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Training Upper Body Strength: A Balanced Approach

Training upper body strength is a slow, frustrating process. The time it takes to make small, marginal improvements takes much longer than what it takes our lower body. It can seem like you are putting in hours and hours of work trying to strengthen your shoulders and arms with no results. Upper body strength can be inhibited by a lack of flexibility, understanding of body mechanics, and imbalanced training. However, with an intentional, balanced approach, you can gain strength, improve range of motion, fix achy or painful shoulders, and perform impressive feats. This articles emphasizes and explains the important principles of an effective upper body strengthening program.



Core strength and midline stability (the ability to keep a neutral spine) is the essential prerequisite for upper body strength training. In order to maximally train your upper body, you need the ability to hold your torso in both static and dynamic positions. Planks, hollow holds, L-sits, body tensioners, and compressions are all great ways to gain core strength and midline stability. (If you don’t know what some of these are, send me a message or ask me next time you see me in the gym!) Practicing, training, and developing core strength should be first priority when it comes to any strength program.


After developing foundational core strength, you must develop adequate strength in your shoulders. Your shoulders are the power producers of our upper body. They are the muscles, ligaments, and bones that allow us to do burpees, pull ups, ring dips, and of course, the muscle up. They are also responsible for ring rows, handstands, planches, and spectacularly, the iron cross. Our shoulders aren’t the only muscle groups working to perform these movements, but they are integral to them; you cannot do a pull up or a burpee without the foundational shoulder strength, even if you can bicep curl massive amounts.


Developing core and shoulder strength is the central tenant for any upper body strength protocol. By focusing your training on these two groups with a balanced approach, you will gain upper body strength in every other part of your body. However, a balanced training program is often difficult to create or perform. What does a balanced program even look like? Here is simple method.


Our upper body can do two things. It can push and it can pull. Simply put, pushing is moving ourselves or something away, and pulling is the opposite. We can execute a push or pull in two main ways: horizontally or vertically.


Pushing horizontally looks like a push ups, bench presses, or even a static plank holds. Most athletes and exercisers dominate their routines with horizontal pushing, and suffer from overly tight shoulders (especially the front side) and pecs; which cause pain, inflexibility, and an inability to press or push things any other way. To counteract horizontal pushing, a vertical push should be added to your program. Horizontal pushing looks like dips, handstands, or shoulder presses. Anytime you are pushing something over your head, or you are going upside down, you are likely doing a vertical push.


Whereas most people do too much horizontal pushing, the inverse is far too common when it comes to pulling (Although, it should be noted that most routines do not have enough pulling). Vertical pulling is most athlete’s go-to, and looks like pull ups or lat pull downs. Vertical pulling is essential for your upper body strength. It allows you to strengthen your shoulders and arms, as well as your lats (the big muscles on the middle and sides of your back). Most athletes need more vertical pulling. But, in order to effectively train your upper body, horizontal pulling must be included in as well. Horizontal pulling looks like feet-elevated ring rows, deadlifts, and difficult static holds such as the planche. Anytime you are moving something towards the front of your body, instead of the top of your head, you are likely performing a horizontal pull. Pulling horizontally trains the muscles of the upper back as well as the arms, and allows you to utilize the full capabilities of your shoulders.


Both horizontal and vertical push/pull exercises are integral to any strength protocol. Each of the examples from above can also be performed eccentrically (think slow on the way down) or held statically (holding a handstand or top of a pull up). Include eccentrics as well as static holds into your upper body strength program.


Focusing on your core and shoulder strength, and balancing your pushing and pulling movements is one approach to upper body strength. Even so, not all movements will fit neatly into a horizontal or vertical push and pull category. There are movements that combine or utilize facets of each category, such as the muscle up or even the burpee. Snatches and clean & jerks will use them all so quickly that you won’t realize you even performed a horizontal pull in the lift off and a vertical pull when moving the bar through the middle portion of the lift. Here is what is most important: upper body strength is essential to your physical capabilities, and you need a system to train in a balanced, effective, and sustainable way. The information above is all you need to start.


If you believe your upper body strength is lacking, try putting together a routine that contains core strengthening exercises, and utilizes horizontal and vertical pushing/pulling. If you cannot create one, send me a message or talk to me in the gym, I’ll help you with programming or point you in the right direction. Don’t be shy, this is what I love to do.


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Thanks for reading,


Move better. Move happier. Move meaningfully.


Coach Caleb

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