Get the most out of your training through these upper body exercises
I don’t focus on training muscles specifically, but rather on training and improving movement patterns. That’s why I love incorporating “full-body,” compound exercises like get-ups (TGU’s), crawling variations, and jumping drills, just to name a few. Which isn’t to say that I don’t separate exercises out based on their muscle-area emphasis, because I do. I’m big on “templates” and “categories,” but love having a menu of movements to “plug & play” with.
The templates are forever evolving, but there are main “categories,” or movement patterns, which have been the foundation of my routines for years. They include:
1. Lower Body
2. Upper Body
3. Torso Training
5. Extra - pre-hab movements that include activation, mobility, and stability drills
Here we’ll focus on the upper body movements I typically select from. These are split into pushes (anterior) and pulls (posterior), and of those two categories, there are 2 additional subcategories - horizontal and vertical.
I only use this exercise with certain athletes, for if you’ve shoulder impingement issues, leave the overhead shoulder press off your program until the problem heals. For those I do use it with, I prefer dumbbells or kettlebells and a neutral-grip hand position, as it’s the most shoulder friendly setup. Variations of this exercise can be part of a full-body compound movement, such as the ‘clean & press’.
Med Ball Throws
A plyometric variation of a push press exercise, I like using these to work on full body power development. To get the ball as high and as far as possible demands your lower body and upper body working in unison.
My favorite vertical pushing movement is the handstand pushup. It’s an advanced movement, and there are plenty of modifications when it comes to handstands. Here’s an article showing a few handstand variations.
Chest Press Variations
Like the shoulder press, this is another exercise I use with caution. I do use the bar for this exercise on occasion and instead prefer the dumbbell variation, as it’s the more joint-friendly option for the shoulder, elbow, and wrist.
My favorite horizontal pushing movement out there. They truly incorporate the whole body when done correctly, and there are literally hundreds of pushup variations. My favorite cues include keeping a neutral spine, your hands turned out about 20 degrees, and the mental image of “dialing out the floor” during your ascent. For the MMA athletes I work with, the ‘pushup w/sit-out’ and the ‘spider-man pushup’ are consistent go-to’s.
Med Ball Throws
From a supine position, this is a great exercise for developing upper body explosiveness while on your back. I like to couple them with a heavy dumbbell chest press to really challenge the anterior chain of the upper body.
Could be a horizontal/vertical hybrid exercise depending on your body position, but dips are another great bodyweight exercise to strengthen the chest, shoulders, and triceps. The best part is, you can do these at most outdoor parks or beaches.
I pull more than push with all of my clients, as most, due to their daily activities, have front side tightness and back side weakness. To combat the forward flexion your body is in all day (desk, car, dinner table, etc), include these pulling movements:
If I had to choose one upper body strength training exercise to do for the rest of my life, the pull-up wins, hands down. From the waist up, there isn’t an exercise with more “bang for its buck.” There are, of course, plenty of pull-up modifications and variations, so here’s a clip showing a few of my favorite ones.
My “pulldown” variation of choice is the heavy rope pulldown, which is included in the clip below. They’ll help with hand speed, pulling strength and endurance, as well as grip strength.
SkiErg - The SkiErg machine is one I use with my MMA athletes often for full-body pulling endurance. It’s a great conditioning tool, particularly at the end of the workout as a “finisher”.
Bonus #1: Med Ball Slam
Most people may not view the medicine ball slam as a vertical pulling exercise, but if you use your lats and “pull” the ball down from the top position as you go into the explosive slam to the ground, it absolutely is. The video clip will provide the visual.
Bonus #2: Superband Snapdowns
This is a variation I use primarily with my MMA athletes, as it’s somewhat similar to pulling an opponent towards you or the ground. Using the band is a great way to explode and really “snap” the movement.
Using a barbell or pair of dumbbells, this is a great way to work the entire posterior chain, both upper and lower body. While it is an upper-body back exercise, I like to maintain a hip hinge position to engage the hamstrings, glutes, and erectors.
Unilateral exercises aren’t just for the lower body. One-arm dumbbell rows are great for developing arm and back strength, as well as core rotary stability.
The two tools I use the most are the TRX suspension trainer, and a heavy rope. The TRX allows you to gauge the intensity by adjusting your foot position, and the rope is a great way to ramp up the grip strength intensity. Should you have a group, a good old tug-of-war competition is an underrated challenge, both beneficial and fun.
There are thousands of upper body exercises to choose from, but these are my “go to” movements and ones I feel provide real value. If you’re looking to change things up, or just need a new upper body exercise, well select from this list and get pulling…or pushing.