9 Exercises to Build Unstoppable Upper Body Strength

Nine key exercises to build power, muscle and upper body strength and ultimately help you carry yourself through life. This article is the first part of the Rehband ‘Carry Yourself’ series, a project dedicating to getting you fit for life, building upper body strength, improving mobility and reducing the risk of injury.

We all have different motivational reasons for working out. We all have slightly different goals that we are aim for when it comes to numbers, events, competitions and general self-worth. Whatever we are looking towards, there is one aspect of enabling our full potential as humans that is universally applicable and important, and that is to be fit for life.

“This principle is simple, it means to be a healthy, strong, injury free and mobile human.”

It means growing up to be able to play with your grandchildren, to be fit enough to do everything you want and go everywhere you would like to go. It is about being able to carry your baby around for hours, lift yourself out of the pool, pull yourself up in case you fall. It means you can hike, swim, run, cycle, play football, maintain good posture, be proud of yourself and enable your full potential. It extends to walking tall, your body becoming a reflection of your lifestyle and life choices.

Fit for life

CARRY YOURSELF: 9 IMPORTANT UPPER BODY EXERCISES

These nine key exercises will improve your upper body strength and ultimately help you carry yourself through life. They are exercises that will also improve tendon strength and solidify good movement patterns when performed correctly. Strengthening your body and movement is a positive step towards avoiding injury in the future.

It cannot be overstated how important correct form and using the appropriate equipment is when it comes to upper body exercises. Elbow sleeveswrist protection and compression arm sleeves are all highly effective items to help you be the best athlete you can be, strengthen movement patterns and support the natural movements of your body.

1. OVERHEAD PRESS (DUMBBELL PRESS)

The Overhead Press (also known as the Strict Press or Shoulder Press) is a compound exercise that involves lifting a weighted barbell overhead to a fully locked out position with the strict use of the shoulders and arms.

Pressing the bar overhead is one of the most useful upper body exercises you can do. This highly effective exercise involves the entire body. Your feet, legs, glutes, core, abs, hips, ankles and wrists help to stabilise the body whilst your shoulders, upper chest, back and arms press the bar overhead.

NEW 5RM STRICT PRESS!? Not every day we get to PR, so cherish when it happens! #135 @reebok @nfsports_ @roguefitness

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BENEFITS OF THE OVERHEAD PRESS

The Overhead Press gives great strength in your core and back as well as shoulder and arms. It trains the whole body to balance while standing and pressing the weight overhead. It taxes your full body and CNS (central nervous system) as well as increasing your ability to control and stabilise heavy weights above your head. This is incredibly useful for improving your:

  •         Push Press
  •         Push Jerk / Split Jerk
  •         Thrusters
  •         Pull Ups
  •         Muscle Ups

Rehband elbow sleeves are a highly useful accessory here to help you perfect the bar path when you are first learning the exercise. They will give you additional support and confidence, and for advanced lifters, are great for when you are working with testing max lifts or higher volume barbell cycling in WODs.

2. STRICT PULL UP

Build strength and resilience

When it comes to upper body strength, the humble pull up is a tried and tested bodyweight exercise that can significantly help you to enhance your abilities. You can play around with the different variations in order to challenge your body in new ways. Wide grip (pronated) will especially target your upper back, whilst chin ups with a closer grip (supinated) are a great way to develop your biceps.

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TECHNIQUE TIPS

  •        Keep your core tight
  •         Squeeze your glutes
  •         Grip as hard as you can on the bar
  •         Try gripping a light plate (small 1.25kg) between your feet if you are finding it difficult to engage your core, as this will help to force you to activate this part of your body during the movement.

If you are still struggling with pull ups, try this 3-day a week program to improve the exercise.

