If you play an intermittent sport (soccer, lacrosse, rugby) you probably find it tough to improve your conditioning during the season. All of the impacts and running during games beats you up, and you end up feeling run down by the end of the season. Intense lower body resistance sessions, and any conditioning that involves running only serve to increase the residual fatigue in your legs. This is a challenge we are facing at SPARTA right now, as we help train FC Gold Pride (Women's Professional Soccer) during their current season. Fortunately the solution is fairly simple. Upper body resistance training is a great way to improve cardiovascular endurance, especially with female athletes.
The cardiovascular benefits of resistance training are well proven. After heart attacks, many patients are assigned to resistance training programs to not only gain strength, but to improve and restore cardiac output and endurance. Athletes, especially females, can also use resistance exercise to improve cardiac output. Because of their lack of testosterone, females generally have less upper body strength than their male counterparts. Increasing strength in upper extremity muscles will increase the metabolic demand of these muscles (meaning they will do more work and need more blood and oxygen). If you add a strong upper body to an already strong lower body, you will increase your over-all metabolic demand (simply put, your body is capable of more work). Increasing the overall metabolic demand of all your muscles increases your fitness, because your body is now capable of doing more work. These fitness gains are universal, and even have a positive effect while your body is at rest.
When FC Gold Pride trains at SPARTA the day after their matches, their work-out focuses on building upper body strength, and promoting lower body flexibility (for recovery). An entire second training day is devoted to building even more upper body strength. During their strenuous season, the last thing these players need is to have their legs get any more beat up.
Here are some things to consider when using upper body movements to improve strength and fitness. Upper body muscles are smaller than lower body muscles, so their net metabolic cost is less. Focus on movements that involve multiple muscle groups to get the most bang for your buck. Pull-ups and chin-ups are great, as are most overhead presses and pulling or rowing exercises. These movements all involve muscles of the arms as well as back and abdominal area. Just try and avoid movements that isolate one muscle, or one small muscle group.