Jan 21, 2013

In Part 1 we addressed the lower body and how we would attack its every aspect. In this article I hope to accomplish the same with the almighty upper body.

The upper body is divided into 2 main categories (as we all should know) of PUSH and PULL. We further break these down into subcategories:

  • Horizontal Push (all bench variations and pushups)
  • Vertical Push (all overhead press variations)
  • Horizontal Pull (all row variations)
  • Vertical Pull (all pullup/chinup variations)

Horizontal Push

Bench Press
If I had a penny for each time I've been asked "how much do ya bench" I'd be a very rich man. I have nothing against the bench press but there are many better options especially if you have messed up shoulders, unless you're trying to be a powerlifter. Personally I use the close-grip flat and incline, dumbbells, kettlebells, and the floor press. Other great options are to press with a axle bar, football or Swiss bar, or with Fat Gripz. Be sure to keep your elbows at about a 45 degree angle and maintain thoracic extension (pinning your shoulders back). Squeeze your quads and butt and press away.

Show me someone that can hit a perfect pushup and I'll show you someone who is in complete control of their body. Pushups are often neglected and when they aren't they're often performed incorrectly. Hips sagging, elbows flaring out, and half reps are all common scenarios. There are hundreds of variations ranging from easy (hands on an incline) to extremely difficult (planche pushups) and they are all an essential part of any program. Do them right and do them often.

Single-Arm Variations
I put these in a subcategory all their own because they are a whole other animal when compared to their bilateral counterparts. Pick any horizontal (this goes for vertical as well) pushing exercise and try it with only one arm at a time. The core strength (anti-rotation/anti-lateral flexion) as well as shoulder stability you will develop will aide you in all other lifts and endeavors.

Vertical Push

Overhead Press
This is the true test of upper body pushing ability. The overhead press, above all else, should be performed standing. Those silly seated presses you see people doing don't count. Grab any piece of equipment from kettlebells and dumbbells to bars and sandbags and start pressing overhead. Don't forget that this is a total body movement. You should be squeezing your glutes, pulling your shoulders back and down, flaring your lats, and pressing whatever implement you choose straight up and overhead. And I stress OVER HEAD. Don't press in front of your head because it's not called an in-front-of-head press.

Handstand Pushup
These are one of my all-time favorite pressing exercises. Master the many pushup variations and static handstand holds before attempting these for the first time. Your triceps strength, shoulder stability, and body awareness needs to be on par to get these right. These are a must-have addition to your program if you're looking to be more athletic and all-around more awesome.

Dips are like a hybrid of a vertical and horiztonal push and are a staple in all of my programs for those who can perform them without shoulder pain. I prfer to do them on rings but any pullup/dip station or set of parallel bars will do. The biggest mistake I see people make with these is adding extra ROM. Go down until your elbows are at 90 degrees and don't bother going any further unless you really want shoulder pain. In that case, by all means go ahead.

Horizontal Pull

Bodyweight Rows
This is where everyone should start on their journey to a bigger, stronger, and more functional physique. Out of all the many horizontal pulling exercises, I use bodyweight rows the most frequently. Do them on rings, from a rope, or on a Smith machine (the only thing this machine is good for), just make sure you're doing them. One of hardest and most effective variations of bodyweight rows are fully inverted rows on rings. They are a very advanced progression but give you pulling strength for days.

Implement Rows
I say implement because of the many different ones that can be utilized for this awesome exercise. Do them bent over, from a dead stop, chest supported, or with one arm at a time. Rows will build the upper back, lats, grip, and rear delts. Hit them hard and hit them heavy.

Bat Wings
I picked these up from legendary strength coach Dan John. Bat wings are basically and isometric (static) hold at the top of a row. Lay face down on a flat or incline bench, grab 2 dumbbells or kettlebells, pull your shoulders back, maintain thoracic extension, and row them so that your elbows are even or slightly passed your body. Hold for 15-20 seconds. When this gets easy, up the weight. These will assist in correcting posture and reinforcing shoulder retraction in all exercises.

Vertical Pull

Pullups are the king of upper body pulling movements. You should be striving, one way or another, to be able to do at least 10 solid pullups of any variation. Use bands for assistance, perform eccentrics, and hit isometric holds in different pullup positions to gain the strength necessary to do them without assistance. Use rings, rope, a pullup bar, whatever, just make sure you get your chest near your hands and you keep your shoulders back and down.

Rope Climbs
Do I really need to say anything else about these? Rope climbing makes you awesome, hands down. If you can't climb a rope vertically you should at least be doing recline rope climbs by attaching a rope to a squat rack, grabbing on while laying on the floor with your feet propper up against the rack, and pulling yourself up, hand over hand, to a standing position. Keep your body tight and don't let your butt sag. These will build serious grip, lat, and biceps strength.

I'm throwing levers in here because basic gymnastic exercises do wonders for athleticism, body control, and body awareness. Start with the most basic hold (tuck lever) and work your way through the progressions. Since adding these into my programs my pulling and grip strength have increased exponentially. One of the greatest resources I own is "Building the Gymnastic Body" by Coach Christopher Sommer. It's an amazing book with a wealth of information on progressions and regressions of gymnastic movements, how to program them, and detailed explanations with pictures of how to perform them. Definitely a must-have for your library.

I found an amazing video that includes many of these upper body movements by one of the strength coaches who helped to mold my philosophy on training. His name is Ross Enamait and he is, in every sense of the word, a BEAST. Enjoy.

Stay tuned for Part 3 where I'll dive into my go-to CORE exercises. Be prepared to step outside the box a bit on this one.

In Strength,
Franco Crincoli


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Franco Crincoli
I am a personal trainer, strength coach, and all around iron addict, with a philosophy deeply rooted in old school methods. My training has been influenced by strongmen, powerlifters, Olympic lifters, gymnasts, and the Golden Era bodybuilders. I believe in reaping the greatest rewards the simplest (not easiest) way possible and having fun doing it.
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