It’s obvious that in order to be a strong rider, you need to strengthen your core and your legs. But what about upper body? It seems like this is an area that riders–and women generally–tend to neglect in their fitness routine.
I’ve found, mostly by accident, that a strong upper body improves my riding in so many ways. I would go to the gym and do a bunch of lower body exercises: running, squats, cycling, and all the thigh-oriented weight machines. Those have all done great things for me and I’ll touch on them in another post. But I realized that if I was going to be all-over fit, I had to target the rest of my body too. My original goal was to lose some weight and to look a bit more toned. The rationale was that muscle burns more calories so putting more muscle everywhere on my body that I could would speed up the burn.
I think a lot of women avoid the upper body weights area at the gym for two reasons: 1) not wanting to look like a dude and 2) dudes. To address the first, I’ll say this: you won’t. Unless you’re taking steroids (which, just don’t) then your feminine form is safe; lifting even heavy weights is not going to make your arms muscled like a man’s. As for the second, it’s true that the free weights area is an especially testosteroney zone in the gym. For some reason the guys are all really hyped up over there about each other and there’s a whole lot of posturing going on that only gets worse when a girl is thrown into the mix. At first it really put me off, but I’ve learned to just ignore it and laugh about it in my head. I’ve found that the weights machines are a little less fraught and seem to have a more reasonable male-to-female demographic if that makes you more comfortable. Plus, if you’re just starting out, one benefit of the machines as opposed to free weights is that your movements are constrained and guided by the machine and you might be less likely to hurt yourself overextending your range of motion.
It might be tempting to go for the more simple-looking machines that target the familiar small muscle groups like the biceps and the triceps, but we’re going for more than just toned arms here. The goal here is to strengthen the chest and the back for better equitation posture, better airflow, and more control of your horse. Also, most of the machines that target these bigger muscle groups also work the smaller secondary ones as well, so you’ll still end up with nicely toned arms.
Historically, I have had pretty much zero upper body strength. On top of that, the tone I do have is completely lopsided; since it comes mostly from pitching softball for nearly a decade, I have this disproportionate right bicep that looks really big compared to the left one, but which really provides no strength since none of the other supporting muscles are strong. I can do zero unassisted pull-ups at this time. I can do a decent amount of push-ups (20-30) if I am balancing on my knees, but can barely do any (maybe 3-5 on a good day) if I’m in full plank/push-up position. My back is a particular weak spot, having hunched over a desk forever. So there’s a lot of work that can be done.
My approach has just been to browse through the machines and keep trying new ones that look interesting. There’s a little diagram on each one that shows which muscles it targets and a few instructions on setting it up to your size. I make a guess about how much weight I think I can lift (sometimes based on checking out whoever used it before me) and make adjustments if necessary. I lift the heaviest amount of weight I can handle for 6-8 reps and do three sets of that. I used to do the opposite, putting the weight relatively low and doing a lot of reps because I thought I was going for tone and that’s the way most women go about it. But I’m going for strength and since I’ve started doing it this way I’ve gotten much better results.
Variety is a good thing here; before I had just a couple of machines that I was comfortable with and stuck to those but it’s important to branch out. I want my whole upper body to be shored up with muscle so that when I sit up tall in the saddle, it’s like a framework that already exists and I don’t spend mental and physical energy holding myself up all the time. I noticed a difference right away in my lessons. My posture was much more upright, my shoulder blades much more supple and able to support and open up my chest. My mid-back was much more still; I didn’t get pulled forward as easily by my mount tugging on the reins or being heavy on the forehand and I didn’t rock so much in the saddle at the canter.
So I keep trying as many of the different machines as possible to get an all-around strength. It’s important for creating that balance and harmony among the whole muscular system; you don’t want one thing to be really strong and another part of be really weak because it will pull you out of whack compensating for that. A good tip my boyfriend told me was that if you work a muscle by pulling, then you should also do the opposite motion and work it by pushing. (Think of the thigh adductor and abductor machines, aka “the inny and the outy” in my nonsensetalk language; the one where you use your inner thighs to push the pads between your knees together and the other one where you use your outer thighs to push the pads between your knees apart.)
That being said, here are a few of my favorite upper body machines specifically for building strength for riding:
1) Chest Press: This is the one where you sit and use the handles at chest height to push out until your arms are extended; it’s basically like a seated push-up. This has made the biggest difference in my posture of any exercise I’ve done. Opening and lifting the chest is one of the most important visual components of having perfect-looking equitation but there are a lot of practical reasons for that. Firstly, you can breathe a lot easier, giving you much more stamina for keeping that slowpoke horse from breaking or having enough air to get you through that long course. Second, it gives you better balance in the saddle, reinforcing that line we’re supposed to keep from shoulder to knee to ankle. If your chest is caved in and your back is rounded that throws the weight of your head and neck forward and down and limits the effectiveness of your seat. Thirdly, what follows naturally from having better balance in the saddle is your horse having better balance and you having more control. When you sit up with your chest open, your head and your hands come up and that brings your horse’s motion up as well. With an open chest you have so much more strength for sitting up to give your horse half halts to gain a little control, to enact smooth downward transitions and stop the horse completely, or even to stay on if he decides to buck. Finally, a strong chest will help you keep yourself lifted in jumping position so you don’t collapse on your horse’s neck on the landing. An added bonus of the chest press is that it works the triceps as well which will help you to pull back from the elbow on those reins. Another machine that also works the chest and triceps in a slightly different area is the Chest Fly, I like that one a lot, too.
2) Mid-row: This is the balancing movement to the chest press, working the middle of your back just below the shoulder blades. This will help your posture in all the ways described above, working in concert with your chest muscles. Sometimes I do the weight machine with this motion and sometimes I switch it up and do the rowing machine that simulates a row boat, where you put your feet in the stirrups and push with your legs while pulling on the row bar. That one is good because it also works your legs and adds a cardio component, but the resistance is lower than you can get by using the weight machine.
3) Lat pulldown: This works more of the upper shoulder blades and also the muscles down your spine to your spinal erectors. It will help create that framework I talked about earlier of holding up your entire upper body. It also works your biceps, which is a good counterpart to the tricep strengthening of the chest machines.
Finally, since this was an area where I’ve felt especially weak, I’m incorporating a daily challenge at home to really push myself. I’m doing this 30 Day Plank Challenge. To really get results quickly, I’m not only doing the one shown in the picture where you rest on your forearms; each day I’m also doing a full plank with arms extended and a full side plank on each arm. This is great because it not only boosts your upper body strength, but works your entire core.
If you’re looking to increase your strength as a rider, don’t neglect your upper body! In equitation there are so many things to keep track of in your own position in addition to controlling the unpredictable 2,000 pounds beneath you. The only way I’ve found over the years to keep it all together is for some things to become second nature and drop from my immediate consciousness to free up space for what’s going on in the moment. I call this “dropping below the line.” Theoretically, it would be ideal for all considerations of position to be below that line and for perfect equitation to be instinctual. For years now, my upper body has been “above the line,” a constant focus and something my trainer often has to remind me of. Strengthening these previously-neglected muscles and creating a framework for my upper body has allowed me to drop that part of my position below the line of consciousness and frees me up to become a better, more present rider.