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Top 5 Upper Body Exercises

My Top 5 Upper Body Exercises

This doesn’t need much of an intro, so…here they are:

1.) Push Ups (and variations alike): 

Probably one of the most common exercises to perform in the gym is the barbell bench press, but many of us are performing this without mastering a basic push up first. Before you hit the barbell, make sure you can perform this movement properly. It’s typically a little more shoulder friendly because it is a “scap free” movement..plus there is significantly more core involvement. 

  • Movement: horizontal push 
  • Primary Movers: pecs, anterior deltoids (front of your shoulders), triceps, abdominals
  • Cues: hands under shoulders, elbows back 45 degrees, body stays in one plane, push the ground away, avoid rolling your shoulder forward 
  • Modifications: knees, or elevated on a bench
  • Progressions: add variations (single leg, feet elevated on bench/SB/TRX, etc.)

2.) Landmine Press:

Overhead pressing is a fantastic fundamental pattern, but it is often performed poorly or with compensations. The landmine provides a more user friendly way to “overhead press” and also allows for scap free pressing. 

  • Movement: somewhere in between a horizontal and vertical push (let’s call it intermediate)
  • Primary Movers: pecs, anterior deltoids (front of your shoulders), triceps
  • Cues: barbell on the edge of your shoulder, elbow tucked by your side, press up and away without hip rotation, avoid rolling your shoulder forward 
  • Progressions: add variations (half kneeing, staggered stance, two bars)

3.) DB/KB Row:

Any pulling exercises are huge because they are often times avoided or replaced with more pushing. In such a flexion dominant world, this should be prioritized even more so in the gym. 

  • Movement: horizontal pull
  • Primary Movers: upper back (traps, rhomboids), lats, posterior delts (back of shoulders), biceps
  • Cues: flat back, allow shoulder blade to move away from your spine, pull the DB to your midline and your shoulder blade towards your spine, avoid rolling your shoulder forward
  • Progressions: add variations (renegade row, etc.)

4.) Chin Up/Pull Up:

Similar to push ups, a lot of us want to move on to complicated lifts before mastering, to me, one of the toughest upper body exercises there is. Is also serves as a great decompression type exercise to pair with something like a front squat or overhead press.

  • Movement: vertical pull
  • Primary Movers: lats, lower traps, posterior delts (back of shoulders), biceps
  • Cues: pull your shoulder blades down and back at the bottom, hollow out your body (turn your abs and glutes on), pull your chin over bar and avoid excessive body sway
  • Modifications: chin up holds, negatives, bands for assistance, assisted chin up machine 
  • Progressions: add chains, weight belt 

5.) Face Pulls:

These are the ultimate “anti-western lifestyle” exercise and may be the remedy you need for better shoulder health. Sitting and slouching for long periods of time has the muscles that retract (or pull back) or shoulder blades weak and inactive. This exercise wakes them up and strengthens them to prevent postural issues and painful shoulders down the line. 

  • Movement: somewhere in between a horizontal and vertical pull (let’s call it intermediate)
  • Primary Movers: posterior delts (back of shoulders), rhomboids, external rotators
  • Cues: pull to chin/ neck area and keep shoulders and elbows in line, squeeze the shoulder blades together at the top, avoid shooting head forward
  • Progressions: add variations (half kneeling, staggered stance, etc.)

Notice the trend with all of these? They are simple. Don’t overcomplicate things that you don't need to.

Hit me up with any comments/ questions on these exercises! 

Stephanie Spoto, CSCS

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