Upper Body Exercises That Improve Everything
Want to build more muscle, get stronger, increase athletic performance, and strengthen your tendons? Then you need to focus on eccentric training and use these upper body exercises.
Mechanical eccentrics are a great way to introduce a form of eccentric overload to your workouts. Here's what you need to know and what you need to do.
The eccentric part of the rep is where you're lowering the weight – the negative. (The lifting part is the concentric.)
When muscle fibers eccentrically lengthen, they produce force because of the active and passive elements inside of them. The passive elements are elastic-type structures that produce force by resisting deformation rather than using energy to move. The active structures require energy.
You'll be 25-40% stronger when lowering a weight than lifting it. This is because of the structures that come into play during the eccentric contraction, things like the extracellular matrix, the internal structure of the muscle fiber, and the giant molecule titin. You know, all things the average gym-goer cares about!
Eccentric training involves higher muscle forces, producing a large amount of mechanical tension and muscle damage. These offer key signals to your body that tell your muscles to start strengthening and growing. Eccentric training also activates high-threshold motor units, which have a greater capacity for growth.
One way to tap into the uniqueness of the eccentric contraction is to increase eccentric time under tension or TUT. For example, slowly lowering a weight for 5-8 seconds.
There's little scientific evidence for or against focusing on eccentric duration. But it makes sense from a mechanistic and real-world perspective that this helps drive some hypertrophy.
But we're more concerned with how to increase eccentric load and absolute mechanical tension. For all the exercises discussed here, just try to fight the resistance on the way down. Take at least 3-4 seconds during the eccentric/lowering phase.
Here are several techniques:
- 2/1 Eccentrics: This is sometimes called the BANA technique (bilateral-assisted negative accentuated). Lift with two limbs and lower with one. For example, lift the weight on a leg extension with both legs, then lower back down with one leg.
- Partner Eccentrics: Your gym bestie will either assist you on the concentric/lifting portion of the lift or apply some weight on the eccentric/negative. For example, your training partner would help you get a very heavy weight up, then you'd lower it by yourself.
- Cheat Eccentrics: For example, cheat up a biceps curl with your hips, then lower under control.
- Mechanical Eccentrics: Changing your body position to overload the eccentric portion of an exercise. Let's focus on that.
Mechanical eccentrics are simply where you manipulate your body position to overload the lowering part of a rep. The lifting portion of the rep is done using an "easier" version of the same exercise, or while the eccentric contraction is performed in a position where there's a relative mechanical disadvantage.
Often, this is done by manipulating lever arm length where the resistance is made to be further from the fulcrum during the eccentric. This makes it harder to lift the same weight.
1 Poliquin Lateral Raise
This exercise will overload your medial deltoids eccentrically. Raise the dumbbells with the elbows bent, then lower them with your arms straight.
Using the scapular plane (raising 30 degrees forwards) will allow better joint centration while being easier on your rotator cuff tendons. It's very joint-friendly.
2 Gagné Triceps Extension
This exercise requires you to hinge off the edge of a bench or Swiss ball. It eccentrically overloads the long head of your triceps in the stretched position when your hips drop.
When you reach the bottom of the extension, raise your hips and change the torso angle and angle at your shoulders. Return the bar back to the top using this new, slightly easier position. Do these using an EZ-bar, barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells.
3 Press-Up Dumbbell Flye
You can press more than you can flye, so let's capitalize on that. Select a slightly heavier weight than what you might typically use for flyes.
Press the dumbbells up, then lower into a flye. As you lower down, leave a slight bend in your elbows and then attempt to keep your elbows aligned with your ears to maximally stretch your pecs. Bring them back in and press back to the start. Do these on a flat, incline, or decline bench.
4 Zottman Curl
This is an arm-building staple, or at least it should be. Curls using a palms-down grip work your entire elbow flexors, including the often-neglected brachioradialis and wrist extensors. But you can't curl with as much weight using a palms-down grip.
Zottman curls are the perfect eccentric exercise since all you have to do is curl up using an underhand grip (easier), then switch to a palms-down grip to lower the weight (harder).
5 Banded Inverted Row
Inverted rows are a great way to hit your traps and rhomboids and help pull everything back where it should be.
The band has more slack (lower load) as your hip is bent. It's also easier to pull yourself up using this more vertical torso angle. When you straighten your hips on the lowering phase, the band has more tension, resulting in more load to fight as you lower down.
6 Decline Pullover
You want a slight decline bench and a heavy-ish kettlebell for this lats and triceps builder.
The lowering portion is performed as a standard pullover with very little bend in your elbows. To make the return to the top easier, bend your elbows, pulling the kettlebell in and close to your chest on the way up.
Because of the flexion/extension of your elbows, you change the lever arm length and make the pullover easier or harder. Straighter elbows on the way down work to overload the eccentric. Choose a slightly heavier weight than you'd typically use for pullovers.
To build muscle, do 3 sets of 8-10 reps using 3-4 seconds to lower the weight down. You could also try longer duration eccentrics, taking 5-8 seconds to lower and just 5-7 reps per set. Use this method sparingly on just one or two exercises per workout.