The Athletic Rider: Upper Body Strength

Personal trainer/equestrian Leah Hinnefeld’s Rider Fitness Strength Series continues with Part II, focusing on upper body strength.


Upper body strength is an essential part of a well-rounded rider fitness program. Unfortunately many riders ignore the value of upper body strength, mistakenly thinking it would only be necessary to attempt to “man-handle” or be harsh with a horse.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

Upper body strength will actually create the posture and control needed to make riding appear fluid and effortless. Without the correct development and balance of chest and back muscles a rider can appear slouched. Without correct development of the shoulders, a rider can appear stooped. Ignoring arm strength can lead to lack of finesse with rein aides and just present all around “sloppy body” appearance.

Poor posture in the rider will more often than not lead to poor performance in the horse. A rider’s lack of upper body control can result in a downed rail in the jump-off, a horse stumble in the dressage arena or a slipped turn in a barrel race. A rider’s poor posture can create a safety issue in both the green horse and the seasoned campaign horse. A rider’s poor posture can create confusion, frustration and even a poor attitude in the best-hearted of horses.

Do I have your attention? I thought I might!

Now that we agree that upper body strength counts, what is the most effective and safest way to train for it? As with all training, you want a program that is divided into phases or periods of training. As discussed in Part 1 of this strength series, a well designed training plan will start with an emphasis on muscular stabilization, move into a phase to develop muscular endurance/strength and in some cases finish with a phase that focuses on power.

Below are examples of exercises you may find in each phase of upper body training:

Overhead Press on a Stability Ball. Whenever you make your body “unstable”, you work on stabilization. In other words, when you have to try to balance while doing an exercise, it increases your stability. Examples of tools you can use to help develop stabilization include a swiss ball, a Bosu® ball or even just standing on one leg! I would not, however, recommend using your horse as a weight bench. *grin*

Overhead Press Ball

Once you have developed stability, the next phase focuses on developing muscular endurance and overall strength. In this phase, you will be increasing the weight you lift so you will want a solid bench or two feet on the ground.

Wide Bent Over Row-Bench

For most riders, the first two phases will be sufficient to develop the strength needed to be feel safe and solid in the saddle. Rider with high performance goals should consider including a power phase in the training rotation. A power phase trains the body to react and respond to the speed and force commonly found in every day life and high performance sports. If you are rider involved with an aspect of riding that includes quick turns, sliding stops or any kind of speed, you will certainly want to consider incorporation a power phase in your rider fitness program.

Incline Power Push-Up

A well designed rider fitness program that focuses on all body parts and all aspects of training is the best solution to allow each rider and horse to achieve the best performance. Please contact The Athletic Rider if you would be interested in learning more about our Rider Fitness and Nutrition Solutions.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *