This article was provided by Training and Conditioning
To help athletes reach their physical peak, you can’t neglect upper-body strength. From pushing to pulling and everything in between, this roundtable of experts covers effective training strategies for the chest, back, arms, and core.
Despite my focus on other areas, my high school boys always find a way to squeeze in bicep curls!” laments Mike Volkmar, MS, CSCS, PES, Strength and Conditioning Coach at the Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J. Such is the dilemma for strength coaches when training the upper body. While the performance professional knows that building and maintaining strength, range of motion, and stability in the shoulders, back, chest, and thoracic spine holds incredible value, athletes typically want to focus solely on making their biceps and pecs pop.
But there’s no reason a successful upper-body training program can’t do both. In fact, it can target those goals and many more. Often, there’s an injury prevention angle, especially for throwing and overhead athletes. And many regimens also look to balance pushing and pulling motions.
So to figure out how to put these objectives together in an effective program, we asked six strength and conditioning coaches, including Volkmar, for their thoughts. (See “Our Panel” below.) In this roundtable, these experts share their tips for training the upper body and ensuring everything from big muscles to small stabilizers get the attention they deserve.
Justin Blatner, MA, SCCC, CSCS, USAW, is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Washington State University. He works with rowing and cheer and is the coordinator for track and field strength and conditioning. Blatner is also a certified speed and agility coach through the National Sports Performance Association.
Tad Johnson, MEd, CSCS, is Strength and Conditioning Coach for Clarkson University men’s and women’s ice hockey. With the women, he was a part of both the 2014 and 2017 national championship squads. Previously, he served as Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Minnesota, where he helped the women’s ice hockey team claim a national title in 2013.
Ed Nordenschild, MEd, CSCS, is Associate Athletics Director for Strength and Conditioning/Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Olympic Sports at the University of Virginia. Prior to Virginia, he was the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at California State University, Fresno, where he received the NSCA’s Coach Practitioner Award in 2003.
Michael Shumaker, MS, is Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Performance at Mississippi College. Before that, he was an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Auburn University.
Mike Volkmar, MS, CSCS, PES, is Strength and Conditioning Coach at the Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J. He’s a member of the NSCA New Jersey Advisory Board, wrote Tabata Workout Handbook, Volume 2, and co-authored The Mobility Workout Handbook: Over 100 Sequences for Improved Performance, Reduced Injury, and Increased Flexibility. The Peddie School received the NSCA’s Strength of America Award in 2016.
Andrew Wun, CSCS, USAW, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif. His program was recognized with the NSCA’s Strength of America Award in 2017. What is your philosophy on upper-body training?
Tad Johnson: My approach begins with asking two questions: 1) What do we need from the upper body in terms of strength, power, and conditioning? and 2) What are the common injuries we see in the upper body?
What we need from the upper body depends on the sport, whether the athletes are male or female, and how coaches expect their teams to play. The common areas injured in ice hockey—the sport I work with here at Clarkson University—are shoulders, wrists, and the head.
After answering those questions, I construct a training program to help facilitate performance and reduce injuries. I divide upper-body training into three categories based on the different needs of our male athletes, female athletes, and goalies. In general, the men do the most strength and hypertrophy work, the women do the most power work, and the goalies do the most strength-endurance work.
Justin Blatner: The upper body needs to be trained in multiple planes, and each plane should be targeted at least twice per week. This assumes healthy shoulders and adequate range of motion overhead, as well as sufficient internal rotation. The small stabilizers of the shoulder should also be addressed through warm-up drills and exercises that focus on external rotation, upward rotation of the scapula, and protraction/retraction of the scapula.
Mike Volkmar: First, we go back to basics! This includes push, pull, carry, and rotate.
Secondly, we make our athletes earn the barbells and dumbbells. They have to pass a push-up test before they can use either piece of equipment. I expect our boys to complete two or three sets of 20 to 25 push-ups, and our girls need to do two or three sets of 10 to 15 push-ups. Next, both girls and boys work up to 50 percent of their bodyweight in dumbbells for the chest press. That is typically around 35- or 45-pound dumbbells per hand for the boys and 20- to 30-pound weights per hand for the girls. Once they’ve accomplished those two steps, they have earned the barbell chest press.
Ed Nordenschild: For the most part, we pay more attention to the pulling or back side of the upper body than we do the pushing or front side. In addition, we usually do not train the upper arms specifically, as we feel they get sufficient stimulus with heavy pushing/pulling exercises. However, we do target forearm work in sports where we feel grip and wrist strength are important for performance, such as baseball, field hockey, and wrestling.