Monday

  •         Single Arm High Pull – 3 x 8 / side
  •         Hollow Hold – 6 x :10

Wednesday

  •         Supinated Chin Over Bar Hang – 6 x :10
  •         Farmer’s Carry – 3-5 x 100ft

Note: Your carrying abilities should be 110-120% of your back squat. Make sure you really push it on this movement. Especially if you do not have Farmer’s Handles. It is very low skill. You have to move an object from Point A to Point B. Remember, a strong grip will lead to great things, and not just when it comes to pull ups.

Don’t forget the basics – last set of 4×10 strict wide grip pull ups ? End of a great day in Poland coaching and training @crossfit_avanport

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Friday

  •         Supinated Bent Arm Hang – 6 x :10
  •         Landmine Row – 3 x 8 / side

Note: This exercise will really target your lower lat and oblique. Ring Rows or DB Rows are great too.

3. BENCH PRESS

The bench press is not a common exercise in CrossFit®, yet it can be a great way to build power and improve lockout strength and overhead press movements for other lifts.

Rich Froning setting up for his next lift

BASIC BENCH PRESS TECHNIQUE

  •         Setup. Lie on the flat bench with your eyes under the bar. Lift your chest and squeeze your shoulder-blades. Feet flat on the floor.
  •         Grab the bar. Place your pinky on the Knurl (ring) marks of your bar. Hold the bar in the base of your palm with straight wrists and a full grip.
  •         Un-rack. Take a big breath and unrack the bar by straightening your arms. Move the bar over your shoulders with your elbows locked.
  •         Lower the bar. Lower it to your mid-chest while tucking your elbows 75°. Keep your forearms vertical. Hold your breath at the bottom.
  •         Press. Press the bar from your mid-chest to above your shoulders. Keep your butt on the bench. Lock your elbows at the top. Breathe.

ARCH YOUR BACK

Bench Press with your lower back arched. Lie on the bench with a natural arch in your lower back. The same arch your lower back shows when you stand. Someone should be able to slide a flat hand between the bench and your lower back. Arching your lower back also helps to keep your chest up.

Check out Tia keeping her bench pressing versatile and varied.

Since DB's are in at the moment, @orrsome_photo and I thought we would bring back the old gym days and do Incline DB Bench Press. ????? @reebokau @crossfitgames #BeMoreHuman #MeanwhileInReebok #RoadtoRegionals #PacificRegional

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USE YOUR FEET

Keep your feet about shoulder width apart, with your heels flat on the floor. Bring them back so that you can feel the tightness and tension in your legs and core. When you bench press, drive with your feet, engage the glutes, hamstrings and quads and push this force up through your body into the lift. Having your feet flat on the floor will also help you to stay stable throughout the whole lift.

STAY TIGHT

Always keep your body tight and your core engaged throughout the full lift.

4. BARBELL ROW

The Barbell Row will improve the strength of your back, hips and grip and is even useful for improving the power of your pull ups and muscle ups.

QUICK TIPS

  •         To avoid back pain, keep your lower back neutral. Do not let it round or you will squeeze your spinal discs.
  •         Do not hold the bar in the air between reps or your back will tire and round.
  •         Rest the bar on the floor between reps.
  •         Set your lower back neutral before you Barbell Row the next rep.

The barbell row is not only a back or upper body exercise. When you are unracking the bar and setting your stance, you will bend at the waist and the glutes, hamstrings and hips will work together to stabilise your body even before you have even completed the first pull.

The row places a lot of pressure on your back and arms so build up the weight gradually in accordance with your growing strength. Elbow sleeves also provide support and protection.

The more weight you use, the more these “other” muscles will be called into action. On heavy sets, they need to fire to allow the musculature or the back and shoulder girdle to experience maximum enrollment.

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5. DIPS

Dips are a staple compound exercise in many athletes’ routines. But the dip is not as simple as it looks. This exercise requires great strength, stability and range of motion. Most people do not have the combination of all three, and that increases their risk of injury when performing this movement.

