The 3 Upper-Body Exercises You Should Be Doing

In-the-Trenches Lifts That Get Results

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One of the reasons people plateau is because they fall in love with a few exercises and never deviate from them.

This works fine for newbies because newbie gains come from improvements in neuromuscular coordination. Essentially, they get stronger by becoming more skilled at doing the exercise. Once you’ve gotten a little experience under your belt, you need to start adding more exercises to your arsenal.

Granted, I don’t have a stack of double blind, peer-reviewed studies to back these suggestions up. But I do have a lot of experience training Division 1 athletes. And my greatest priority is making sure they’re strong, healthy, and ready to compete.

These are exercises used in the trenches that get results.

1 – The Z Press

Named after legendary strongman, Zydrunas Savickas, this is an advanced training technique used as a progression from traditional overhead presses.

Long-term shoulder health is more heavily influenced by vertical, rather than horizontal, movement patterns. Knowing this, overhead presses should be implemented much more extensively, but they’re still the red-headed step child of strength training.

People don’t use the best technique with overhead presses. This drastically inhibits the potential to pack on muscle and negates the long-term health benefits to the shoulder girdle. Due to the seated position of the Z press, it’s tough to cheat.

The Z press is done seated on the floor with your legs stretched out in front. Because there’s nothing to lean into, there’s greater trunk and upper back strength needed to stabilize the body. As soon as the exercise begins, you’ll notice the body self-regulating into efficient postural alignment to maintain balance.

A couple years ago I began adding a six-week Z press progression with my athletes. It consisted of three weeks of Z pressing dumbbells for an accumulation (volume) block and three weeks of Z pressing thick-handled barbells for an intensification (strength) block. This was the most upper back and shoulder mass I’ve ever packed onto a group of athletes in a single summer.

A final thought on the Z press: It’s a natural “plateau buster” for the bench press. Because the body is inhibitory by nature, bench press plateaus can often be attributed to weakness through the shoulders, upper back, and triceps.

This strength imbalance inhibits neuromuscular communication as a defense mechanism against injury. Essentially, your brain won’t allow you to get stronger because your supporting tissue can’t handle the load.

Overhead pressing is a great way to strengthen the supporting musculature and drive up the ability to handle heavier loads in the bench press.

2 – Weighted Chin-Up

Chin-ups get a bad rap as being the easy way out of doing the more difficult pull-up. This might apply if you’re only doing bodyweight reps, but once you start adding external load, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Due to the supinated (palms facing you) grip, chin-ups allow for a greater external load AND a greater range of motion than the pull-up performed with a pronated (palms facing away from you) grip. Once you start loading the exercise, you have the ability to handle more weight, but you need to move that weight further to complete the reps.

This is where getting away from bodyweight and loading with percentage-based training comes into play.

The same rules that apply to percentage-based training for other exercises like the squat or bench press also apply to chin-ups. You first need to establish a 1RM (one rep max) of your bodyweight and hanging weight. For example, a 200 pound athlete doing a single rep with a 100 pound dumbbell around his waist would have a 1RM of 300 pounds.

That 300 pound 1RM would then be applied to the loading parameters of the training session. For example, if the goal was functional hypertrophy, you might do 5 sets of 6 reps at 80%. This 80% would be calculated from the 300 pound 1RM (bodyweight + hanging weight).

  • 80% of 300 pounds = 240 pounds
  • 240 pounds – 200 pounds bodyweight = 40 pounds hanging weight

You’d now do those 5 sets of 6 reps with 40 pounds of hanging weight around your waist.

Once we’ve established a training goal and set the loading parameters, technique needs to be dialed in. Not all chin-ups are created equally.

There may be a time and place for partial rep training, but I advocate that the majority of chin-up work should be done through a full range. This means fully extended arms in the bottom (elbows locked out, ears in front of biceps) and the elbow joint closed off at the top (forearms touching biceps).

When it comes to chin-ups, partial reps get partial results.

Think of the chin-up and the overhead press as the yin and yang of upper-body training. These opposite exercises complement each other and can be directly connected to a structurally balanced and healthy shoulder.

With both exercises, maintaining the proper range of motion is critical. When range of motion and technique are emphasized, gains in strength and muscle mass will follow. A strong and mobile shoulder is a healthy shoulder.

3 – Chest and Head-Supported Rows

Rowing is not accessory work. It’s a staple exercise in any good training program. One of the biggest shifts I’ve had over the last five years is how I program rows for athletes. I use supported row variations more often than unsupported row variations for a number of reasons.

Supported rows:

  • Don’t fry your low back.
  • Don’t allow for cheated/bounced reps.
  • Don’t reduce the weight in your hands based off low back strength being the limiting factor in what you can row.

This is all very important when taking training consistency into account. Injuries derail training progress, and a fried-out low back keeps you from using bigger loads in other big bang-for-your-buck exercises like the squat and deadlift.

Remember that while the best indicators for long-term shoulder health are strength and mobility in a vertical position, when it comes to packing on mass through the back, you’re going to have to complement your chin-ups with horizontal rowing variations.

The two staples I give athletes are chest-supported dumbbell rows and head-supported barbell rows. I’ve had tremendous progress using a three-week block of chest-supported dumbbell rows for accumulation (volume) followed by a three-week block of head-supported barbell rows for intensification (strength).

When supported rows are combined with deadlift variations (especially snatch-grip deadlifts) it’s a potent combination for packing on mass.

I’m still a huge fan of unsupported rows. The Pendlay row is another underused exercise that you probably aren’t doing enough of, but with the population I train, supported rows check a lot boxes for the things they DON’T do.