Michael Shumaker: My philosophy varies by sport, but every athlete needs to do anterior and posterior upper-body work for general strength development and injury prevention. We pull more than we press because I believe the posterior side is more important.
Andrew Wun: As a strength and conditioning coach at the high school level, my athletes do not have much experience, if any, in the weightroom. They are very young in their physical development, so it is important for me to teach them the fundamental movements and progress slowly from that foundation. Therefore, our general approach for training the upper body is to have a pulling movement for every pushing movement and work through all planes of motion. I also make sure to focus on the dominant side of the body just as much as the non-dominant side because I want my athletes to be well-balanced.
How has research shaped your upper-body training philosophy?
Volkmar: Every day, I read the research provided by the NSCA and articles written by the titans of our industry. If I uncover an exercise or new protocol I can bring to my athletes, I might give it a shot.
That being said, many of my athletes are new to exercise, with a training age of less than one year. They don’t need programs based on the latest research—they need the basic tenets and core principles of strength and conditioning.
I do add some of the newer, research-based, “sexier” movements and protocols with my third- and fourth-year kids, though. For instance, over the years, I’ve added resistance on their bench presses with bands and chains, and I’ve introduced cluster sets for those who have plateaued on the bench or shoulder press.
Blatner: Research has validated the need to train movements multiple times per week to make progress during the offseason. Early on in my career, I used research to dispel for myself some of the old myths about training, such as only benching to a 90-degree bend in the elbows for baseball players.
Studies specifically on various soft-tissue modalities and physical therapy-based exercises that are too complex for group training have helped me appreciate the value of working closely with a skilled sports medicine staff. This has also helped me to know when to refer an athlete to them.
Shumaker: I have read a lot about baseball training, specifically for pitchers, and I have almost completely changed the way I program that sport now, compared to when I started in this profession 12 years ago. In addition, I have altered my approach to the shoulder capsule, and I am more aware of how training affects that area.
Nordenschild: Research has made us more aware of the importance of the pulling motion in regard to overall training, as well as the way we deal with pushing exercises in the throwing and overhead athlete. Now, we are more inclined to use dumbbells with them and a neutral grip. Further, we use prehab exercises in an effort to stay ahead of shoulder injuries and overuse.
Johnson: Findings on complex/contrast training to develop power have helped validate my approach to the upper body. Also, reading books and having conversations with other professionals have allowed me to re-evaluate what I am doing and how to make it better. As a result, I’ve moved away from the barbell and include more dumbbell and landmine exercises in my workouts.
How do you schedule upper-body work into your strength and conditioning program?
Blatner: In most cases, it is incorporated into total-body lifts three days per week. If a team is training on back-to-back days, there is typically an emphasis on lower body one day and upper body the next.
Within each workout, there are usually one or two upper-body pushing exercises and one or two pulling exercises. Generally, I strive to maintain a balance between these two areas with a 1:1 pushing-to-pulling ratio, while training a variety of planes of movement. This is really important because otherwise the body becomes unbalanced, and risk of injury increases.
Volkmar: The vast majority of my athletes operate on a three-day, full-body split. This allows me to accommodate my multisport and younger athletes who need to focus on movements, not muscles. When I program upper-body exercises specifically, I try to maintain a balance of push and pull within each training week. Then, each day emphasizes either chest or shoulder work. I also keep in mind the upper back and lat stress that accompanies our Romanian dead lifts, dead lifts, and power cleans.
Our swimmers and football players are the only athletes who get dedicated upper-body days because they are the only ones who train year-round and operate with annual planned performance regimens. Swimmers have a short offseason phase of upper-body work after their competitive season in the winter. Meanwhile, football players follow a four-day split in the winter session focusing on general physical preparedness and hypertrophy.
Johnson: Typically, my athletes do upper-body work after their lower-body work. I use complex/contrast methods for both of these areas. Complex/contrast training is great for potentiating the nervous system through the alternated sequencing of heavily loaded, lightly loaded, and/or ballistic movements. Post-activation potentiation is the goal, which helps to improve power output. By developing power in this manner, our athletes acquire the ability to move an opponent out of the way quickly, produce a harder shot, and improve passing speed.
How do you target different areas of the upper body—such as the shoulders, arms, chest, and back—in your training?
