Training

6 Exercises to Strengthen Your Shoulders For Better Running Form

Having balanced shoulder muscles sets the foundation for maintaining impeccable running posture.

Having balanced and functional shoulder muscles is important for maintaining good running mechanics. Training our postural muscles is essential for running faster and more efficiently, and reducing the risk of injury and fatigue. To prevent our shoulders from becoming hunched and contributing to bad posture, it’s important to train our back and its supporting muscles — our rhomboids, upper middle and lower trapezius, as well as our posterior deltoids and scapular muscles. Strengthening these muscles will reduce the symptoms of our shoulders being pulled forward, causing that rounded “hunch back” effect.

Why Are Hunched Shoulders Bad For Runners?

Hunched shoulders can cause an array of problems for runners. First, they can progressively damage our cardiovascular health. While running, your neck and shoulders should be relaxed and upright. Hunched shoulders tend to put a lot of pressure on our chest and respiratory system, making it harder to breathe and utilize oxygen during performance. 

Second, good posture promotes good arm swing. Good running form involves having your arms move parallel with your motion, forward and backward beside the body at the waistline, keeping them loose and roughly at a 90 degree angle. When your shoulders are hunched and rounded forward, however, your arms are more likely to be positioned in front of your chest. This results in your arms swinging in a criss cross motion (or laterally) across the vertical plain of your body. This wastes energy in sideways and torquing motions, and can impact how your core and posterior chain of muscles are aligned and activated. If your torso is extended too far forward it will affect your balance; expending more energy while you run and causing over-striding with your foot landing far in front of your body and braking. 

Upper Body Postural Exercises

Labeled human anatomy diagram of man's neck and back muscles from a posterior view on a white background.
Photo: Getty Images

The further your shoulders hunch, the more strain there is on the mid-back (thoracic spine). This can lead to poor t-spine mobility, which has damaging limitations when it comes to proper running technique. This impacts nerves that travel to the lungs and heart. It also causes our shoulders, lumbar spine, and the posterior muscles in the lower body to compensate for its lack of mobility, leading to further risk of injury while running. 

Let’s take a look at 6 exercises that can correct this issue and also target our back and its supporting muscles when maintaining good postural form while running. These exercises require minimal to no equipment and can be performed at home.

1) Band Pull-Aparts

Eccentric phase

Concentric phase

Why

These are great exercise for improving shoulder health and increasing upper back strength, and therefore ideal for combatting the problems of a desk-bound lifestyle or anyone suffering from rounded shoulder syndrome. The exercise primarily targets back muscles such as the rhomboids and trapezius and posterior deltoids. When your rhomboid and traps are developed, they help protect the thoracic spine (mid back) from bad posture. At the start of the concentric phase of the exercise, this workout initially targets your posterior delts and other assisting stabilizer muscles in the shoulder joints. This also helps to prevent your shoulders from slouching forward while running when strengthened. Towards the end of the concentric phase (when the band has fully been pulled apart) your rhomboids and mid trapezius will be engaged.

How

Start with an overhand grip, band out in front in line with the shoulders, elbows soft and pointing straight ahead. Keep the chest and back straight, core engaged. Retract the shoulder blades to lengthen the band, rather than using your arms to pull it apart. Keep the arms straight during the movement and don’t bend your elbows — this makes sure the target muscles stay engaged.

Using your scapula as your lever, keep your arms straight and slowly resist the pull of the band back together.

Quantity

75–100 reps, as many sets as required.

2) YTW’s

Male on ground with arms played out in Y position.
Y Position

Male on ground, belly down, with arms splayed out like airplane.
T Position

Male in grey on ground belly down arms in W pose.
W Position

Why

One of the key causes for poor posture in the general population is overactive upper traps and under active lower traps. Weak “lower traps” cause pain and irritation to radiate into our shoulders. This then leads to the urge to round our shoulders for relief. YTWs are a great exercise to target these muscles, with no equipment required.

How

Starting with the body in a prone position, lift the arms roughly an inch off the ground for the duration of the exercise. 