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HOW TO PERFORM DIPS:

  •         Start in the support position with the elbows locked and hands turned out
  •         Emphasize a long neck and hollow body position
  •         Initiate the dip by sending the shoulder forward
  •         Reach the bottom of the dip with your shoulder below the elbow (just like proper squat position with the hip below the knee)
  •         Press back up and finish in the same strong support position in which you started

PERFECTING THE TECHNIQUE

The biggest mistake with dips is letting the shoulder move too far forward as you go down. This puts a tremendous amount of stress on the shoulder joint and its muscles.

If you want to make dips safer for the shoulders, make sure to lower yourself while contracting the upper back as you go down. Pinch your shoulder blades together as if you were trying to clamp something in between them.

Ring dips are quite a bit more challenging than bar dips because rings are extremely unstable. They demand the use of numerous stabiliser muscles in your core and shoulders.

6. PUSH UPS (INCLINE PUSH UPS)

The push up is a timeless and classic exercise, building strength, muscle and power. It is also a tough exercise and far more versatile than people think. Different variations of push ups will strengthen your core and back as well as your chest, back, shoulders, arms and wrists — pretty much every muscle in your body.

Simple but effective

Bring your arms closer into your sides if you want to target your triceps more (similar to a close grip bench press). Try diamond push ups to make the movement much more difficult if you find the common technique too easy.

Raising your feet off the ground (try using a bench) will relocate the stimulus and force your upper chest to work harder. Also try placing your hands on weight plates and dipping your chest all the way to the floor in order to create a negative portion for the exercise.

7. ARNOLD PRESS

The Arnold Press is a variation of the traditional shoulder press and is named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, who used the exercise to help build all three of the main muscles in the shoulders. This exercise requires a rotational movement throughout the press portion of the lift, which increases shoulder stability and targets the inside shoulder muscles at the bottom of the lift.

Technique for the Arnold Press. © Deposit Photos

HOW TO PERFORM THE ARNOLD PRESS:

  •         Sit on an exercise bench with back support and hold two dumbbells in front of you at about upper chest level with your palms facing your body and your elbows bent.
Get a functional pump with The Arnold Press

Tip: Your arms should be next to your torso. The starting position should look like the contracted portion of a dumbbell curl.

      •         Raise the dumbbells as you rotate the palms of your hands until they are facing forward.
      •         Continue lifting the dumbbells until your arms are extended above you in straight arm position. Breathe out as you perform this portion of the movement.
      •         After a second pause at the top, begin to lower the dumbbells to the original position by rotating the palms of your hands towards you.

Tip: The left arm will be rotated in a counter clockwise manner while the right one will be rotated clockwise. Breathe in as you perform this portion of the movement.

      •         Repeat for the recommended amount of repetitions.

Variations: You can perform the exercise standing up but that is not recommended for people with lower back issues.

Tip: Try performing this exercise wearing compression arm sleeves if you want to improve your proprioceptive abilities. Focus your mind on the entire movement and lift the weight slowly.

8. BACK EXTENSIONS

Another simple but highly effective exercise. Perform these slowly with total control. These target the lower back are widely used by top Powerlifters and CrossFit® athletes.

HOW TO PERFORM BACK EXTENSIONS:

      •         Never try to rush through them or round your back during the movement.
      •         Hold an extra weight plate tight to your chest to increase resistance.

9. KETTLEBELL Z PRESS

This upper body exercise is a shoulder press performed whilst on the floor with your legs out in front of you. A standing base allows the legs to stabilise the trunk but the kettlebell Z press forces you to build overhead strength and power because you cannot generate force using your legs. It also makes you engage your core in order to control the weight through the full range of motion.

Kettlebells are great to work on muscle inconsistencies during pressing, as they allow you to train unilaterally. They are also great to promote a neutral wrist position, because when you insert the hand properly, the handle and bell will prevent your wrist from hyperextending.

Improve your upper body strength

Read the other aticles in Rehband’s Upper Body Guide – Carry Yourself. 

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