Shumaker: I place the most emphasis on the back, chest, and shoulders. By honing in on these areas, I can train the smaller muscle groups, as well. For instance, if we use an underhanded or flip-flop grip on vertical pull-ups, this engages and activates the biceps. And when we perform certain horizontal presses, we engage the triceps more. Very rarely do I program a high volume on biceps curls or triceps extensions alone.
Wun: With the exception of some shoulder prehab work, all of our upper-body movements are multijoint lifts. These hit all the major muscles of the upper body and work a lot of the smaller stabilizing muscles. So we pair lifts like the bench press with barbell rows, the push press with pull-ups, push-ups with TRX rows, and the incline press with landmine rows.
Blatner: I think in terms of movements rather than specific areas. So I’ll target horizontal pushing and pulling, vertical pushing and pulling, and a variety of movements at the shoulder—such as Y-raises, dumbbell reverse fly or rear raises, and scapular punches and retractions—to work the stabilizing muscles. In terms of training the arms, this is accomplished predominately through our multijoint pushing and pulling exercises. Occasionally, triceps and biceps exercises are included.
How do you incorporate upper-body training for athletes in a variety of sports?
Blatner: The main aspect that changes from sport to sport is the number of each type of exercise athletes perform. For instance, a shot putter is going to complete more upper-body exercises than a soccer player, while a rower is going to perform fewer pushing exercises and more pulling exercises than the shot putter. Similarly, a tennis player might spend less time on absolute upper-body strength than a football player but will likely spend more time proportionally on explosive upper-body exercises.
Shumaker: All athletes need upper-body strength no matter their sport. One that’s often overlooked is cross-country. When our fall athletes reported, I had to explain to the freshman runners that they needed to perform upper-body exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, and shoulder presses for many reasons but especially for posture. Without upper-body strength, they could become crouched on runs when they get fatigued, which could hinder their breathing and negatively affect performance.
Specifically, how do you address upper-body work in overhead/throwing athletes?
Blatner: These athletes require more training of the stabilizing muscles around the shoulder than other sports. A program for a throwing athlete may include additional corrective exercises during the warm-up and will include more shoulder-specific exercises in the main lift. Adequate mobility is also imperative for keeping the shoulder healthy in overhead athletes. Stretching, combined with corrective exercises, is a great way to train shoulder mobility.
When choosing exercises for these players, it’s important to assess shoulder health and pick movements that have the best benefit-to-risk ratio. For instance, if an athlete’s shoulder is not stable, cleans or clean pulls are better choices than a snatch.
Shumaker: In throwing/overhead athletes, the shoulder capsule needs extra attention. If not trained correctly, it can lead to damage in other joints, such as the elbow. I try to train the bigger muscles of the shoulder first, including the delts, lats, obliques, and traps, before working on the smaller muscles in the rotator cuff.
Our lifts for throwing and overhead athletes target the posterior side more, as well. This is because every time they throw, perform a swimming stroke, or spike a volleyball, they are already training the anterior side of their shoulders, arms, and pecs. So if we bench press for 40 reps, these athletes will then pull for 45 or more reps.
Nordenschild: We are careful with the intensity and implements used when doing overhead movements with these athletes. Neutral grips and dumbbells are incorporated whenever possible, and volume is carefully monitored.
What upper-body deficiencies are you seeing most often in athletes? How do you address them?
Shumaker: This is the easiest question so far. The posterior sides of our incoming freshmen are usually neglected, no matter the sport, because most kids in high school rarely train the posterior side. And many male athletes in particular only focus on what I refer to as the “pretty muscles”—the biceps and triceps.
To address this, I spend tons of time teaching and perfecting bodyweight movements, specifically push-ups, pull-ups, and planks. These are great exercises to watch when new athletes come in because they help to determine weaknesses or deficiencies. For instance, if an athlete’s hips sag in a push-up, you automatically know their core is weak or not engaged. Planks are the same way. And if an athlete can’t do a pull-up correctly, it shows the weakness of their posterior side.
If I have a player who cannot do regular push-ups, I have them perform incline push-ups. Similarly, if an athlete can’t do pull-ups, we will reduce their bodyweight with the assistance of bands and perform pulling movements from various angles.
Volkmar: My athletes sit for six to eight hours every day before coming to the weightroom, so I see a lot of Upper Crossed Syndrome—a muscle imbalance pattern in the neck, shoulders, and chest. For overhead/throwing athletes specifically, I see tight lats and chest muscles, limited thoracic spine mobility, and weak scapular muscles.
