6 Upper-Body Exercises to Help Make You Faster

Understand how training upper-body mobility can help athletes run faster.

Running as a sport is different than running as part of a sport. It's the difference of unhindered straightaway running compared to multiple directional changes while attacking or defending.

It follows that athletes need more movement options than pure runners. Coaches intuitively understand this need, but we often miss the mark with regard to the upper body's contribution to multi-directional speed.

The trunk is central to movement efficiency, yet often forgotten outside of some ab training at the end of a workout. Remember the lungs are there to hold air and create pressure. Pressurized air can lift a car or stop a train. Few are aware how it can boost performance. You know the importance of leg strength, leg endurance and cardiovascular power for running. If you learn to manage air, you'll decelerate and accelerate faster.

Here are three challenges to overcome with regard to upper-body training slowing you down:

  • Many coaches still train it separately from the lower body.
  • Coaches and athletes focus on the big lifts that make us strong, but not necessarily athletic.
  • Multi-directional training isn't just for the lower body.

Next, I'll show you how to train the upper body like an athlete. Continue crushing the big weights as needed; this article isn't an exemption from that. However, add these movements so you or your athletes can express strength when you compete.

Here's how I approach accessory work for the upper body.

Step 1: Front to Back Control First

Most athletes are a bit extended. As you can see, this creates a nice "S" curve through the spine which shuts down the abdominals. We refer to this as an "energy leak." An energy leak is when you've got the horsepower, but aren't able to demonstrate it because inefficiency dampens your output. This could also lead to premature fatigue, decreased speed or inappropriate loading of tissues.

DB Bench Press with Reach

I used to be adamant about planting the feet on the floor during Bench Press. My thinking has changed a little bit.

First, lie on a bench and bring your feet to the bench. This relaxes your low back and allows the hips to rotate back under you which softens the excessive curvature of the low back.

The reach at the top (that little extra) pulls the rib cage back and squares it up to the hips.

When the rib cage is stacked on top of the hips we create a solid canister through the midsection. This "stacked" canister is the first domino.

Down Dog to Push-Up

This move echoes the DB Bench Press except your shoulder blades can move freely by not being pinned to a bench. Add in the active core from holding your body straight and this move is a slam dunk.

You can see I cheat the reach by rounding though my mid back. Put your emphasis on the reach and the tempo. No matter how strong your bench is, this is challenging when done correctly.

Step 2: Lean Left, Lean Right

When you or your athletes make a directional cut, one side will bend to engage the abs. Without integrating the upper and lower body there will be a gap in performance. Here is a drill to get you started.

The goal is to control the front-to-back position first, then integrate the side-to-side movement.

Low Box Alternating Pulldown

Set this up with your hips below parallel and your heels close, but still touching the ground. Start with a big exhale so your rib cage drops and settles over your hips. Now you can pull down one arm at a time until you slightly bend (without exaggerating).

You'll feel the side of your core and your back muscles. This is an entry-level exercise for multi-directional movement. It also sets the stage for core position during Chin-Ups and Pull-Ups.

Low-to-High Step-Up with Cross-Connect

Admittedly, this has more emphasis on the lower body. It's included here because it showcases how the upper and lower body integrates into multi-directional movement. One leg is responsible for decelerating and reaccelerating while the upper extremity bends and twists to create pressure that aids in the change of direction.

You can train this as a strength exercise by loading with weight vests or as supplemental bodyweight conditioning for 10-20 minutes straight.

Step 3: Rotation

In breakaway speed the trunk rotates side-to-side. Without rotation, you'll move like a Lego man. There's debate about how much rotation is necessary during a sprint. Few sports involve breakaway sprinting. Most team sports involve several changes of direction and the maintaining the ability to rotate is necessary.

Tall Kneeling Alternating Landmine Press

The goal here is front-to-back control with movement occurring only from the belly button up. I teach my athletes to hold their hips in position reaching side-to-side. You'll notice the logo on my shirt rotates toward and away from the screen.

Your form will break down quickly if this gets too heavy. It is an opportunity to add extra volume for your or your athletes while reinforcing the foundation for athletic movement.

Quadruped Row

This exercise is best described as a reach and a row. The down arm is as active as the rowing arm. The same rules apply here: Find the correct ab position first, then push into the box as you row.

Bias the weight slightly toward the hand. The down arm should try to push through the box. This small twist on the Row has been very effective for our athletes who need stronger cores.

Closing Thoughts

Athletes need strength in basic exercises. However, I'd be remiss not to point out that going Beast Mode in the main lifts (Bench Presses, Pull-Ups, etc) can promote a stiff and extended posture. A small dose of these exercises, when coached well, replicates the actions of the upper body during athletic movement. This enhances the results of a great lower-body speed development program.