Written by: Alison Barr

Bulk up your biceps with targeted arm exercises.

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Alison Barr Photo

A rider’s arms are an area that can benefit from targeted strengthening. While horseback riding has great advantages for balance, posture and lower body strength, our arms don’t get the same degree of workout. After all, our goal is to have gentle, quiet hands. Using our arms in such a limited range of motion and with such little force can result in tight, weak and rigid muscles.

Riders do have other opportunities for strengthening, such as tacking up, grooming and mucking out. This builds strength, but does not specifically target riding muscles. Adding some cross-training can make sure your arms are strong, supple and fluid.

Arm Strength Benefits

The obvious benefit to having strong arms and shoulders is that your horse won’t be able to pull you out of position. This is clearly helpful when your horse spooks or bolts, but also impacts your ability to maintain good posture over time. Strong arms have the endurance to maintain this throughout an entire lesson or jump course, for example.
Arm strength also impacts how refined your rein aids are. Strong muscles can smoothly and gently apply or release force. Strong muscles are also more elastic, allowing your hands to follow the movement of your horse. This combines to allow your horse to feel subtle changes like small squeezes or flutters down the reins.

Targeted Exercises: The Row & W Raise

Exercise bands are great for arm and shoulder strengthening. They are inexpensive, portable and there are a wide variety of exercises you can perform. If you’re a gym-goer, the following exercises can also be performed on a cable machine.

These exercises have the same starting position. Begin with your hands in your typical riding position with the band secured in front of you at elbow height, like in photo 1. To secure the band, tie a knot in it and close it in a door.

Alternately, it can be wrapped around a bannister or fence rail. Make sure the band is well fastened and never frayed, so it won’t snap back at you.

For the row, simply pull your elbows backwards, like in photo 2. For the W raise, draw your arms up and back until your arms make a W, like in photo 3.

Optimize Your Arm Workout

  • Plan your workout. Aim for two to three minutes per exercise, two to three times per week.
  • Focus on shoulder stability. Watch out for your shoulders creeping up or forward, or your lower back arching. A mirror can help you check your posture.
  • Establish good control. Aim for slow, fluid movements as opposed to fast, jerky ones.
  • Target releases. Make sure you’re not just pulling, but also releasing with control.
  • Finish strong. Stop when your arms feel a little shaky or tired but before you lose form.

Other Cross-Training Activities

Specific exercises are great, but are not the only way to strengthen your arms for riding. A mixture of other activities can be more fun, which promotes healthy habits. In riding we generally stabilize our shoulder blades and create movement at our shoulder and elbow joints. These movement patterns are also used in activities like resistance training, paddling and racquet sports, which make them ideal for cross-training our arms. Swimming and rock climbing are also great, and give us an opportunity to work out the rest of our muscles at the same time. Don’t be afraid to try different things – the key is to incorporate activity into your normal routine.