Bring the arms into a Y position, holding for 8-10 seconds. Repeat this for the letters T & W, trying to maintain a static hold in each position for 10 second. Repeat 3 times.

Quantity

3 x 10 second hold in Y-W-T positions

3) Y-Raises

Man doing Y Raises with arms forward.
Eccentric phase

Concentric phase

Why

This exercise focuses on strengthening the muscles around the shoulder blade or the scapula by targeting the lower traps and improving their ability to keep the shoulders down and back. Strengthening the scapular muscles helps to keep them retracted while running, which is important when performing on all types of terrain.

How

From a standing position, start with the arms out straight in front of the chest. Bring a slight bit of tension onto the band. Position the band either on the wrist or with an overhand grip. From there bring your arms into a Y shape overhead Fully extend in this position as far as you can and hold for 1/2 seconds. Slowly resist the eccentric movement when bringing your arms back to starting position.

Quantity

3 x 12 reps/ 60–90sec rest between sets. 

4) Shoulder Dislocations

3 phases of shoulder dislocations
Shoulder dislocations in 3 phases.

Why

These can be a game changer for anyone with poor overhead mobility. Shoulder dislocations provide a great stretch for the biceps, anterior delts and pecs while also building stability and strength in the rotator cuff. Big improvements can be seen in shoulder mobility and chest size in a short period of time for those who really struggle at the beginning. This is a great routine for training the opposite muscles of your back, scapula and posterior delts. Strengthening your rotator cuff is also key for injury prevention when running and maintaining a good stride.

How

From a standing position, place the band on your hip line with over hand grip. Initially hold the band at either end, making it as simple as possible to perform shoulder dislocates. Keeping your hands roughly shoulder width apart, extend the band directly over your head, until completely vertical. Keep the arms straight and don’t bend the elbows. To complete the phase, bring your arms behind you all the way to your lower back. Slowly repeat the same movement in reverse back to original position.

When comfortable, you can bring your hands closer together on band to increase difficulty of exercise.

Quantity

40–50 reps.

5) Seated Band Rows

Seated band rows.
Eccentric phase (left); Concentric phase (right)

Why

Great low-risk exercise for building width and depth to the back. Set up in an upright position, meaning more focus on strengthening your scapulae than your lower back. This is a great isolation exercise to maximize results on strengthening the muscles in the rhomboids and posterior delts while maintaining a neutral spine position while seated.

How

Sitting on the floor, place a band around the soles of your feet, holding onto the ends with either hand. Keep the torso upright, core engaged, and pull your shoulders back slightly. Place your hands in a neutral grip position. From there, pull the elbows back to the midline of the body, keep them closely tucked into your sides. Let your elbows go past your body to engage the target muscles of the exercise. Hold for a second, before slowly resisting the pull back to the starting position.

Quantity

4 x 12/ 90 sec rest between sets.

6) Face Pulls

Face Pulls in two phases.
Eccentric phase (left); Concentric phase (right)

Why

Face pulls are a great exercise for working the rear delts, trapezius and upper back muscles, ones which are often neglected and all of which play a pivotal role in good posture and an efficient running technique. Often performed while seated, there are added benefits to performing while standing. While keeping good posture and resisting the forward tension during repetitions, the exercise also helps to strengthen the core and lower back while maintaining correct stance. A well rounded exercise for endurance athletes.

How

From a standing position, start with the arms out straight in front of the chest, tiny bend in elbows. Holding the band, stand back until you get a slight bit of tension during the relaxed phase. Position the band with an overhand grip. Keep the elbows up high and wide, pull the shoulder blades together as you pull the band towards your face. Slowly resist the pull back to the starting position.

Quantity

3 x 15/ 60–90 sec rest between sets. 

Ben Walker is an experienced personal trainer at Anywhere Fitness. He and Eoin Hannigan are a team of fitness specialists from Dublin that have a passion for sport specific training, injury prevention, and endurance sports. Training you anywhere, anytime at home, online or the local gym.