Why Runners Need to Strengthen the Upper Back

Ashley Lauretta
by Ashley Lauretta
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Why Runners Need to Strengthen the Upper Back

It is easy to forget running is a total-body sport — especially when you are an hour into a run and approach a large hill and just feel your legs. When your legs are working hard, they sometimes draw all your focus. As runners, you know the importance of strength training, but you may be forgetting a key area: the upper back.

“We often forget, but the body is a unit; everything is connected,” notes Matt Whitehead, owner of Oregon Exercise Therapy, where he helps runners and non-runners alike restore their posture, eliminate pain and improve performance. “If our upper back or head is rounded forward, it is not only going to cause upper-back or neck soreness but can lead to lower-back, hip, knee or foot pain and injuries.”

Pain can easily trickle down the body, so developing upper-back strength can help reduce your risk of injury thanks to improving your posture. Here’s how to tell if your upper back is weak and some moves to help improve it.

WHY UPPER-BACK STRENGTH MATTERS

A strong core is often recommended for runners to support the upper body. While this is true, we tend to focus more on leg and core strength and neglect working the upper back. In addition to core strength, this helps keep your shoulders from slouching and supports your neck in an upright position — all essential to good running form.

“Proper upper-back strength will allow for an upright and stable torso, relaxed shoulders and a comfortable arm-swing motion,” shares Angie Spencer, RN, a running coach and owner at Marathon Training Academy. “This translates into less wasted motion and more energy.”

If you don’t have sufficient upper-back strength, it requires other parts of your body to pick up the slack. Because of this, if you are able to identify a weakness in the area, you may be able to alleviate upper-back, neck and shoulder pain.

“When your upper back, neck or shoulders are sore, it is usually because those muscles — the upper trapezius in particular — are overworking,” reveals Whitehead. “When your head and/or shoulders are rounded forward, it causes your upper trapezius to have to work extra hard to keep your body from falling further forward.”

HOW TO TELL IF YOUR UPPER BACK IS WEAK

One key indicator of upper-back weakness is, of course, pain. It is best to strengthen those muscles before you feel discomfort to prevent injury, however, if it is too late, you can take note of your posture to identify the correct strength moves to perform.

“Most runners, especially those with pain or injuries, have some upper-back rounding — known as kyphosis — along with rounded shoulders and forward head posture,” explains Whitehead. “We want to make sure any exercises we do for the upper back focus on improving posture along with strengthening the muscles of the upper back.”

Weak upper-back muscles often are the result of a sedentary lifestyle. The more time we spend on our daily commute and at a computer, the easier it is for our posture to suffer. That is why improving your upper-back strength and posture isn’t just important during training; it should be a priority year-round.

“The levator scapulae and the trapezius muscles of the upper back tend to suffer most when we lead a sedentary lifestyle,” confirms Spencer. “Many people sit at desks while working or gaze down at devices which can lead to poor posture because their neck and shoulders are slumped forward. Fixing our posture can start to strengthen these muscles which will pay off not only when we run but all the time.”

DO THESE MOVES

Whitehead put together a series of three moves that can be done anywhere to improve your upper-body posture and strength:

STANDING ELBOW CURLS

Stand against a wall with your feet pointed straight ahead. Keep your heels, hips, upper back and head against the wall. Make a fist and place your knuckles against your temples with your thumbs pointed down to the floor. Open your elbows wide so they are against the wall, then bring them together in front of your face.

STANDING OVERHEAD EXTENSION

Stand with your feet hip-width apart, pointing straight ahead. Interlace your fingers and reach your arms overhead, pressing your palms up to the ceiling. Gaze up toward your hands and keep your arms straight. Try to keep your arms directly overhead and do not lean back.

DOWNWARD DOG

Begin on the floor on your hands and knees so your shoulders are directly over your hands and your hips are directly over your knees. Spread your fingers wide, press firmly though your palms and tuck your toes under to lift your knees off the floor. Shift your hips back and up toward the ceiling and begin to straighten your legs (don’t lock your knees). Gently press your heels toward the floor so you feel a slight stretch in your calves. Hold for as long as comfortable.

THE WEIGHT TEST

To test the effectiveness, try this experiment: “Take your shoes off, stand in place with your eyes closed and feel the weight in your feet,” he instructs. “Notice if you have more weight in one foot than the other or more weight in your heels to toes or more weight on the inside or outside of your feet. Then do these three exercises and repeat the ‘weight test.’”

Whitehead reveals that as you are taking note of the results, if you feel more balanced in your feet, then you have improved your posture, which will translate to more efficient running.

About the Author

Ashley Lauretta
Ashley Lauretta

Ashley is a journalist based in Austin, Texas. She is the assistant editor at LAVA and her work appears in The Atlantic, ELLE, GOOD Sports, espnW, VICE Sports, Health, Men’s Journal, Women’s Running and more. Find her on Twitter at @ashley_lauretta.

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