Last time we went over the basics of building a progressive strength training program. This time we don’t have to cover as much of what that entails. What we will spend time is the good stuff: the exercise selection and the best way to develop your upper body!
There’s nothing different about your approach to a progressive program when training your upper body as opposed to your lower body, the only thing to pay attention to now is what muscle groups you are working and when. Your lower body primarily consists of, wait for it, your legs. They are such a large and powerful muscle group that they can be worked hard and often, as well as mostly falling under one category of exercises. Your legs employ motions that hinge the hips, extend the knees, and involve driving through the heel.
Your upper body however will fall into 2 muscle groups and a unique action for each. These are your chest/shoulders and your back. Respectively the actions these muscle groups perform are pushing and pulling. Other ancillary actions will include shoulder flexion and rotation but the majority of what you will be doing will fall under pushing or pulling.
So where should you start? Well just like with your lower body, you’ll want to review the results of your FMS Movement Screen and identify areas that need improvement regarding mobility/stability before lifting anything heavy. As much as we see knee injuries and hip instabilities here at OC Performance Center, the #1 joint i see people have issues with, is the shoulder. Both with previous injuries to both of mine, and multiple clients who suffer from instabilities and pain in the shoulders, I’ve decided the shoulder and respective rotator cuff deserves the most attention to injury prevention, perhaps tied in importance with your lower back. Either way you’ll find most issues arising with upper body work will stem from the shoulder.
The #1 exercise I can recommend that is always in your program to help iwth shoulder stability and mobility is the turkish get up. Both modified half get ups and the full movement will always help keep your shoulders happy and healthy, not to mention improve core strength and overall mobility. Simpler movements involve the open book stretch, kneeling T spine rotation, doorway stretches, side lying external rotation, resistance band Ws and Ys, and what I call the “strap stretch”. Position one arm at the bottom portion of the FMS shoulder mobility test, in your fist you’ll be holding the bottom of a strap, belt, towel, or item of similar length and ease of grip. The other arm is in front of you holding the other end, and you’ll gently pull the bottom arm up higher and higher. Try pulling as high as you can without pain 10-15 times for 5 seconds each time. For more shoulder mobility ideas check out this unique video here.
Now let’s get to the fun stuff. The actual strength programming. Just like last time you’ll want to vary your workload week to week, and about every 4-6 weeks start to change what exercises you train in a logical progression to meet your goals. For the sake of demonstration here, your goal is... TO GET STRONGER! Let’s begin.
Level 1 Exercises for the upper body
Pushing (we will be including rotator cuff and oblique movements here):
(you will want a spotter for lifting heavy when pushing)
Flat Barbell Bench Press: 3-8 sets of 3-5 reps
Low Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 2-3 sets of 10 reps
One Arm Dumbbell Push Press: 3-6 sets of 6 reps
Push Ups: 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps
Kneeling Cable External Rotation 3 sets of 12 reps
Side Lying External Rotation: 3 sets of 12 reps
Side Planks: 3 sets of 30 seconds each side
Seated Cable Row: 3-4 sets of 1- reps
Prone Trap Raise (alternately standing prone grip deltoid raises at 45 degree angle_ 3 sets of 12 reps
One Arm Dumbbell Row: 3-4 sets of 8 reps
Close Grip Chin Up (alternately reverse grip inverted row): 4 sets of 6 reps
Neutral Grip Lat Pull Down: 3 sets of 10 reps
Flat Barbell Bench Press: 5-10 sets of 3-10 reps (you’ll be focusing on pushing lighter weight for explosiveness and endurance)
Close Grip Bench Press: 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps
Elevated Handle Push Up: 3 sets of 10-15 reps
Incline Barbell Press: 5 sets of 5 reps
Flat Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Cable Backhands: 3 sets of 12 reps
Suspension Trainer Inverted Row: 3 sets of 12 reps
Bent Over Barbell Row: 5 sets of 5 reps
Weighted Chin Ups: 3-5 sets to failure
Head Supported Dumbbell Row: 3 sets of 5-8 reps
Standing Barbell Curl: 3 sets of 10 reps
Barbell Floor Press: 4 sets of 3-5 reps
Band Resisted or Weighted Push Up: 3-4 sets of 7-10 reps
Dumbbell Push Press: 3 sets of 5 reps
Speed Bench Press: 10 sets of 3 reps @50-60% of your one rep max
Behind the Neck Band Pull Apart: 3 sets of 12 reps
Landmine Press: 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps
Lying Dumbbell Tricep Extension: 2-3 sets of 10
Straight Arm Lat Pulldown: 3 sets of 12 reps
Close Grip Seated Cable Row: 3-5 sets of 4-7 reps
Reverse Grip Bent Over Barbell Row: 3-4 sets of 6 reps
High Rows/Face Pulls: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
One Arm Dumbbell Row From an Incline: 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps
Close Grip Decline Barbell Press: 4 sets of 5-8 reps
Close Grip Floor Press: 3-5 sets of 5 reps
Close Grip Push Up: 3 sets of 10 reps
Standing Barbell Overhead Press: 4-6 sets of 6-10 reps
One Arm Dumbbell Floor Press: 3 sets of 10 reps
Scapular Wall Slide: 3 sets of 12 reps
Pin Press (Barbell Bench Press done from a power rack where the bar stops on the spotter arms about 2-4 inches from your chest): Alternate heavy; 8-10 sets of 3 reps and light; 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps
Pull Ups: 3-5 sets to failure
Wide Grip Bent Over Barbell Rows: 6 sets of 5-8 reps
T Bar Rows: 4 sets of 6-10 reps
Cable Lawnmower Pulls: 3 sets of 12 reps
Neutral Grip Lat Pull Downs: 4 sets of 8 reps
One Arm Dumbbell Rows: 2-3 sets of 10 reps (these are lighter and ancillary here)
Standing Dumbbell Hammer Curls: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
(Side note; if you have access to a gym with lots of machines, a good chest supported rowing station for heavy sets of 5-8 and especially a chest supported T-Bar are great pulling motions to add to levels 2-4)
And there we have an idea for a sample upper body progressive strength training program. Remember this is to be used as a guide and template for you to learn from. This is not a universally perfect program. Everyone will have different strengths and weaknesses that need more attention than others.
Your program may need more pushing or arm isolation. You may have a previous injury that prevents some of these movements. You may not have access to certain equipment and need to modify many of the same movements with each progression. You may need help learning these exercises and want to enter a personal training program! No matter what you end up doing, remember you’re training to reach a goal. This way you will always keep progressing. If you lose sight of that, you’ll simply end up just… working out.
Happy lifting! Adam