Our workout time is precious, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most runners feel compelled to spend those valuable minutes strengthening our legs and lungs. After all, these components doing the lion’s share of the work when we are barreling down the road, trail or track.
But you may be neglecting one important—but oft-overlooked—muscle group for runners: your arms.
According to Dr. Richard Hansen of High Altitude Spine & Sport in Boulder, Colo., arm strength, particularly in the shoulder and scapula, plays a key role in providing stability and balance to the torso and head during running. “It does this by helping to dampen the lateral and vertical forces created by the legs with each stride, thus making the body more efficient at moving forward [especially at faster speeds] without wasting energy,” he says.
Dr. Heather North of Red Hammer Rehab in Louisville, Colo., believes that putting time into arm development isn’t something to ignore because our arms drive our legs—not vice versa. “Having strong arms is very important to proper cadence when getting fatigued,” she says. “We propel ourselves forward by driving back with our elbows and not driving forward with our hands.”
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Here are three arm-centric exercises to incorporate into your weekly training routine that will help improve form, strength and efficiency. Hansen suggests that these exercises be done in controlled motions, while resetting the movement pattern between repetitions. Remember: Executing these exercises with proper form is more important than rushing through as repetitions as quickly as possible.
How to do it: Start in the push-up position on a smooth surface and alternate sliding one arm out and away from your body at a 45-degree angle, fully extending it forward, while keeping the other arm in the push-up position. Alternate arms. If you have trouble holding a push-up position, begin with your knees on the ground and progress to a prone position as you build strength.
Why do it: Hansen says this exercises helps create anterior chain upper body strength (biceps, pecs, anterior deltoids) while engaging the abdominals and improving scapular stability by activating serratus anterior, middle trap and rhomboid function.
Tips: It’s a common mistake to let the hips drop or push out while doing this exercise. “This defeats the purpose of engaging the core musculature to keep the body in a plank or straight line during the motion,” says Hansen.
How to do it: Sit under a squat rack with your legs straight out in front of you. Grab the bar above your head and lift yourself up to it so that you come in contact with it at your chest. Pause for a second and slowly let yourself back down to the start position. Perform 10-12 repetitions of the exercise.
Why do it: According to Hansen, this exercise incorporates posterior chain muscle recruitment of the upper and lower body simultaneously by keeping the body in the plank position while strengthening the scapular stabilizers (rhomboids, middle traps, lats, pecs).
Tips: Be sure to keep your arms shoulder-width apart and, just like the push away, don’t let your hips sag.
How to do it: Lie flat on your back with your knees bent at 45-degree angles, holding a weighted bar or a dumbbell on your chest. Push the bar out and bring it over your head while keeping your legs still. Extend the bar behind you without letting it touch the ground and then slowly return it to the start position. As you gain strength, try lifting your feet up and pushing them out at the same time that you are lifting the bar back over your head.
Why do it: This is a great exercise to activate the transverse abdominus (a key torso and pelvic stabilizer) while strengthening the Lat, triceps, and posterior deltoid. “Additionally, this exercise promotes thoracic spine extension while stretching the abdominal wall, helping to improve postural mechanics,” says Hansen.
Tips: Keep your knees bent with feet flat on the ground. This will prevent lumbar hyperextension. Also, keep your abdominals tight and remember to breathe with each repetition.