sure your thumbs are pointed upward. “While keeping the spine in a neutral position, slowly move your hands toward the ceiling, contracting the muscles at the base of the shoulder blades until your arms get to shoulder height,” he suggests. Hold the position for 3-5 seconds before slowly returning back to neutral. Perform 8-10 reps. “Don’t let your spine bend during the motion, keep it neutral, and don’t let your hips shift side to side while on the ball,” Hansen advises. “The purpose is to keep the torso in a straight position while using the arms as a level to increase your back muscle activity.”

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