To fix these deficiencies, I use a joint-by-joint approach. Mobility and stability rely on each other, and each joint is affected by the ones above and below it.
For example, if athletes cannot keep their elbows or chest up during a front squat, I know they have some thoracic spine issues. So I will prescribe half-kneeling, kneeling, and lunging thoracic spine rotations, medicine ball thoracic extensions, and bench thoracic extensions. If I see irregular movement in the scapula during push-ups or know of an overhead athlete who has a pre-existing history of shoulder issues, I’ll have them do band scapula retractions, elbow push-ups, and push-ups plus a dumbbell superman press. We also do a lot of standing and unsupported exercises to reinforce core stability, and our warm-ups include shoulder and thoracic spine mobility to counteract bad posture. Of course, if an athlete shows really poor movement, I refer them to the athletic training staff.
Blatner: The main deficiencies I’m seeing in young athletes are lack of internal rotation of the shoulder, an inability to raise their arms into an overhead position, and poor thoracic posture. These deficiencies are multifaceted and do not always have the same underlying causes. Daily postural habits, sport/training background, and prior injury are some common causes, though.
The majority of the corrective exercises I use come from the Functional Movement Screen [FMS]. However, I’ve learned others from courses in Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization and the Postural Restoration Institute, as well as from other coaches, physical therapists, and chiropractors. Some of the exercises I incorporate regularly are the FMS 90/90 arm sweep, 90/90 rib roll, Bretzel, Bretzel 2.0, Y-slides on the floor, wall slides facing forward and backward, YTLW shoulder raises, and belly breathing.
How do you incorporate injury prevention/prehab into your upper-body work?
Wun: I suffered a major shoulder injury when I was in high school that essentially ended my athletic career, so I have all my athletes perform upper- and lower-body injury prevention exercises with an emphasis on shoulder prehab. I don’t want to see any of them suffer a preventable career-ending injury like I did.
My overhead athletes perform different shoulder prehab movements every workout. These consist of rehab exercises a sidelined athlete would use to come back from an injury, such as Ys, Ts, Ws, and Ls from a bent-over position or some external rotation work with a band from different angles and positions. I finish each session with this injury prevention work and core stability, so that everything I say about doing the extra things to stay healthy is fresh in athletes’ minds as they leave the weightroom.
Volkmar: Going into my ninth year at the Peddie School, I have noticed the injury patterns of the young athletes in each sport. So I know to add rotator cuff strength and shoulder stability exercises for our swimmers to protect their shoulders and more core stability and thoracic mobility work for our rowers to protect their lower backs.
Blatner: I include prehab exercises in a couple of ways. First, teams perform corrective movements in their warm-up, such as thoracic rotation and shoulder mobility exercises. For most squads, I use YTLW raises as a warm-up for some of the smaller shoulder stabilizers, as well. These are great for overhead athletes and those who perform overhead lifts.
Occasionally, I’ll include correctives paired with some of the major lifts, too. An example would be a 90/90 rib roll or arm sweep paired with the bench press.
The last couple of exercises in our workouts—such as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation D2 pattern shoulder raise and dumbbell reverse fly—also work smaller movements around the shoulder. We won’t hit all of them in one lift, but we’ll perform most or all in some facet over the course of a week.
Shumaker: We add prehab exercises like YTIWs and alphabets in the beginning of some workouts for activation and range of motion. These exercises are performed with two-and-a-half-pound weights and target the rotator cuff muscles. Or we add some of the prehab exercises as fillers toward the middle of workouts, along with some flexibility/mobility movements.
One example of this is performing YTIs on the suspension straps paired with seated or standing wall slides. With these exercises, the athlete is developing strength while working on range of motion. My volumes and intensities for these combination movements are usually low.
What trends do you think will shape upper-body training going forward?
Johnson: The trend that I have embraced and expect to continue is the increase in dumbbell work over barbell work and how it has helped to keep shoulders healthy. Our male hockey players have moved to strictly dumbbell and landmine overhead pressing—they no longer do anything with a barbell overhead. The female hockey players still do some barbell push presses because their range of motion is typically better than the males, but the amount they do has decreased.
Blatner: Our understanding of the shoulder, how to train it, and what correctives to use if it is not functioning properly have certainly advanced. Related to this, I think there has been a trend to use overhead lifts more for all sports. Before, these were somewhat taboo. But if an individual has a healthy shoulder, these lifts can be great for building strength and stability, increasing performance, and reducing risk of injury.