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How to build upper body strength to improve your riding

Riders often approach me as a coach and their first request, nine times out of 10 is to improve core & lower body strength. Often your upper body strength gets forgotten.


Yes, your seat is the powerhouse of your movement in the saddle but if you neglect to train your upper body you will sooner or later come across imbalances and problems in your riding. We should be training to make you the best, most balanced & well-rounded athlete possible.


Making sure you are evenly balanced between your upper & lower body is essential when riding. Focusing on having a strong & stable shoulder girdle is hugely important; a strong shoulder girdle will give the appearance of a rider sitting quietly, with soft hands showing a beautiful picture of horse & rider in harmony.


If you have poor shoulder stability & mobility it can become very difficult to move with the horse in his movement. Sometimes this can end up to the rider blocking the horse's free movement & gait, leading to decreased performance & lower scores. Modern life can also impact this problem further with many riders working a sedentary job which can lead to poor posture with the appearance of rounded shoulders, not the picture you want to show to your dressage judge!


Working on your posture & shoulder stability within your training programme can really help to improve your balance & control in the saddle. It's never nice when the judge comments, "Hands need to be stiller" on your sheet!


Start by working on the posterior upper body muscles; your latissimus Dorsi (big wing-like muscle running down the back), trapezius, rhomboids & concentrate on building movement & strength around the shoulder blades. Concentrate on your mind-muscle connection as you perform the movements, really check in with yourself to see what muscles you feel working.


Begin with these 4 movements to help to achieve a more stable shoulder girdle & give a better appearance.


Helicopters- Mobility exercise to get your shoulders moving & open your range of movement, Start easy & over time see if you can improve your range of movement. Start with 8-12 repetitions 2 sets.


Shoulder W's- A fantastic mobility exercise to get your shoulders opening especially if you spend a lot of your day sitting. This movement combines external rotation with scapular rotation, recruiting the trapezius & posterior rotator cuff. You will really feel your shoulders working in these as the movement hits all angles! Start with 6-10 reps 2 sets max, just bodyweight.


Banded Pull Aparts- The pull-apart strengthens your upper back muscles (rear deltoids, traps & rhomboids) & the stabiliser muscles in your shoulder joint. Doing these will help improve your posture & increase your shoulder stability. A must-do exercise for all riders! Start with a light band and aim for 10-15 reps for 2 sets.


Plank Seesaws- Planks are a mainstay exercise to help improve posture. They strengthen your neck, back, chest, shoulders & work your core whilst strengthening your lower back if done with good form. For riders, dynamic planks are a real bang for your buck exercise! Aim to saw for 30 seconds to start with, maintaining a neutral spine position through the time and good posture. 2-3 sets to start & increase the time as your strength improves.



Try incorporating these exercises into your training week, twice a week over the next 4-6 weeks & you will start to see improvements in your position & shoulder strength. Be patient & consistent and you will become stronger.


You wouldn't expect your horse to improve his shoulder in overnight so don't expect yourself too either. Keep working away so you can be the best rider for your horse.


Katie x


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