Let’s face it: runners aren’t necessarily known for their arms. That’s not a dig—it’s just easy to neglect your top half when it seems like your legs do all the work. Failing to train your upper body, however, can hold you back big time.
“Have you ever tried to run without your arms? It’s weird, inefficient, and hard as hell,” says Pamela Geisel, an exercise physiologist at Hospital for Special Surgery’s Tisch Sports Performance Center in New York City. “Arm drive is a big part of running—when your legs get tired, you use your arms more because of the kinetic chain; you can’t have one without the other.”
That means your strength-training has to include more than just deadlifts and squats. Building a strong upper body will help you maintain good form as the miles tick by, and that stable, upright posture can increase your endurance by improving your lung capacity, Geisel explains. “Improved upper-body strength also reduces oxygen requirement, meaning you’ll run faster while using the same amount of energy.” In other words, seconds get sliced off your splits.
And there’s more reason than speedy times to strengthen from the waist up. “Just pumping your arms back and forth only builds muscle endurance, but you need to also build muscular strength to create bone density and prevent injury,” says Nick Pags, certified personal trainer and co-owner of Ripped Fitness, a treadmill-based HIIT studio in New York City. Why? Remember, our nerves, bones, and joints are all interconnected. “The gold standard for runners is 165 to 180 strides per minute—if every one of those strides is bad, that’s thousands of strides per run that you’re doing poorly, often leading to injuries like tendinopathy and stress fractures,” Geisel explains. “It all goes back to poor mechanics, and that results from not strength-training your entire body.”
The solution, however, isn’t picking up weights at the light end of the rack. “If you want to prevent injury, improve your speed, and last longer, you have to be willing to lift heavier things,” Pags says. Lifting light weights for a high number of reps isn’t bad; it just achieves the same goal as running—building endurance, not strength. “The goal is to stress the muscle to the point that the tissue is breaking down, creating micro-tears. The muscle then comes back stronger and leaner, which doesn’t necessarily happen with endurance training,” Pags says.
“If you want to prevent injury, improve your speed, and last longer, you have to be willing to lift heavier things.”
That’s why he recommends lifting heavy and using exercises that specifically target your arms, back, lats, and core two or three times per week. We’re not talking bodybuilding stuff here, but a focus on building strength in the muscles that help propel you forward. If that dedicated strength work sounds like a chore, Geisel says it’s cool to break it into 10-minute increments. “Runners often don’t strength-train because they think there’s no time, but a strength session doesn’t have to last for 60 minutes for it to be effective,” she explains. “Taking 10 minutes off the duration of your run and doing a quick strength set provides more benefits than 10 more minutes on the road.”
If your goal is to PR, save the hard-core lifting for cross-training days so you can focus on getting in a quality, high-intensity run, Geisel says. (And skip heavy lifting altogether two weeks prior to race day.) Otherwise, schedule a short circuit of strength exercises prerun: A study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that doing so can make you more likely to bust out extra reps and help you maintain proper form throughout.
And if walking into a weight room makes you want to gouge out your eyes, Geisel says skip it. Your body weight can be more than enough, especially if you’re new to strength-training. Think about how much you weigh—being able to move that much weight through exercises such as pushups and TRX rows means you’re lifting way more than five- or 10-pound dumbbells, she explains. “I think it’s the most beneficial to runners, too, because your body is what you’re moving in space.”
Whatever you do, be sure to warm up with foundational exercises such as hip bridges, planks, and side planks. Geisel recommends performing each for one minute (switch after 30 seconds on the side plank), then segue into upper-body work. “They’re activation patterns that fire your glutes, core, and hips, all of which you want to wake up before you lift heavy, so you can do so safely,” she says. The extra effort—and pounds—will all be worth it for faster, easier runs.
Now that you now why to push it on the weight, how far can you go? Here’s how to figure out what heavy really means for you.
Focus on form. No matter how much you’re lifting, if your form is crap, then you won’t benefit and you risk injury, Pags says. Ask a trainer how to correctly perform rows, chest presses, triceps kickbacks, and curl variations, he suggests. Then set up in front of a mirror to keep an eye on technique.
Fatigue the muscle. To reap heavy-lifter rewards, Geisel says you need to exhaust the muscle 100 percent, meaning you can’t do another rep at that weight. If you’re new to strength-training, practice your form with a lighter weight, then start with 10 to 25 pounds for eight to 12 reps until fatigue. If your form is dialed, go for fewer reps (five to eight) and more weight (25 to 40 pounds).
Go for broke. If you reach 10 reps and aren’t feeling the burn, up your load by five to 10 pounds, Geisel says. And be honest with yourself. Are you calling it quits because you can’t physically do another rep, or because you’ve mentally checked out? Pushing your limits (safely) is how you’ll create real change.