When people think of endurance sports like biking or running, they often imagine that leg muscles do most of this work. While it is true that the legs are the power behind the propulsion, neglecting the upper body in endurance sports is a recipe for disaster. Having a strong core and upper-body strength drives added stability, balance, and energy to the legs, enabling more efficient movement and injury prevention.
As an endurance triathlete, I’m a big fan of body-weight exercises with minimal equipment that you can do anywhere. So, here are my top pics for the best four core upper-body exercises that don’t require a gym.
There is a reason that this is a test in the US armed forces to determine overall strength; this exercise utilizes many important muscle groups in the entire upper portion of the body. Pull ups work the truck, or latissimus dorsi muscles. However, you will also feel it in your arms, shoulders, abdominal muscles, pelvic floor, hands and forearms. These are all muscles that will help stabilize your form and power you through endurance sports. If you are new to this, you may want to use a pull-up assist machine or have a spotter hold your feet to take some weight off your arms. However, if you are able to easily knock out 20 reps, more weight can be added to a belt around your waist to increase the intensity. You can also switch to one-arm pull ups or muscle ups (moving from a pull up position to an above-the bar dip) for an extra challenge.
- Grab the bar with your hands facing forward about shoulder-width apart.
- Bring your torso back around 30 degrees. You do this by sticking your chest out and curving your lower back slightly.
- Bring your torso up so the bar touches your chest while exhaling by drawing your shoulders and upper arms down and back.
- After holding the position for a second, inhale and slowly lower your body back to the starting position with your arms fully extended.
- Do as many reps as you can with proper form before you fatigue the muscle, or you can do reps in sets based on your training plan.
This exercise mainly works your triceps, but your chest and shoulders also pitch in. Again, if you are new to dips, you can use a machine to assist you at the gym, or have a spotter hold your legs. Weight belts can also be added for the more advanced candidate. Strong arms, shoulders, and chest help to support you with breathing economy and efficiency in movement on any endurance sport you encounter.
- To start, hold your body up above the bars with your arms nearly locked.
- Keep your elbows close to the body as you inhale while slowly lowering your torso down to a 90-degree angle between the upper arm and forearm.
- Exhale as you push your body back to the starting position using your triceps.
- Repeat for the planned set of reps.
Planks should be in every endurance athlete’s training plan. They are a type of isometric exercise that requires your muscles to stabilize against resistance (gravity). Planks are often used for injury rehabilitation and conditioning. However, they can also help you push through training plateaus and transfer energy between your upper and lower body when performing endurance sports. Planks target your rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis, or your outer and inner abdominals. These muscles stabilize your core during the exercise. However, you will feel this workout throughout almost every muscle group. While some trainers tell you to hold the plank as long as you can before collapsing, I am of the opinion that once proper form is lost, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. Therefore, if your hips start to sag or arms shake after eight seconds, then do six reps of eight-second planks followed by two seconds rest for total of one minute. This way, you keep proper form the entire time and create more of an interval training scenario. As you progress, you can hold the planks longer. However, I believe shorter planks performed correctly with multiple repetitions give you better results than poor planks held for a longer timeframe.
- Lie on the mat on your stomach. Get into a pushup position, except you put your forearms on the ground instead of your hands. Keep your elbows under your shoulders.
- Squeeze the glutes and tighten the abdominals too keep your entire body straight and parallel to the mat. Keep your neck and spine neutral by keeping your eyes down.
- Hold the position for as long as you can maintain proper form or do specific intervals.
Push-Ups are another litmus test of muscular endurance prized by the military and athletes. Like the plank, they can be performed anywhere with no equipment required. Push-ups utilize the chest, shoulders, triceps, smaller muscles of the upper back, and the core, conditioning them to support the endurance athlete in all disciplines with proper posture and power transference. The exercise ranges from the easiest version performed on the knees to advanced moves utilizing medicine balls, weights, and leg movements.
- Lie on the ground face down and then bring your torso up with extended arms. Your hands should be about three feet apart.
- Lower yourself down to where your chest almost touches the floor while you inhale.
- Then, press your body back up while squeezing your chest. Pause at the top, then repeat for as many repetitions as you can do with proper form.
Don’t get me wrong, I also utilize weights in the gym, but these four body-weight exercises are my favorite for building overall core and upper-body endurance no matter where I am. There is a reason they have been a part of fitness work for decades and aren’t just the latest rage the flashy new fitness craze being marketed on the Home Shopping Network.
They are also no-excuse exercises. They are simple to do anywhere. Even if you aren’t a member of a gym, you can often find an outdoor playground with equipment to perform the pull ups and dips and work it into a training run or bike route. You can also perform planks and push-ups in between swimming sets or after a hard bike session or tempo run. When you add these disciplines safely into your workouts, you will notice your performance power increase and your risk of injury drop. While legs may be the wheels of most endurance sports, your engine is your core. Focusing on your upper body and core muscle endurance will translate to faster times in races and stronger, longer training sessions.