Ever been at the gym and stuck for what upper body exercise you should be doing? What will have the most benefit? Well that depends on what you are trying to achieve. Regardless we think there are six upper body strength exercises everyone should include in their training routine.
Where does strength really come from?
The answer is relatively complex, but we’ll help to make it simple. Here is a formula to follow if you are looking to get strong: lift weights that feel heavy to you across your entire body with a high frequency. Keep the reps low for compound lifts (more on these below) and make sure you recover well between lifting sessions.
Strength does not simply come from muscles; there is a complex neural relationship your body uses to release strength. It involves the brain, neurons and nerves. Muscles are important, of course, but if we simply build muscle and avoid the other areas, we often fall short of increasing strength. The muscle-bound individuals in your gym are not necessarily ‘strong’. They may have high levels of muscle, but that does not equal strength.
The trick to our six upper body strength exercises
“If you’re trying to increase strength — whether you’re Joe Shmoe, a weekend warrior, a gym rat or an athlete — training with high loads is going to result in greater strength adaptations,” said Nathaniel Jenkins, a professor of exercise physiology at Oklahoma State University. In a 2017 study, he proved this with 26 men; you can read about it here.
Our upper body has several major movements available; we can push, pull and rotate. Pushes and pulls happen both vertically and horizontally, whilst rotation occurs at all of our major joints. Still, we predominantly associate it with core work.
6 upper body strength exercises to try today
This movement could save your life, quite literally. Imagine you’re out for a walk, and suddenly the ground disappears beneath your feet. You manage to grab onto a pipe, and you stop the sudden movement. Now what? Could you pull your body to safety?! If you have ever watched an action movie, there is usually a scene where the hero is hanging from a clifftop or swinging from a helicopter and holding on to save their life; this might be you one day!
The bad news about Pull Ups is they are hard to do. However, there are several options for building up your expertise. Banded pulldowns/lat pulldowns are a great option. Focus on keeping your shoulder blades locked down and bringing your elbows down and back; squeeze at the bottom of each rep as if you’re trying to crack an egg under your armpits. Your hands must come down lower than you think – nipple line is a good goal.
Grab a Barbell and rest it on the front of your shoulders underneath your throat. With arms just wider than shoulder width, press the bar overhead, pulling your chin out of the way and keeping a straight path for the bar moving directly overhead.
This lift is the best pushing exercise you can do. It is just as functional as a Pull UpThis standing exercise will not only strengthen your deltoids and triceps, it will also help develop a strong set of glutes and build up your core. Your abs and obliques work overtime when holding something above your head. Ensure you are not overarching through your back which can create too much tension in your lumbar spine; something we want to avoid. If you are unsure about technique, simply ask one of our friendly Personal Trainers for some guidance.
Lying chest down on an Inclined Bench (45* angle) pull two Dumbbells up towards your rib cage following the same prompts from the Pull Up section. Crack the eggs underneath your armpits and keep those elbows in tight. This movement is a horizontal pull and will complement your Pull Up efforts like nothing else. It will also help to reset the tight and weak muscles we create through sitting for too long in a slouched position. Win-win.
The famous Bench Press gets a little tweak here with the substitution of a Barbell in favour of Dumbbells. A golden nugget I picked up from a Strength Training guru was to imagine you are pushing yourself away from the Dumbbells (and Barbell too). This ends up with you driving your back into the bench aiding you to push with more of your body and not just use your arms; exerting more force.
Why Dumbbells and not a Barbell when doing this upper body strength exercise?
When we push and pull with both arms on a single object, our brains naturally choose to push harder with the dominant side. If you have any imbalances between right and left this can go unchecked when simply training with Barbells or Machines. Using Dumbbells ensures that you are working both sides independently. For an even more challenging workout, you might want to try alternating arms when you press, or even try one arm for the given number of reps then the other (Single Arm Bench Press). As this is a compound movement, you can still lift some heavy weights; the deltoids and triceps work hard to support the pecs on any horizontal push.
This one is a complex one, but if there is a single new movement you should learn this year, it is this one. Your core and shoulders will receive a huge amount of strength gains from the Turkish Get Up. It also provides the added benefit of increased mobility through the hips and a coordination challenge for the brain. You may feel like a circus performer giving this one a try, but it will be worth it. This is the fifth of our 6 upper body strength exercises.
Controversial amongst strength enthusiasts, but the Bicep Curl has to be mentioned with upper body strength. If you’ve been paying attention, you will realise it is an isolation exercise (only working the Biceps), but if you want more pull-ups and to feel comfortable with your arms out this summer, you need to be doing Barbell Bicep Curls. One of the struggles people have with Pull Up performance is a weakness in their biceps. Whilst any pulling movement will help to strengthen them, it also makes sense to target them away from other muscle groups specifically.
Using the Barbell over Dumbbells will allow you to lift more weight, which is great for strength gains. Also, pay attention to the importance of tempo with your repetitions. Tempo is the speed at which you lift; for that extra bit of strength, you might want to slow down during the easiest part of the lift. During all the movements mentioned in this article, this is the lowering phase.
By Tom Eastham, Anytime Fitness Australia National Fitness Educator