As promised, in this post I will discuss the essential upper body movement patterns.
The upper body gets a lot of attention from people because when it comes to aesthetics we think about 6 pack abs, chiseled arms, and a defined back. However this post is not going to be full of core, bicep, tricep, and shoulder exercises. Instead we are going to discuss the movement patterns that work as many upper body muscles as possible that allow you to get the most benefit per exercise.
The first upper body movement pattern we will discuss is the push.
We can break the upper body push movement into two sub movements, a vertical push (think about pushing a weight above your body) and a horizontal push (think about pushing a weight away from the front of your body).
The classic upper body horizontal push exercise would be a push up or a bench press. Again just because these may be the most common forms of an upper body push exercise there are plenty of other variations. Using a barbell can be tough on peoples shoulders and doing a push up can be very challenging for people when they first start.
That said I do like the push up as a good upper body push exercise. If you can’t do a traditional push up on your hands and feet you can modify it to meet your own current fitness level. Perhaps the easiest push up variation is a push up against a wall.
You can even adjust the intensity of a wall pushup by moving your feet further (harder) and closer (easier). If a wall push up is too easy you can do a push up on a chair, railing, or table to make it harder. Your goal is to move lower and lower until eventually you reach the ground. At that point if you still can’t do a push up from your hands and feet you can do a pushup from your knees.
Once you can do a push up from your hands and feet you can make them more challenging by raising your feet. You can also add weight to your push ups by using something like a weight vest. Don’t have a weight vest? You can also do a banded push up.
Another horizontal push variation you can do that involves your body weight is a suspension strap chest press.
When it comes to using weight to perform a horizontal press and you have dumbbells or kettlebells I love the floor press exercise. The floor press is also convenient if you don’t have a bench.
If you do have a bench and access to dumbbells or barbells, by all means do a dumbbell or barbell bench press. If you have shoulder or arm pain doing those movements though, any of the movements above can be just as good!
When it comes to the vertical upper body press the overhead press is the classic exercise.
As with all barbell movements we have talked about, this can be tough to do for some people. Many people struggle with the mobility in the shoulder required to push the barbell straight over their head. To compensate for this lack of shoulder mobility people will arch their back and stick their ribs out. This is something I struggle with myself so I am very aware of how hard it can be to press overhead without compensating.
As with everything there are plenty of other vertical pressing movements you can do besides a barbell overhead press.
You can press overhead with bands, dumbbells, and kettlebells. All of these can be done seated, standing, alternating, or one arm at a time.
Perhaps my favorite overhead press exercise is a Z-press.
I like this movement because sitting on the floor forces you to only use your arms to press and you really need to engage the core to keep yourself upright. You can do this with dumbbells and kettlebells as well if you want. You can also do it one handed.
My second favorite vertical pressing exercise after the Z-press is the ½ kneeling landmine press. This requires access to a landmine attachment and a barbell, but is a great pressing variation and requires less mobility in the shoulder if that is a limitation for you.
There are also more novel overhead pressing variations that I like as well. These are variations that not only target the muscles involved in pressing vertically but also the muscles in the hands as well.
The plate press (or pizza press) requires the use of an olympic style plate.
The open palm kettlebell press is similar to the plate press, but uses a kettlebell.
Finally there is the bottoms up kettlebell press, this one is super challenging!
Next we have the upper body pull movement.
Why is an upper body pull movement important?
It’s very useful for pulling yourself up or pulling something towards you. If you do fall, being about to pull yourself back to your feet or to move something towards you can be quite useful and frankly life saving as we get older in age.
Again we can break this up into two different planes, vertical pull and horizontal pull.
The class vertical pull movement is going to be a pull up. By far this can be the single most intimidating exercise there is. With almost all other exercises, we can find variations of them that nearly everyone can do.
The traditional pull up involves pulling your body weight up. The reason this is so challenging is because the muscles in the back, shoulders, and arms are quite small in comparison to the bigger muscles in the legs. Also we have less control over the weight being moved (at least in the short term) since it’s your body weight against gravity.
If you can do pull ups and are proficient at them you can challenge yourself by adding weight to them with a weight vest or a belt that you can attach plates or kettlebells to. You can really turn a pull up into a strength building exercise by adding weight this way.
There are a couple of variations of a pull up that I like to use with clients who struggle with them.
The first one is a band assisted pull up.
With this movement you basically are using a resistance band attached to the pull up bar to assist in making you “lighter”. The band assists you in lifting your body weight to the bar. The thicker the band the easier it is going to be. As you get stronger you can use smaller and smaller bands to make it harder and harder.
The other vertical pull exercise I like to emulate a pull up is a barbell pull up.
With this variation you can make the pull up easier and harder depending on where you put your feet.
Finally if you go to a gym you may have an assisted pull up machine which is essentially a machine that emulates a band assisted pull up.
Another good pull up variation is a lat-pulldown. It’s slightly different in its intent but works many of the same muscles and uses a weight you can easily adjust.
A horizontal pull motion is essentially what is referred to as a row.
Again there are endless variations of rows that you can do that makes them accessible to nearly everyone.
A nice simple one you can do is a band row.
If you have access to a barbell and rack you can do an inverted row.
The inverted row can be made harder or easier based on where you position your feet, so there are lots of variations.
Another favorite of mine is a one arm dumbbell row.
If you want to use a lot of weight when rowing my favorite is the Pendlay row.
Then there are endless variations of these and machines you can use as well. Again no one variation is better than the other we just want some kind of rowing variation in your routine!
You might be wondering why the core has not been highlighted thus far…doesn’t everyone want 6 pack abs?
Well if you do want 6 pack abs I have some good news for you….you already have them! They are just covered in a layer of body fat. Now that is not a bad thing really, having a 6 pack is really just a matter of having low enough body fat to see them. Getting to that level of body fat may in fact not be healthy for some people, but that is a whole other discussion.
Relevant to the discussion in this post about resistance training, no amount of core exercises is going to get you a leaner more defined core. You can workout your core all you want but you can’t specifically target the core for fat loss. Fat loss storage and loss is going to happen throughout the body and is based genetically on how your body prefers to store fat.
In addition every movement pattern we have discussed thus far, squats, deadlifts, lunges, pushing and pulling all work the core muscles because the core is required to stabilize your body when doing these movements. In other words, you are constantly working your core when you are resistance training!
The one aspect of the core that these exercises do not address is the rotational aspect of the upper body. Rotation is a key movement in everyday life as we twist and turn to reach for things in everyday life.
For rotational core exercises I really like the pallof press. This can be done with a band or a cable machine and basically involves you resisting the pull of the band/cable.
If you have access to a suspension trainer you can do trunk rotations which will have a similar training effect.
Another good rotational core exercise is the landmine twist which involves using a landmine and a barbell.
If you incorporate the squat, deadlift, lunge, upper body push, upper body pull and a small amount of rotational core work into your resistance training you will for sure reap all the benefits that resistance training has to offer. This post and the last also gives you plenty of examples of exercises you can use that address all of these movement patterns. There are plenty more you can choose from and there may be better ones, but these are some of my own personal favorites and the ones I use with clients quite frequently. As always finding ones you enjoy are going to be the best for you so experiment all you would like.
The next piece of the resistance training puzzle has to do with how to combine these movement patterns into training sessions throughout the week and then deciding on the right sets and reps to do. For the next few posts in this blog post series we will address these two topics in more detail so you can lay out your own resistance training program. To be the first to find out when these blog posts are available be sure to sign up for my newsletter using the form below and I will send you an email as soon as they are available.