5 Upper Body Exercises For Riders
Updated: Jul 29
Most of the emphasis, when it comes to Equestrian fitness & strength & the best exercises to be doing for all disciplines, is often put on the lower body & core. But upper body strength in riders is just as an important component to be the best & most effective you can be in the seat, whatever your discipline.
Shoulder stability is responsible for much of our movement in the saddle & how effective we can be with our aids & being able to maintain a strong upright posture. If you struggle with your hands bouncing up & down & watch a video of you riding back & think oh god, my hands are everywhere then this is for you!
To create the most harmonious picture between your upper body, your seat & your horse you need a strong core & midline to support your structure & a stable shoulder area. Our shoulder is extremely mobile & the shoulder joint moves in multiple ways but it also needs a great deal of stability through the girdle to give control & support the free movement of the arms. If the muscles around the shoulders become weak this can lead to instability through the girdle which long term could cause an injury. Shoulder injuries are not what you want to be experiencing especially things like rotator cuff problems as they can be very difficult to fully rehab & often the injury reoccurs.
When you're riding & exercising you should have the ability to use your arms independently to the torso & this is what creates a strong & stable hand position through the reins & gives a soft connection to your horse's mouth. In order to have that independence stability is key as without stability you won't be able to recruit your arms separately to the torso. Everything will all happen at once & you'll feel a bit stuck!
Often in riders, the muscles on the front of the body such as the pectorals (chest) & abdominal muscles become very tight & shortened which in turn can cause our shoulders & upper back to become hunched & lead us to struggle to maintain a good upright posture when riding. Your shoulders become rounded & tight & this can be down to a number of lifestyle-related reasons like how you sleep, stress & daily habits such as sitting at the laptop. Repetitive actions on the yard or through your working days & ultimately too much time seated whether that's at your desk or riding!
You've probably all been yelled out by your instructors "shoulders back" or "sit up" but if you don't have the strength there it doesn't matter how many times you're yelled at you're not going to physically be able to do this & support your own weight.
If you're constantly tipping forwards you're going to end up pushing your horse onto his forehand as your weight is going in front of his centre of mass causing him to be on the forehand. Some people will try to rectify this by excessively leaning back but then what happens is you put your lumbar spine (lower back) into excessive extension, end up behind the horse's movement which then you'll probably find ends up hurting your back even more as well as affecting his movement. Not good!
What you want to focus on is improving your mobility through your T spine & shoulders, boosting your shoulder stability as well strengthening your weak upper back & mid-back muscles. This will help to improve your posture alongside lots of thoracic extension & rotation work which will encourage your T spine to open as it's designed to & in turn create better mobility through your shoulders & upper back.
Poor posture is something that has to be worked on long term & is often lifestyle-related as I mentioned above. Constant rounded shoulders adds strain onto the muscle tissue & spine which in turn could lead to soreness or worse issues so you really want to improve this as much as possible & start working on it now!
If you only focus on strengthening the muscles on the front of your body you're going to exacerbate the problem as the muscles will become even tighter & shorter. So it's a longer balanced process of working on your mobility, increasing flexibility through the muscles & becoming stronger.
We want to focus on the muscles on both the back & front of the torso that are working when riding which are;
Trapezius muscles (lower & upper traps)
Start working these muscles using compound exercises like below as you'll end up hitting the smaller muscles, like your arms, along the way too giving you greater bang for buck! Here are some of my favourite movements!
1-Banded Pull Apart
Many of us will struggle to have the ability to physically retract the scapula & pull aparts really gets those scaps moving nicely! Having the ability to retract your scapula will strengthen the upper back muscles but it will also help to improve your posture, pull those shoulders back & get you more upright. Make sure you control the movement through the shoulders & don't end up using your lower back!
2-Wall Thoracic Rotations
It's no good only working on your strength. You need to make sure your joints have the ability to move through their full range of motion as they are intended to. If you do strength work & you're lacking mobility in any area at some point the body will compensate & try to create that movement from somewhere else which is never going to be a good thing! Such as having poor thoracic mobility, overhead pressing will be limited so likely is that your lower back will create the movement, ouch! I like these rotations on the wall as it stops you from cheating & turning through the hips really opening up your thoracic. Control your breathing & see if you can improve your movement over time.
3-SA Banded Rows
Any row variation is fantastic for strengthening the back muscles & teaching you to be able to engage the back muscles alongside the scapula. I'm a big fan of starting with the banded version, nailing your form then in time as you feel ready progressing to doing these with load/weight. Really think of pulling through your elbow & rowing the elbow to the pocket. Single arm ones are great as they will really highlight to you if 1 side is weaker than the other!
4-Deadbug Single Arm Reach
A bit of bang for buck here, working your core whilst your shoulder stability gets a good test. The whole purpose of this exercise is to be able to fully extend through each shoulder one at a time all the way to the ground whilst keeping your contact with the ribcage & upper back with the floor. Again doing 1 side at a time & working each limb independently is really going to highlight to you if mobility or stability is lacking on one side! A very simple but extremely effective movement! In time a DB could be added to the hands too to up the anti.
5-Banded Face Pull
Similar to the pull aparts the face pull focuses on having the ability to retract the scapulas & really works the upper back muscles. Face pulls help to really strengthen all of the big & little muscles surrounding the shoulder joint & can really help to build your back strength. If you spend alot of time doing pressing movements then you want to add in enough face pulls to keep your pull to push work balanced. They are brilliant too for helping improve your posture as often when you go to engage the scapulas your go to will be to let the shoulders creep up to the ears & that's what we want to avoid! Being able to work the upper back muscles whilst the shoulder stays still & stable. Imagine you're trying to squeeze a pencil between your shoulder blades.
Upper body work is just as important as your lower body & if you're riding stability or posture is something you want to work on improving then start adding in these exercises to your training routine!