The 5 Best Upper Body Exercises for Runners

Runners often neglect upper body training for the detriment of their health, resistance training for your upper body can be very beneficial for the health of recreational runners. However weight training for the upper body can sometimes make running more difficult. In this article I will discuss the most effective way to train the upper body while also running regularly.

7 min read
Sean Klein
Written by
Sean Klein
Published on
30/08/23
Last updated
30/08/23

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In This Resource
  • Benefits of Upper Body Exercises for Runners
  • Health
  • Posture
  • Myths about Upper Body Exercises
  • Performance?
  • Injury Prevention?
  • Exercise Selection for Runners
  • Bodyweight Exercises vs Free Weights
  • Training Goals for Runners
  • Strength Training vs Hypertrophy
  • How I Mix Running and Upper Body Training
  • The 5 Upper Body Exercises for Runners
  • Sample Upperbody Circuit for Runners
  • References

Benefits of Upper Body Exercises for Runners

Health

Resistance training is one of the best health interventions you can do, with a myriad of benefits including, increased bone density, improved immune system, improved resting blood pressure and on and on. You can read about these more in depth in the study, Resistance Training is Medicine .

Posture

Using strength training for your upper body can be extremely beneficial to your posture and help prevent lower back pain, especially horizontal pulling exercises that focus on growing the muscles of the upper and the erector spinae.

Myths about Upper Body Exercises

Performance?

I fail to see how having a strong upper body can improve running performance, if anything it is more likely to hinder it through the development of muscle mass. Obviously as a runner you need some basic level of upper body strength, the same as any healthy individual, but no more than that. Lower body resistance training for runners is a completely different story as lower body strength can improve running performance, but upper body training, simple will not improve your running performance, however, for your long term health and wellness it is irreplaceable.

Injury Prevention?

It’s very rare for runners to get any sort of upper body related injury, so claiming that upper body exercises will help prevent injury in runners is a falsehood. The only injury that might be prevented for runners are falls whilst running, but this is hardly a common occurrence either. There is no evidence whatsoever that indicates the upper body resistance training can prevent injury and articles telling you so should be considered poor forms of information.

Exercise Selection for Runners

Bodyweight Exercises vs Free Weights

There are three main types of training, free weights, weight machines and body weight. All of which have there positives and negatives. For runners, using a mixture of free weight strength training and bodyweight muscular endurance training is a great approach to not letting your upper body training effect your running performance.

Free weights for high reps are very effective at increasing muscle mass, which as a runner may not be the reason you’re lifting weights. High rep free weights can also give the feeling of being “pumped up” which can be a negative sensation when running regularly.

Training Goals for Runners

Strength Training vs Hypertrophy

Choosing your goals as a runner who is performing using resistance training is really important. Running is a weight bearing sport, meaning you will need to carry your body weight, making any weight gained through hypertrophy training (muscle mass gain) negative towards your running performance.

I recommend using strength training (between 1-6 repetitions of weights between 70-90% of your max) for most runners, as the goal is to increase force production and not the actual amount of muscle mass. Most novice lifters will be able to both increase strength while they maintain their running habits using this style of strength training.

How I Mix Running and Upper Body Training

Personally, I love running, competing in both marathons and triathlons, but i’m also very passionate about strength training and lifting weights. This style of concurrent training is a juggling act, when you get a lot better at one you often get worse at the other (unless you’re a beginner, getting the most out of your beginner gains). When I’m running a lot, I use heavy barbell strength training in the bench press and hex bar deadlift to maintain strength levels, without feeling like my upper body is inflated from hypertrophy training. When I use high rep free weight exercises and need to do a tempo run the next day I really feel the negative impacts of that style of training.

Strength training, using 3-5 repetitions at 70-90% of your 1RM can really help you maintain strength whilst on a tough running programme. I couldn’t recommend this style of training enough, especially when matched with high rep pull ups and press ups for muscular endurance.

The 5 Upper Body Exercises for Runners

The Inverted press up is my personal favourite for horizontal pulling while I am doing a running training programme. It keeps my upper back strong and at the same time does not pump up my upper-back and negatively effecting my running. The difficulty is easy to modulate by elevating the feet to make it more challenging.

The bench press is a great way to increase upper body strength while on a running training programme. Performing low repetition sets at heavy weights on this exercise is a perfect way to maintain muscle mass and increase strength while not taking away from your running performance.

The press up for high repetitions is one of my go to exercises while myself or a client are training for an event or running regularly. Press ups are not the most effective at hypertrophy training, but excellent at muscular endurance training, making them a great exercise for those looking to resistance train their upper body while running often. Females and many males also struggle to perform full press ups, make sure you selecting the exercise that is appropriate to your ability, have a look through our horizontal press library to find regressions for the press up.

Pull Ups and pull up regressions are a great way to improve the strength in both your back and arms and can be very beneficial. Most individuals who a new to resistance training will find traditional pull ups very challenging so ensure you have a look through our vertical pull movement library where you will find a variety of regressions (and progressions for those who are advanced).

The half kneeling DB Press is a great unilateral vertical press exercise that runners can use to improve the strength of their shoulders whilst engaging their core musculature. Remember to not rotate the torso to gain momentum for the repetitions, all the force should come from the muscles in the shoulders.

Sample Upperbody Circuit for Runners

Complete 3 rounds

1. Bench Press

Complete 4 repetitions

2. Pull Up

Complete 8 repetitions

3. Half Kneeling DB Press

Complete 12 repetitions

References

  • Westcott, W.L. (2012) ‘Resistance training is medicine’, Current Sports Medicine Reports , 11(4), pp. 209–216. doi:10.1249/jsr.0b013e31825dabb8.
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    This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.

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